Wednesday, October 17, 2007
The Birdman of Alcatraz-No Gilded Cage
Robert Stroud was the so-called “Birdman of Alctraz”. Although he was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the Hollywood version of his story as a humane and sensitive individual, he clearly had a violent side, having murdered people both outside and inside prison during his life sentence, and was further the source of continuous threats to other inmates and guards. His original imprisonment was for killing a bartender who refused to pay (and allegedly beat) Kitty O’Brien, the Birdman’s romantic partner who was also a dance hall entertainer and prostitute. They lived together in Juneau, Alaska. He was named the “Birdman” because over the course of his 42 years of incarceration, he developed an interest in canaries. His interest sprang from his adoption of an injured sparrow he found in the prison yard one day. He was allowed to study and raise about 300 birds in his cell (not all at the same time) while imprisoned at Leavenworth. Reportedly, he let them fly free in his cell, which was disgustingly filthy. He studied canary habits, physiology, and developed medications for their ailments. He authored two published books on the subject and his observations were considered important to the scientific field of canary research. His books were profitable, but not to him; he never received any royalties, and when he complained, he was transferred to Alcatraz where he could not keep his birds. At Alcatraz, he had virtually no social human contact, and was in “solitary” for most of his imprisonment. He wrote two more books, these on the prison system, but he was no longer allowed to publish. He died at Alcatraz of unknown causes. The cell where he lived is in a part of the prison not open to the public.
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