Stroud, Robert - The Birdman of Alcatraz
Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud
BY Rachael Bell
In November 1908, 18- year-old Robert Stroud and his 36-year old girlfriend Kitty OBrien packed up their belongings, boarded a boat and left their home in Cordova, Alaska for the state capital of Juneau. The couple had struggled to afford their boat passage and they were anxious to seek better opportunities in the city.
Shortly after their arrival inJuneau, the couple rented a room and Kitty fond a job dancing in a cabaret. Robert had less luck finding work in the city but hoped to soon land a job. They both felt sure that eventually their luck would change. However, they didnt realize that it would be for the worse.
Less than two months after their arrival, their dreams of a brighter future turned into a nightmare. According to Thomas E. Gaddis book Birdman of Alcatraz, in the early evening hours of January 18, 1909, Robert set off for the Juneau docks to get fish for his and Kittys dinner. A mutual acquaintance of the couple, F.K. Von Dahmer, also known by his nickname Charlie, stayed behind with Kitty. In Roberts absence, Charlie took advantage of Kitty and viciously beat her.
Eventually, Robert returned from the docks long after Charlie had departed. When he learned what had happened to Kitty, he was enraged. Robert went to Charlies home onGastineau Avenue with a gun and confronted Charlie. A struggle ensued that resulted in Charlie being shot dead. Following the shooting, Robert walked into the office of the Juneau City Marshal where he turned himself in. He was immediately put in jail to await trial for murder.
Robert Franklin Stroud was born in Seattle,Washington on January 28, 1890to Elizabeth and Ben Stroud. He was the couple’s first child, although Elizabeth had two daughters from a previous marriage. Eventually, the family of five extended into six with the birth of another son named Marcus in 1897.
Elizabeth was a particularly devoted mother who spent a great deal of her time trying to protect the children from their abusive alcoholic father. However, she did not always succeed and the children were frequently beaten and emotionally abandoned by Ben. Robert was greatly affected by his father’s behavior and grew to intensely dislike him.
In 1903, 13-year-old Robert left his unhappy home life and took off on an exploratory trek across America. He had only a third grade education but he was determined to forge his own way in the world. Robert worked at small jobs here and there and could barely afford enough to eat however, he reveled in his independence and his adventurous life on the road.
When Robert was 17 he briefly returned home. His family appeared to have become financially prosperous in his absence, yet the relationship between his parents was poor. The marriage had steadily declined over the years due to his father’s erratic drinking and adulterous behavior. Once again, Robert left home on another adventure, this time in search for work in Alaska. It would be a move that would change his life forever.
During the summer of 1908, the now 18-year-old Robert obtained a job working for a railroad gang in Katalla, Alaska. The job proved to be physically demanding, although it paid well. After a while, the railroad gang was relocated to the thriving town of Cordova. It was there that Robert met and began a relationship with a dance-hall entertainer and prostitute of Irish descent named Kitty O'Brien.
There are many conflicting reports concerning the relationship between the couple. Some suggest that it was mostly a business liaison and that Robert earned money pimping for Kitty. Others suggest that the two were genuinely in love and had hopes for starting a future together. Regardless, the two spent a great deal of time together and shared a common goal of making the most of their circumstances. Robert set about the task of establishing himself financially and began working at a series of jobs including a popcorn vendor and construction worker.
In August of 1908, Robert ran into an old acquaintance of his and Kittys from Katalla known as F.K. Von Dahmer and nicknamed Charlie. Charlie was a fancily dressed 28-year old bartender of Russian decent with a dubious reputation. He was en route to his new job at a saloon in Juneau and spoke idealistically of the expanding city.
During the earlier part of the century Juneau was a booming gold town full of vast opportunities and potential. The idea of moving to the capital city appealed to Robert and he convinced Kitty to move there with him. It was a decision that he would regret for the rest of his life. Less than six months later, Charlie lay dead in his cottage and Robert awaited trial for murder.
In the beginning months of 1909, Roberts mother Elizabeth quickly came to her sons aid upon hearing of the murder. She retained a lawyer to defend his case and hoped that Robert would be acquitted on charges of manslaughter. However, all their hopes were quickly dashed during the trial.
