I generally don’t find criminals, even historical criminals, very exciting; however, Juneau does have at least one interesting criminal who, after he left Juneau, became one of the most famous federal prisoners in the United States. His name was Robert Franklin Stroud. Not a name you hear bandied about unless you know that he was also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”.
Stroud was born in Seattle, Wash. in 1890 to Elizabeth Stroud. His father was Elizabeth’s second husband. Both of her husbands were wife beaters and his father not only beat his wife but also beat the children. He had two older sisters from the previous marriage and one younger brother. No one in the family was exempt from the beatings. Elizabeth tried to protect the children but to no avail. Robert became the focus of many of his father’s beatings, sometimes even being threatened with death. As the boy grew older he became obsessed with hatred concerning the beatings.
Stroud did not do well in school. He was tall, thin, and he was left-handed, which branded him as an abnormal child. He sat apart from the other children and refused to raise his hand or be a part of the class. When his teachers complained, his father would beat him. Finally, in the third grade Stroud stopped going to school all together.
In 1900 his father left to find gold in the Klondike gold fields. A couple years later he returned and took up where he left off. Stroud decided he’d had enough and at age 13 ran away to become a hobo, riding the steel rods slung below freight trains. He returned at 16 and went to work installing electrical fixtures.
Stroud heard about Alaska from friends in 1908 and at age 18 signed on with a section gang headed for Katalla to build a railroad. After a storm washed out a breakwater and halted work, he moved on to Cordova to help build a bridge. Much of his free time was spent in the 26 saloons lining Cordova’s short main street.
Stroud came down with a case of Pneumonia and a dance-hall girl and prostitute named Kitty O’Brien (Kate Delaney) nursed him back to health. Kitty was an extremely beautiful woman and Stroud fell passionately in love with her. It wasn’t long until the two of them moved in together. In order to make additional money, Robert started selling popcorn from the back of a wagon. One of his customers was a man called Charlie Dahmer, a bartender, who he had met briefly in Katalla. It turned out Charlie had previously been Kitty’s lover, but he was headed for Juneau to tend bar at the Montana.
As winter set in, the popcorn trade tapered off and work on the bridge had stopped, so Stroud sold the business and he and Kitty boarded a boat for Juneau. After finding a room for them both in the old Clarke building, he began looking for work.
Juneau was filled with stranded miners, many of whom gambled and drank. Fights and shootouts happened nightly. That and sickness sent many to Juneau’s cemetery.
But, the bars and dance halls were a thriving business and Kitty got a job right away at a cabaret. Stroud grew morose and hung out with others living on borrowed cash and small hope. It wasn’t long until he ran into Dahmer, still bartending at the Montana bar. On Jan. 18, 1909 Dahmer and Nels (Charlie’s roommate) had invited Stroud and Kitty to a party at Dahmer’s place. Dahmer had borrowed a large quantity of beer from the bar and early in the evening Stroud went down to the Juneau dock for a sack of fish to add to Dahmer’s table. When he returned he found Dahmer’s place empty and the room in disarray. Stroud ran back to his room to find Kitty lying on the bed severely beaten, with a red line that circled her neck where a gold chain and locket had been torn off. Kitty told him that Dahmer had said that he would keep the locket until she agreed to come back and live with him.
Stroud poured her a large glass of whiskey. Kitty sipped it and mumbled angrily, Kill the beast, kill him, kill him.”
Stroud opened a drawer and pulled out Kitty’s old .38 single action revolver. He flipped open the barrel and saw the gun was empty, then rummaged through the drawer looking for bullets. There were none.
“No,” Kitty cried from the bed. “I didn’t mean it — no, don’t go back there. He’ll kill you!”4
Later, after Kitty went to sleep, Stroud took the gun with him, stopped at the Jorgensen store and purchased ammunition, then headed for Dahmer’s.
When Dahmer returned home he found Stroud waiting for him. Stroud asked him if he beat Kitty and Dahmer denied it but rushed at Stroud, hoping to catch him by surprise. Two shots rang out in, the second killing Dahmer. Later Stroud walked into the U.S Marshal’s office and announced that he had shot a man.
Stroud told Marshal Herbert Faulkner that he and Dahmer had argued over money, omitting any mention of Kitty’s beating. That omission led many in Juneau to speculate that Stroud had been Kitty’s pimp and that Dahmer had tried to short-change him, leading to the fatal argument. At first Kitty told the marshal she had urged Stroud to kill Dahmer, then recanted and claimed she had been distraught and didn’t know what she was saying. Faulkner arrested her as well, charging both with first-degree murder.1
When U.S. Deputy Marshall Herbert Faulkner jailed Robert Stroud and Kitty for first degree murder it was just 48 hours before the inauguration of President Taft and, except for his appearances at trials, was the last time Stroud was out of jail. (Many Juneauites may recognize the name Herbert Faulkner as the man who started the Faulkner Banfield Law offices that remain as a well known law office to this day.)
Stroud’s mother heard about her son’s trouble and came to his aid by traveling from Seattle to Juneau and hiring an attorney. The attorney was the distinguished T. R. Lyons. Stroud told the attorney their first priority was freeing Kitty, as he strongly believed her innocent. His mother was extremely unhappy with his decision but could not change his mind.
Shortly after both defendants entered not guilty pleas and the case had been set for trial; Lyons received an appointment to a Federal judgeship. A new attorney was quickly hired and he believed the prosecution might accept a plea of guilty to manslaughter, thus eliminating Robert’s trial and making a separate trial for Kitty very difficult to hold. The defense attorney knew that manslaughter rarely drew more than three years and to a determined Stroud, two or three years was worth it for Kitty.
