Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was probably the most famous inmate ever to reside on Alcatraz. In 1909 he brutally murdered a bartender who had allegedly failed to pay a prostitute for whom Stroud was pimping in Alaska. After shooting the bartender to death, Stroud took the man’s wallet to ensure that he and the prostitute would receive compensation for her services. In 1911 Stroud was convicted of manslaughter, and he was sent to serve out his sentence at McNeil Island, a Federal penitentiary in Washington State. His record at McNeil indicates that he was violent and difficult to manage. On one occasion, Stroud viciously assaulted a hospital orderly who he insisted had reported him to the administration for attempting to procure narcotics through intimidation and threats. On another occasion he stabbed a fellow inmate.
Shortly after receiving an additional six-month sentence for his hostile actions, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, due to ceaseless complaints about his threats toward other inmates, and also because of overcrowding in the prison. In 1916, after Stroud was refused a visit with his brother, he stabbed a guard to death in front of eleven hundred inmates in the prison Mess Hall. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging, and he was ordered to await his death sentence in solitary confinement. His mother desperately pleaded for his life, and finally in 1920 President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. As a result of Stroud’s unpredictable and violent outbursts, Warden T.W. Morgan directed that Stroud be permanently placed in the segregation unit, to live out his sentence in total solitude.
Over the course of Stroud’s thirty years of imprisonment at Leavenworth, he developed a keen interest in canaries, after finding an injured bird in the recreation yard. Stroud was initially allowed to breed birds and maintain a lab inside two adjoining segregation cells, since it was felt that this activity would provide for productive use of his time. As a result of this privilege, Stoud was able to author two books on canaries and their diseases, having raised nearly 300 birds in his cells, carefully studying their habits and physiology, and he even developed and marketed medicines for various bird ailments. Although it is widely debated whether the remedies he developed were effective, Stroud was able to make scientific observations that would later benefit research on the canary species. However, after several years of Stroud’s informal research, prison officials discovered that some of the equipment he had requested was actually being used to construct a still to make an alcoholic brew.
In 1942 Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next seventeen years – six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, and there on November 21, 1963, he was found dead from natural causes by convicted spy, close friend, and fellow inmate Morton Sobell. Stroud had never been permitted to see the movie in which Burt Lancaster portrayed him as a mild-mannered and humane individual, but “Birdman of Alcatraz” later earned Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for best actor. ( source:)