A newly appointed judge, E.E. Cushman, presided over the hearing. He was determined to make his mark in the judicial system and decided to make Roberts case an example to those who resorted to violence in his jurisdiction. He used the full strength of the law to punish Robert.
On August 23, 1909, Robert was sentenced to 12 years at McNeil Island Penitentiary. It was the maximum sentence possible within the statutory limit. That fall Robert boarded a boat headed towards the small island west of Seattle in Puget Sound. From the moment he passed through the intimidating prison walls, he became subject to a new code of conduct unknown to the majority of the outside world.
Stroud quickly learned the prison rules, realizing that it was essential for his survival. He knew that any disobedience would result in serious injury by the guards, who relentlessly threatened the prisoners with clubs at the slightest hint of a noncompliance. It was a world that Robert grew to hate but one, which he could not escape. Weekly letters from Kitty and his mother were the only source of contact he received from the world outside. During his first couple years in prison he never heard word from his brother or father and only saw his mother on one occasion.
While incarcerated, Robert became increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of ever having a normal life. He grew into a cold and bitter man, full of anger over the bad hand dealt to him by fate. One day, his pent up hostility spilled forth when he got into an argument with another inmate who informed on him for having stolen some food. The dispute resulted in Robert stabbing and wounding the informant for his lack of loyalty towards another prisoner.
As punishment, Robert received an additional six months tacked onto his already existing 12-year sentence. However, most of his time would not be served at McNeil penitentiary. In 1912, Robert along with several dozen other inmates was transferred from the overcrowded prison to a newly constructed maximum-security compound in Kansas, known as Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.
During the first few years in the foreboding penitentiary, Robert underwent drastic changes. With the hopes of broadening his education, Robert enrolled in a series of correspondence courses, which included astronomy, structural engineering and physical science. It was through these courses that he realized his passion for knowledge and his burgeoning intelligence.
For someone who had entered the prison with only a third grade education, guards and cellmates alike were surprised to learn that Robert had excelled in all of his courses receiving exceptionally high marks. Yet, his recent scholastic accomplishments were only just the groundwork for what would later lead to more advanced fields of study.
Robert began to evolve not only academically, but spiritually as well. According to Gaddis, he became enthralled with the field of theosophy, a religion that combines various forms of philosophy, science and religion and studied its teachings on a daily basis. Theosophy and its teachings provided Robert with a degree of spiritual release, which allowed him to better accept the surroundings in which he lived. His new found ideology and interest in learning would later support him during the most difficult years of his life that were to follow.
In 1915, after suffering chronic pain Robert was interred at the penitentiary hospital where he was diagnosed with Brights disease. The diseases signature is inflammation of the kidney, which can result in high blood pressure, fever and facial puffiness. His six-foot three frame grew more gaunt and weakened from pain as his health slowly declined. He feared that the disease would kill him before he had a chance to see his family again.
While Robert was ill, his mother traveled to Kansas to be closer to her son and offer assurances. When she learned the severity of the disease, she wrote a letter to the United States Attorney General pleading for her sons release, yet her request went unanswered. Eventually, Robert began to show signs of recovery but he remained weakened by the debilitating disease.
During his recovery, he spent a majority of his time in his cell. Robert became increasingly detached and bitter because of the pain he suffered due to his illness. He even began to abandon his study courses that he enjoyed so much. Roberts anger and depression about his situation was further compounded by tensions between him and a new menacing guard named Andrew F. Turner.
Turner was a club wielding, cocky guard who taunted many of the prisoners, often evoking in them a combination of rage and fear. Robert was no exception. His intense dislike for the guard would later prove to have deadly consequences.
In 1916, Marcus traveled to Leavenworth to pay a long awaited visit to his older brother, but was refused permission to see him. Enraged, Robert voiced his anger to another cellmate, which was overheard by Turner. Turner promptly wrote a report stating Roberts breach of silence for talking among prisoners was forbidden in the penitentiary. The report led to the retraction of Roberts visiting privileges, which infuriated him even further.
