Birdman of Alcatraz

Far south of the southernmost suburbs is the town of Metropolis whose Masonic Cemetery (R.R. #2) received the remains of Robert Stroud (1890-1963), the legendary "Birdman of Alcatraz." A pimp convicted for murder in Juneau, Alaska, Stroud was to spend 12 years imprisoned on McNeil Island for his crime, but was transferred to Leavenworth after attacking an orderly. There, just five years later, he stabbed a guard to death and was sentenced to be hanged. While he waited on death row, Stroud petitioned Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, begging for a lesser punishment. A week before his execution date, he was re-sentenced to life in prison.

With no chance of parole, Stroud had nothing but time, and he put it to good use. At Leavenworth, the convict had rescued a sickly bird, keeping it as a pet in his cell. Though this practice was not uncommon, Stroud's interest in his feathered friend grew into an obsession, and he eventually took in some 300 birds, caring for them in several cells that were allotted him by the prison administration. Far from an eccentric interest, Stroud's work with his birds was serious business. After engaging in formal research, the Birdman wrote two books: Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds and Diseases of Canaries.

In 1942, Stroud was transferred to isolation in the notorious "D" block on Alcatraz, where his birds were barred. In these new surroundings, Stroud became sullen and angry, inspiring fellow inmates to frequent violence. After ten years, the Birdman decided on a new project; he began to write the story of his life. Remarkably, Stroud's manuscript was published only a year after its completion, and Hollywood went wild for the story.

Stroud never saw his story played out on the silver screen. Like the chirping chums of his younger days, The Birdman of Alcatraz, with Burt Lancaster playing the title role, was banned from the infamous island, its subject left to a few more years of lonely reflection. He died in a prison hospital in 1963.


Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke & Ursula Bielski, Lake Claremont Press, Chicago, 1999, pages 201-202.