One of the many movies I look at in Movies Based On True Stories (2015), is the 1962 biopic, Birdman of Alcatraz, starring Burt Lancaster as the ‘birdman’ Robert Stroud. As a sample of what you can expect to find in this, my second book, I thought I might post some facts here for your perusal. The real story is such a far cry from the one depicted in the United Artists film that it beggars belief, but that’s the movies for you I guess. Lancaster does a reasonable acting job, given the phony script, but it is not one of his best films in my opinion. In fact, except for three terrific movies, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), From Here to Eternity (1953), and the grossly under-rated Ulzana’s Raid (1972), I usually found him annoying. His nickname in the industry was ‘Teeth’, an apt description if there ever was one. But the public in general loved him, so what do I know?
Robert Stroud in the 1920s In later years
As for the subject of Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud was one nasty son of a bitch, nothing like the caring, patient, pseudo-scientist depicted by Burt in the picture. Mr. Stroud was a psychopath and, like all psychopaths, he remained one all his life. In 1909, during a robbery, he callously shot a man dead as the poor guy cowered on the floor. He never demonstrated remorse for this. In fact, he was completely without conscience. Always was. Sentenced to 12 years on McNeil Island, he promptly stabbed another prisoner in the back and was packed off to Leavenworth Penitentiary. One lunch-time there, in front of 1,100 prisoners, he stabbed a prison officer to death. Why? Because the man had been responsible for getting a visit from Stroud’s brother cancelled. In the movie, the visit was to be from his mother, not brother, but that is just wrong. It was 1916, and Stroud was quickly sentenced to death. However, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his sentence to ‘life in solitary confinement’ at Leavenworth.
President Woodrow Wilson
One day in 1920, Stroud found a nest of sparrows in the prison yard and raised them. This led to him buying and selling canaries through magazine ads, all permitted by a reformist warden at the prison. Leavenworth was built to house about 1,100 prisoners, but the Great Depression saw its numbers reach three times that figure by 1938. Prisoners were actually sleeping in the aisles, yet Stroud was given two cells, one for him and one for his birds which now numbered over 300. A hole was even punched through the wall to allow him movement between the two rooms.
He had published a book in 1933, called Diseases of Canaries, which was smuggled out of Leavenworth and sold en masse. Stroud was not a trained pathologist. He knew nothing about, for instance, the difference between bacterial and viral disease. His book was about bird care. In short, he was a kind of ornithologist. Suddenly, however, he had become a bit of a celebrity. Rather than risk any adverse publicity regarding its treatment of prisoners, the prison hierarchy pretty much bowed to his requirements, especially if he told them he needed something for his birds. Already the owner of a huge ego, as well as a short temper, Stroud took advantage of his situation and became even more irascible than he already was. When he was caught making alcohol with some of the equipment in his cell, however, he was transferred to the Rock in 1942.
Stroud’s original book Cashing in
What many people probably do not know is that he went to Alcatraz minus his canaries. There he would remain for the next 17 years. And not a bird in sight. The Birdman of Alcatraz was, in fact, the Birdman of Leavenworth. Housed in D Block, he was chiefly responsible for a riot (the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’) in 1946. In the movie it is Stroud who tosses out the guns, thus ending the battle. In reality, the guns were later found on the bodies of two dead rioters. In 1948 he instigated a food riot, which got him removed to the prison hospital. He would spend the next 11 years there, the only prisoner in the entire section.
‘The Rock’ in San Francisco Bay
In 1950, a writer named Thomas Gaddis wrote a book about him, one that was turned into a successful motion picture in 1962. The film was romantic nonsense from beginning to end, but the movie-going public lapped it up. Stroud was depicted as a caring, patient man, a pseudo-scientist devoted to finding cures for bird diseases in spite of the indifference of the authorities. Thousands of people signed petitions demanding his early release, but the authorities weren’t buying it. They knew the man better than anyone. If confirmation of their analysis was needed, it came from Stroud himself. At 71 years of age, he was asked why he would like to be released from prison. His response was typical of the man. He said he wanted, above all else, ‘to kill a number of individuals on his list and had so short a time to do it.’ Once a psychopath always a psychopath it would seem. What the public really wanted, of course, was to see Burt Lancaster released, not Robert Stroud. As often happens with movies, reality and fantasy become confused for some folks.
Burt as Stroud
In 1959 Stroud was transferred again, this time to the medical prison at Springfield, Missouri. And it was there that he passed away from heart failure on November 21, 1963, the day before President John F Kennedy was blown away in Dallas. Stroud had spent a staggering 54 years in prison, 42 of them in solitary confinement. He told Lancaster, when they met in February 1963, that he had been isolated all those years because he was an ‘admitted homosexual’. Guards claimed he was also ‘predatory and dangerous’. Homosexual or not, he had managed to get himself married whilst inside. Della Mae Jones was his wife and (most importantly for him) his business manager.
His Alcatraz home today
Stroud went into prison three years before the Titanic sank, and died there a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis very nearly polished off the lot of us. An awful lot of history had taken place in between. The world had changed unimaginably, yet he could only read about it in the newspapers. He might just as well have been on another planet for those 54 years. The New York Times published the man’s obituary, but his death went more or less un-noticed. The world was still reeling from the assassination of JFK. Since then, Stroud’s ‘achievements’ in the field of ornithology and pathology have been re-assessed and rightly down-graded. If not for Burt Lancaster and United Artists, it is doubtful anyone would even have heard of The Birdman of Alcatraz. Or should we call him The Birdman of Leavenworth?