On March 26, 1916 Robert entered the dining hall full of more than one thousand other prisoners. Gaddis states that during the meal, Robert raised his hand for an unknown reason and was soon after approached by Turner. Words were exchanged between the two men, however fellow inmates were unable to hear much of the conversation because of the noisy prison mess hall.
Suddenly, Turner reached for his club to use against Robert. Before he could strike him, Robert grabbed hold of the club and the two men struggled for several seconds. Robert then produced a knife from the inside of his shirt and thrust it into Turners chest. Shock clouded over the guards face before he fell dead to the floor.
Robert was immediately seized by surrounding guards and placed in a solitary confinement cell in the isolation ward. There he remained while awaiting trial for the murder. The prison authorities and their lawyers, headed by U.S. Attorney Fred Robertson worked diligently to build a case against Robert, with the goal of convincing the state of Kansas to re-enforce the abolished execution law.
Facing the Judge
As soon as Elizabeth learned of the murder, she immediately left Juneau for Kansas and on her arrival she hired lawyer General L.C. Boyle to defend her son. Although Boyle had a reputation as one of the best defense attorneys in the state, he knew he had a difficult case ahead of him. After all, Robert did kill Turner in front of over one thousand convicts and several guards.
In May of 1916, attorneys for the defense and prosecution presented their cases to Judge John C. Pollock and a jury of twelve. Both sides produced witnesses that included guards and inmates who testified as eyewitnesses to the murder. After only four days of hearings, Robert was found guilty of first-degree murder. On May 27, Robert was sentenced to execution by hanging to be carried out on July 21 of that same year.
Boyle immediately began the appeals process with the Federal Circuit Court. In December 1916, the entire trial was invalidated on the basis that the members of the jury had not stated whether they wished to impose the full measures of the law. Another trial was set for the following year.
During the time in between trials, Elizabeth worked frantically to enlist the help of anyone who would listen to prevent the death penalty from being handed down a second time. Robert escaped execution on a technicality once before, but she knew he would most likely not be as fortunate a second time.Elizabeth’s main argument was that state executions had been abolished for several decades and it was unjust to reinstate the inhumane law.
After petitioning various women's organizations and penal reform groups, she found the support she so desperately hoped for. According to Gaddis, the groups vocally expressed their opinions concerning capital punishment and even went as far as to request the jury panel to withhold from issuing the death penalty. The protests lead by Elizabeth enraged Judge Pollock to the point that his objectivity began to falter. Eventually, he was disqualified and Judge J. W. Woodrough replaced him during the second trial, which took place on May 22, 1917.
At the trial, the defense team attempted to prove that Robert was mentally unbalanced and not responsible for the crime he committed. If they were able to show that he was mentally incompetent, there was a chance that they could win an acquittal. Several psychiatrists supported the defense’s case stating that Robert was indeed insane and psychopathic.
Another strategy utilized by the defense team was to prove that Robert acted in self-defense at the time he killed Turner. They presented eyewitnesses that claimed that Turner threatened the defendant with a club prior to his murder. Eyewitnesses further suggested that Turner had a bad reputation in the prison because he constantly used his club to threaten inmates.
Conversely, the prosecution team tried to prove that Robert was a cold-blooded killer who was mentally fit enough to have been aware of the consequences of his actions. They enlisted the expert testimony of several psychiatrists who supported the prosecutions stance by diagnosing Robert as sane and mentally competent. Moreover, the prosecution provided key testimony from inmates and guards who further suggested that Robert was an unfeeling and aloof person incapable of remorse for the murder of Turner.
On May 28, 1917 the jury deliberated and after several hours they returned a verdict of guilty, yet they withheld a sentence of capital punishment. Relieved that her sons life was spared a second time,Elizabeth embraced Robert as others in the courtroom looked on in disbelief. Instead of receiving a sentence of execution this time, Robert was given a life sentence.
Although Robert was pleased that his life was spared, he was less pleased with how the trial was conducted. He believed that the hearing was unfair because the defense was unable to present critical evidence or subpoena witnesses that supported his case. Moreover, the state was able to use evidence against him that was illegally confiscated from him without his permission or a court order. With nothing else to lose, with the exception of his life, he decided to once again challenge the system.