Because of the amount of news coverage in Juneau, a change of venue was requested and the case was set for disposition in Skagway. The prosecution did not object to the idea of a guilty plea to a lesser offense, as long as it was acceptable to the judge, as it would have been a difficult case to try.
Unfortunately, a new Federal Judge had been appointed and had just arrived from the states. Stroud was his first case and he was determined to crack down on violence in Alaska. Judge E. E. Cushman accepted Stroud’s plea of guilty of manslaughter and Kitty’s case was dropped for lack of evidence and she was freed. So, on Aug. 23, 1909 the new judge sentenced Stroud to the statutory limit of 12 years in the penitentiary at McNeil Island.
The sentence opened two careers, that of a Federal judge whose stern sentences became legend, and that of a prisoner whose unbroken resistance formed a life without parallel in world prison history.4
What followed is a long story stretching to Nov. 21, 1963. As the rest of this story really doesn’t impact Juneau or Southeast Alaska, I will cover the events minimally. There are several books on Stroud and a movie called “The Birdman of Alcatraz” for which Burt Lancaster was nominated for an Academy Award, for those who want more detail.
In 1912, during a fight, Stroud drove a paring knife into a fellow prisoner and gained another half year to his sentence. Not long after that, he was transferred to Leavenworth. Shortly thereafter, Stroud found the prison Library and began a lifetime of study. It turned out he was extremely intelligent and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Poor prison food and long hours of study began to affect his health. In 1915 he was diagnosed with kidney disease.
Early in 1916 Stroud was notified that his younger brother Marc was going to travel from Juneau to Leavenworth, Kansas to visit. When Marc arrived it was a Saturday and he was denied access due to Leavenworth’s policy against Saturday visits. Because of some very minor infringement thought to be made up by a guard who liked to create unhappiness in the prisoners, Robert was again denied the privilege of visiting with his brother the following day.
That evening at dinner Stroud killed the guard.
Marc wrote his mother and, upon hearing this, Elizabeth sold her rooming house in Juneau, moved to Kansas City and hired an attorney to represent Robert. A federal judge found Stroud guilty and sentenced him to be hanged on July 21.
The lawyer appealed and the trial was nullified. A second trial came to a verdict of guilty but only a life sentence. Again the trial was thrown out and a third trial was held, in which Stroud again was found guilty and sentenced to die.
This created a large public uproar and the Leavenworth warden was quoted as saying, “If Stroud is not hung, this murderer of a guard would spend his life in solitary.”
Stroud’s defense lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1920 the Supreme Court upheld Stroud’s death sentence. Stroud’s mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson and later to first lady Edith Bolling Wilson.
Finally the first lady took Mrs. Stroud’s papers to the president. She returned with the ailing Woodrow Wilson’s scrawl across the executive order, “Commuted to life. W.W.”
Within hours the warden visited Stroud to inform him that his sentence was commuted and that all his privileges were thereby revoked. The warden told the press that Stroud would remain in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.1
It was not long after the third sentencing that Stroud found three small sparrow chicks, along with their nest, that had been blown into his exercise yard. Stroud began feeding and caring for the three tiny birds. He contacted the prison library and got all the books on birds they had. As time went on he was able to breed birds and develop a lab, since it was felt that this activity would provide for productive use of his time. As a result of this privilege, Stroud was able to author two books; one called “Diseases of Canaries” and the other “Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds.”
Along with that he developed a medicine that he sold via mail order called “Stroud’s Specific.” By 1940 he had become world famous as an expert on birds and bird diseases. By that time he had been in prison thirty-one years and was 50 years old.
By 1942 Stroud was still commercially breeding canaries, still ordering large quantities of seed, research materials and medicines, still complaining about vague illnesses and receiving and writing large quantities of letters. War would change that. Leavenworth no longer had the man power to service him. Administrators quietly asked Washington to transfer him to a “small institution” for closer supervision. There was only one small institution.1
On Dec. 16, 1942 Stroud was transferred by train to Alcatraz. After a shower he was given a new set of clothes and a new number, AZ 594. Although Stroud came to the prison with the nick name “the Canary Prisoner,” he never again was involved with birds or with writing about birds.
The name “Birdman of Alcatraz” was given to him by Thomas E. Gaddis when, in 1955, he published the story of Stroud. Later, in 1962, a movie by the same name was produced and the Birdman of Alcatraz was locked in the public’s memory.
Stroud wrote a third book called “The History of Federal Penitentiaries.” It was never published.
Some believe the book told a truth the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons didn’t want the public to know. Whatever the case, Stroud remained in solitary confinement in Alcatraz almost the entire 17 years he stayed there.
In 1959 just after his 70th birthday, he was allowed to use the Alcatraz yard for exercise. Later, he was transferred to a federal prison medical facility in Springfield, Mo. Stroud’s health continued to decline and on Nov. 21, 1963 his friend and convicted spy, Morton Sobell, found him dead. Stroud was imprisoned a total of 54 years.
Do not get the idea from what I wrote above that I have any sympathy for Stroud. It is my belief that there is never any excuse for murder. On the other hand, the prison system then and now is broken and needs replacement. The United States has more people in jail than any other country in the world and the recidivism rate is extremely high. The system, along with the native reservation system, is similar in that they both exist under the same basic idea: out of sight, out of mind. Neither is a good way to treat human beings, but when big money and big government are involved changes come slowly at best.
1. Murder at 40 below by Tom Brennan
2. Bird Man, The many faces of Robert Stroud by Jolene Babyak
3. The Juneau Empire, Bird Man of Alcatraz committed his crime in Juneau by Susan Price (2002)
4. Birdman of Alcatraz by Thomas E. Gaddis