On Facebook someone recently stated that Metropolis needs to be known for something other than Superman. Maybe it is time to breakout Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. Well, not really. Here is a column I wrote about the Birdman when a new book was released.
In the early 1960s, I thoroughly enjoyed watching a movie starring Burt Lancaster, called Birdman of Alcatraz.
Of course, at that time, I had no idea that I would later spend a big chunk of my life living near the Birdman’s grave and working for the newspaper that was started by his grandfather.
In the last 20 years, I have visited the Birdman’s grave a few times, mostly to show other people how to get there. I’ve also read a few articles about the Birdman, but have never had much real information about him.
I just finished reading a recently published book called Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. Jolene Babyak is the author.
According to Babyak, the real Robert Stroud was much more interesting than the one portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie, but certainly was a different sort of person.
Babyak says that Stroud was not the patient, humble, integrity-filled scientist portrayed by Lancaster.
Instead, she said, Stroud was a flamboyant, egocentric, petty, emotional, manipulative, double-murderer and one of the first prisoners who learned the value of media manipulation.
No one really knows what caused Stroud to have the problems he did dealing with society. Some might say it all goes back to his grandfather, the newspaper man. There may be some truth to that.
Robert Stroud’s mother, Elizabeth McCartney, was a young girl at the time of the Civil War. Her father had gone off to fight in the Union Army, and she was left here in Metropolis. When her mother died, she was left even more alone.
After her father returned from the war, he studied law, re-married and had 10 more children. Elizabeth never really had a childhood and apparently had problems dealing with reality herself.
Following a failed marriage to an area farmer, Elizabeth married an alcoholic dreamer named Stroud, and they left for the great northwest.
Their son, Robert, or Bobby, as he was known then, grew up in the Seattle, Wash. area. Around the age of 17, Robert went to Alaska in one of the gold rushes, and there got into trouble. No one knows what actually happened, but apparently Stroud killed a man for mistreating a prostitute. There are certainly debates about whether or not Stroud was defending himself or shot the man as he slept.
Regardless of the details, since Alaska was then a territory, Stroud ended up in federal prison after being convicted of manslaughter.
It became apparent that Stroud was not going to be a model inmate. While in prison, he stabbed and killed a guard.
Stroud was tried for this, convicted and sentenced to hang. However, that was appealed. He was retried and sentenced to life imprisonment.
No one knows for sure how it happened, but somewhere along the line in federal prison records, it was indicated that Stroud should be kept away from other prisoners. Thus, he began what is sometimes called a life in solitary confinement, although that was not actually the case.
Stroud was transferred to the place where he would spend most of his life. That was not Alcatraz, but the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan.
At Leavenworth, according to Babyak’s book, there began a life-long animosity between Stroud and the prison administrators. Aggravation, outright lies and manipulation existed on both sides.
Stroud had an offensive way of causing men to overreact, in clearly punitive ways. He began a battle that would last the rest of his life, fighting the prison administrators in court and in the media.
The Birdman’s mother, Elizabeth McCartney Stroud, moved close to Leavenworth to be near her son. She spent most of her time writing letters and making political and legal contacts in efforts to get her son released.
Around 1935, Elizabeth and her daughter, Mamie, returned to Metropolis after being away for 55 years. Elizabeth died of cancer three years later.
Stroud married a woman named Delia, who also lived near Leavenworth. He used her to continue his mother’s efforts, plus other business activities that he could not do from inside prison.
From the movie, I got the idea that Stroud was a scientist, striving to uncover the hidden causes of bird diseases. That was the case to some degree. But according to this book, he also ran major businesses in selling birds, bird seed and bird medicines. Delia was helpful in handling some of these business activities.
Maybe it was just his way of getting even with the law, but according to the book, Stroud sold a bird which looked like a canary to J. Edgar Hoover as a present for Hoover’s mother. However, when the bird molted, it became apparent that it was a sparrow, which Stroud had dyed yellow.
So Stroud spent years and years in Leavenworth doing research on canaries, but also selling birds and supplies and writing and selling his books on bird diseases.
Stroud’s cell was described as containing many canary cages stacked to the ceiling. In fact, Stroud at one time had two cells — one to live in and one to house the birds.
The birds were a tremendous problem as far as cleanliness but apparently Stroud did not care. Prison reports said that his cell floor was littered with bird droppings, bird seeds and all kinds of dirt and dust.
There were always several dead canaries in the cell when Stroud was doing autopsies.
Through books, magazine articles and the movie, Robert Stroud became the most famous prisoner in America.
His fame and his bird-selling business were thorns in the side of prison officials, as were his many lawsuits against them. Stroud was moved to Alcatraz and had to abandon his bird research and his business.
Babyak’s book concludes that although Stroud was highly intelligent, throughout his life he seemed intent on provoking authorities to retaliate. An antagonistic man, he threatened, intimidated and tried to humiliate those in high positions. This did not go unnoticed. So his life was certainly not easy.
Of course, no one knows how many of Stroud’s quirky traits were because of his early problems before prison and how many developed from the years and years in confinement.
After years of complaining about all kinds of diseases, Stroud finally died of natural causes in 1963 and was returned to Metropolis for burial. His burial would probably have made many more headlines had he not died the same week that President John Kennedy was assassinated.
Anyone interested in more information about the Birdman can find this latest book at the Metropolis Public Library.
Here at the Planet and at the Chamber of Commerce, people often stop by and ask how to get to Robert Stroud’s grave. Here are the directions.
Take North Avenue past both ends of Marberry Drive. Just before the Seventh Day Adventist Church, turn left into the cemetery between the two big bushes and follow that road approximately 600 feet to a large hardwood tree.
Stroud, his mother and sister are buried just to the south of that road.
Update: The two big bushes may no longer be on each side of the lane. The big tree by the grave has been cut, so look for a large stump.