Roberts attorneys immediately appealed the ruling, stating that the defendant was denied his constitutional rights within the trial. Once again, like in the first hearing, the trial was deemed invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court. A new trial was ordered and set for May 1918.
Judge Robert E. Lewis was appointed from Denver,Colorado to preside over the hearing. At the opening of the trial, Roberts attorneys failed to appear, which infuriated Lewis. He quickly appointed new lawyers to handle Roberts’s case and disqualified his previous lawyers.
Robert was shocked that his lawyers failed to appear. It appeared to him as if they had literally put his case on the back burner. Robert became even more shocked and angered when he learned that without his knowledge, his lawyers negotiated with the prosecution and agreed to have him enter a plea of guilty to second-degree murder.
Robert protested the plea that was decided for him without his consent. Moreover, there was concern that the new lawyers would have little if any time to prepare a case on his behalf in time for the hearing. Realizing that Robert was in an unusual predicament, the judge decided to continue the trial at a later date.
In June 1918, Roberts third trial began. Testimony from the earlier trials was presented along with some new evidence including eyewitnesses to the murder who testified for the defense and evidence from the prison doctor who testified on behalf of the prosecution. After less than a week, both sides presented their closing arguments and the jury began the deliberation process.
On June 28, 1918the jury returned its verdict, finding Robert guilty of first-degree murder. The jury further suggested that he be sentenced to execution by hanging. The judge swiftly reacted to the verdict by imposing the death sentence, with the execution to take place in November of that year.
Roberts lawyers immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who in turn issued a temporary delay of the execution until the case was analyzed. Finally, in November 1919 the Supreme Court reached a decision. They decided to uphold the death sentence imposed on Robert and disallowed any further hearings into the case. The execution was scheduled to take place on April 23, 1920.
In reaction to the judgment, Elizabeth sought the only option available to her that could possibly save her son. As Robert awaited his death in a solitary confinement cell of the isolation ward, Elizabeth began filing a petition for Executive Clemency. Within the document, she spoke of Roberts troubled past and neglect from his father. She also told of the inaccuracies in the trials and how her son’s incarceration negatively impacted the family.
To Elizabeth’s relief, President Woodrow Wilson received the petition and ordered a halt to the execution of her son. Robert’s life was saved for a third time. His sentence was altered from death by hanging to life imprisonment. He had literally been saved by his mother’s love and the compassion of a president.
Shortly following the confirmation of his new sentence, Robert Stroud was transferred to the segregation cells of the isolation ward of the prison. He was restricted from associating with other prisoners and was allowed thirty minutes a day exercise within the isolation block courtyard. Many would have viewed the prison term as a death sentence in itself, however over time Robert would consider it to be a new lease on life.
Over the years, while Robert served out his sentence he took advantage of some of the privileges offered to him. He received various art supplies and began learning how to write and paint with the assistance of correspondence teachers. He also began to create greeting cards, on which he displayed his artwork that he gave to his mother to sell. The proceeds from the cards were intended to financially help his aging mother.
However, it was in June 1920 that Robert undertook another hobby that would change the course of his life. Following a severe thunderstorm, Robert stumbled across the remains of a nest full of three live baby sparrows in the exercise yard. The nest had been destroyed when the storms winds snapped a branch of a tree on which it rested.
Robert took the birds back to his cell and cared for them by constructing a makeshift nest and providing them food. It wasnt long before he began to bond with the feathered animals. Robert began to check out every book available on the subject of birds that the prison library offered. He learned how to care for his birds and also how to train them to do tricks. The birds brought Robert great comfort, satisfaction and meaning into his otherwise purposeless life.
Robert also devised an ingenious plan to breed the birds for a profit. He quickly abandoned his greeting card hobby and decided to focus most of his time on breeding the canaries. Before long the birds began to grow in numbers.
The warden was impressed by Robert’s enthusiasm with the birds. The inmate seemed to have a new lease on life. Overall, the isolation ward had gone from one of the most dangerous to the most docile, since the introduction of the birds. The warden decided to allow Robert to have some of the equipment necessary to make birdcages, thus facilitating his business adventure and his love for birds.
The warden also conducted tours of the isolation ward, which included Robert’s cell. The visitors that passed through were offered a chance to buy one of Robert’s canaries, which many agreed to. Before long, Robert had established a lucrative business, of which the proceeds went to his mother new equipment and food for the birds.
Robert’s interests were not only financially motivated. He had a genuine love for the animals and was curious to learn as much about them as possible. Over the years, he studied the birds with intense fascination and would note his observations in a notebook. He also began to experiment with various breeding techniques and nutritional diets that aided in the propagation of the species.
Eventually his experiments became more and more advanced. Using makeshift materials and help from the prison laboratories, Robert began to take cultures of bird disease germs and study them. He also studied the anatomy of birds through dissection. His canary population began to steadily increase and by 1927 he had well over 150 birds nesting in his cell. Roberts discoveries made from his canaries would later lead to breakthrough research that would have a significant impact on bird lovers worldwide.
During the spring of 1927, one of Roberts worst fears became a realization. While he tended to his birds, he noticed that some of them appeared sickly. Over the course of several weeks, the sickly birds began to die from a mysterious illness that he believed was a form of a septic fever. The disease began to kill his beloved birds.
Gaddis stated that Robert frantically began experimenting with various solution mixtures containing oxidized salts buffered by effervescing acids in an attempt to develop a cure. In less than two days he came up with a solution that seemed to kill the disease, without serious harm to the birds. Robert conducted experiments on the germ cultures, with the help of the prison lab and observed that there were three forms of the disease that ravaged his birds. It was the first discovery of its kind.
Roberts discoveries and bird cure led to recognition in one of the most prestigious bird magazines of the time known as the Roller Canary Journal, as well as other periodicals. During the late 1920s, Robert gained national recognition for his informative and breakthrough articles. Throughout the years he continued to send all recent information and discoveries he made to journals in an effort to save birds throughout the country.
Robert felt as if he had paid his debt to society, based on his recent accomplishments. He had educated himself and had significantly contributed to the scientific field of ornithology. In 1928, he decided to issue a petition for Executive Clemency in the hopes of being restored back to society. There was so much research with birds he wanted to conduct on the outside, but it would never be. President Calvin Coolidge failed to comply with the prisoner’s request. Yet, Robert failed to give up.
In 1929, Robert made several more important breakthroughs during his study of birds. According to Gaddis, some of his discoveries included a cure for many bird diseases that were classified in the hemorrhagic septicemia group, a treatment for typhoid-like diseases in canaries and the source of a common canary infection. Roberts’s scientific endeavors earned him great respect in the scientific community, as well as with bird-breeders and canary owners alike. One owner of prized canaries named Della May Jones was particularly impressed, yet intrigued by the mysterious bird doctor.
Outsmarting the System
Della Jones, a middle-aged widow from Indiana became interested in Robert after reading his many articles written in her favorite journal. One day, she offered up one of her prized canaries to the winner of a contest in the Roller Canary Journal. It happened to be Robert who won the contest and the bird was sent away to him with a letter from Della inquiring about his vast knowledge of birds. Eventually the two began to correspond on a regular basis.
In April 1931, Della paid Robert a visit at the prison. According to the article Robert Stroud: The Birdman (NOT) of Alcatraz together they discussed business plans to sell Stroud's Specific bird cures, which Della agreed to fund. Enthusiastic about future business prospects, Della moved to Kansas to put into action the plan the two had devised.
Once the business was established, it didn’t take long for the product to become successful and it was purchased by bird owners and breeders across the country. Much of Roberts earnings were handed over to his mother, who was struggling to make ends meet during the Depression.
That same year, Robert and Della’s business came under direct threat by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Robert was ordered to cease all business activity and to get rid of his birds. The shock reverberated through him when he was informed of the disheartening news. He wondered angrily why someone would want to destroy more than a decade’s worth of hard work that kept him out of trouble and contributed so much to society.
Following the bad news, Robert immediately set about protesting the decision. He began sending letters to radio stations, government officials, bird journals and related organizations. Robert was desperate and frantically tried to contact whoever might be able to help him save his livelihood. Della assisted Robert in getting the letters out of the prison and into the right hands.
Upon hearing of Roberts unfortunate predicament, bird lovers around the world became angry. People began to write letters of protest to congressmen in Kansas and state their displeasure with the decision through national media. Moreover, Della, who was leading the campaign, began to circulate petitions to be mailed to the President of the United States. Eventually she was able to obtain approximately fifty thousand signatures before mailing it off to the executive offices.
Public and governmental pressures came down so hard on the Federal Bureau of Prisons that they denied ever having stated that Robert had to dispose of his birds or business. The battle was won, or so it seemed. Robert was allowed to keep his birds and conduct his business and experiments. However, he was only allowed to keep a minute fraction of the proceeds he made from the business. It was hardly enough to help his mother or pay for the supplies he so desperately needed.
Angered, Robert once again began to protest what he called the socialization of his business by the bureau. He made such an uproar that the bureau decided to negotiate with the prisoner, in the hopes of preventing increased attention from the public and media. Eventually, an agreement was struck and although Robert didn't receive any more money, he did get a new and larger cell and access to all the equipment necessary to conduct his work.
However, exasperated prison officials, who had become wary of Roberts ceaseless petitions, revoked many other privileges that had previously been granted to the entrepreneurial prisoner. Robert was no longer allowed to correspond with a majority of the many bird lovers who wrote to him every week. At most, he was permitted to receive and answer only several letters every week.
Using his spare time efficiently and productively, Robert began to write down everything he had ever learned from his study of birds. He compiled all of the material into a manuscript, which he hoped to publish with the help of the editor-publisher of the Roller Canary Journal.
In 1933, the book Diseases of Canaries was eventually published; however Robert received no royalties from its sales. The very man that offered to help him publish the book cheated Robert out of his share of the proceeds. Gaddis stated that the infuriated Robert bought advertising space in a competitive journal, which he used to inform the public about the unfair treatment he received by the publisher of his manuscript. In retaliation, the publisher complained to prison authorities, who reprimanded Robert by beginning transference procedures that would eventually lead him to a new prison, with a dubious reputation named Alcatraz.
When Robert caught wind of the transfer through the prison grapevine, he desperately tried to find a way to get out of his nightmarish predicament. He knew that if he were to be transferred, he would forever lose his birds. He studied law books obtained from the prison library, hoping to find a legal loophole that might save him from being moved. During his search, he found what he believed to be the answer to his current problem. However, it would involve the help of another person to make it possible, Della.
Robert learned from an obscure law that if he were married in the state of Kansas, he would have the right to remain there as a legal inhabitant along with his significant other. Immediately, he contacted Della and informed her of his situation and of the possible legal loophole. Together, the two agreed to secretly marry under federal laws, which required only a sworn contract signed by both parties.
On October 21, 1933, Leavenworth prison officials learned that one of their most problematic prisoners was secretly married, without their consent. The news didn’t sit well with the warden who was already irritated with Robert for his gross noncompliance with his system. However, the warden didnt stand alone in his anger. Roberts mother also became angry at her sons marriage.
Since the beginning of her sons incarceration, Elizabeth believed that women only caused Robert trouble. Moreover, Roberts’s mother was very jealous even though Della had fought vigorously to help Robert. After learning of the marriage, feeling betrayed, Elizabeth severed her relationship with her son. It would remain severed until her death in 1937.
Robert had once again found his way around the system, which allowed him to remain at Leavenworth. However, prison officials continued to make his confinement as unbearable as possible. They viewed him as a troublemaker and a thorn in their side. In 1937, prison officials began to further reduce his privileges, at one point even preventing the inmate from corresponding with Della. In the years that followed, permission was never granted to Robert to resume contact with his wife. It was his punishment for drawing unwarranted attention to the prison and being a nuisance.
Nevertheless, although he worked in restricted conditions, he continued to conduct research and note his observations. Moreover, he remained in the business of selling canaries and his reputation remained in good stead. Surprisingly, he even received the attention of J. Edgar Hoover who purchased a bird from Robert for his mother.
In 1937, after 29 years behind bars, Robert became eligible for parole. He quickly applied for early release, hoping to reenter society and utilize his vast knowledge in ornithology. To his dismay, he was denied parole.
Over the next two years, Robert delved into his research and writing, having little else to do. His endeavor resulted in him finding yet another bird disease cure. Moreover, he also wrote another comprehensive book on birds, which included illustrations that he drew himself. His brother Marcus assisted him in getting the book Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds published, which was finally released in 1942.
During this time, Roberts’s health began to steadily deteriorate. He contracted lobar pneumonia from which he almost died and he also suffered from the symptoms of Bright’s Disease. To make matters worse, Robert also developed problems with his prostate. Daily he suffered immense pain from which he had no relief.
Just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, they did. On December 15, 1942, Robert was awakened in the early morning hours and escorted from his cell. After 26 years at Leavenworth, orders came through for Robert to be transferred. His next destination was a maximum-security prison nestled on a remote island in San Francisco Bay.
Doing Time on the Rock
Since 1861, Alcatraz functioned mostly as a military prison compound until 1934 when civilian criminals from three other penitentiaries across the country were admitted. Most of the criminals sent to the island compound were considered to be hardcore convicts and included such infamous names as George Machine Gun Kelly, Doc Baker, Al Capone and Floyd Hamilton. The prison quickly earned a bad reputation amongst inmates across the country and became known as the hell hole and the rock.
The daily regime at the prison was strict. Most inmates were refused many of the privileges they were previously granted while serving time in the other institutions. According to Michael Esslinger’s article Alcatraz: Rigid and Unusual Punishment, some of the prisoners were not allowed to talk, access reading material from the prison library or even visit relatives. Esslinger stated that if any of the rigid codes were violated, inmates were forced to wear a 12-pound ball with ankle chain, subjected to violent beatings, be banished to the hole (an isolation cell) or work at hard-labor jobs. Many went crazy, some committed suicide or attempted escape and others just tried to survive their term.
By the time Robert arrived in December of 1937, he was already aware of Alcatraz's notorious reputation. He had heard about it from other inmates back in Leavenworth. Gaddis stated that although Robert lost the privilege of keeping birds, he was allowed to continue reading his bird journals, correspond with other bird lovers and exercise several hours a week in the prison yard.
Robert was also permitted access to the library, from where he obtained and studied the numerous law books. Using his new found knowledge of law, he began to petition the Federal Courts for early release. He claimed in writ after writ that his extraordinarily long incarceration was cruel and unusual punishment. However, his petitions were continuously dismissed.
Robert channeled much of his anger with the system towards the writing of a new book that chronicled the history of the federal prison system from a convicts perspective. The book was titled Looking Outward: A History of the U.S.Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons. He hoped that the book would shed light on the disintegration of the penal system over the years. He included in his study discussions on reformative measures that have succeeded and failed, prison conditions and effective and ineffective prison leadership, among other things. The manuscript was his second book concerning prison life, the first being an autobiography entitled Bobbye.
Throughout his writing of the books, Robert became severely ill and suffered chronic pain from his kidney and gall bladder. The pain attacks became so acute at times that he was transferred to the prison hospital so that he could receive medication. However, he refused to allow the pain to stop him from fighting for what he believed to be his right to freedom.
Over the years that followed Robert began to file even more petitions directed to the Supreme Court. Yet, his requests continued to be denied. Frustrated at the system and weary of prison life, Robert attempted to take his life by overdosing on pain medication in December 1951. It seemed as if nothing was going according to Roberts plans. He not only failed to secure his long overdo freedom, but also at his own suicide. The following day he awoke with the prison walls still surrounding him.
Finally, in 1959 after having served 50 years behind iron bars Robert was transferred to a minimum-security prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri. Although he was given more freedom than he ever experienced in his years in incarceration, he still was not satisfied. He continued to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for his freedom.
On November 21, 1963 Roberts long struggle finally came to an end. According to alcatrazhistory.com, the 73-year old was found dead from natural causes in his prison hospital room. He had served a 54-year sentence before being released by death.