Robert Stroud - The Birdman of Alcatraz
Perhaps one of the most notable inmates ever to serve time in D Block was a fifty-two-year-old convict named Robert Stroud, a.k.a. the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud was one of the few prisoners who were placed directly into the Alcatraz Segregation Unit, bypassing the standard quarantine procedure. Stroud spent seventeen years on Alcatraz, and was never introduced into the general population. Like Capone, Stroud had enjoyed many privileges that were not allotted to fellow inmates at his previous residence, Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas.

In 1909, eighteen-year-old Robert Stroud had shot and killed a bartender who had apparently failed to pay Stroud’s girlfriend Kitty O'Brian (for whom he was pimping at the time), full compensation for her services. Stroud apparently murdered the young bartender execution-style over a matter of ten dollars. In 1911 he was convicted of manslaughter, and he was sent to serve out his sentence at McNeil Island, a Federal penitentiary in Washington State. Stroud served hard time at McNeil, and was considered a difficult prisoner to manage. In November of 1911, he viciously stabbed a hospital orderly who he insisted had reported him to the administration for attempting to procure narcotics. The hospital orderly survived the violent attack, but Stroud was given an additional six-month sentence and a transfer to Leavenworth.

Stroud, now twenty-two, quickly became a disciplinary problem for the Leavenworth administration. He was written up for miscellaneous violations, and spent time in isolation for procuring items such as hacksaw blades, chisels, and other contraband. Then in March of 1916, Stroud committed an act that would forever deprive him of the right to walk as a free man. On March 25th, in front of over 1,000 inmates, Stroud pulled a knife and brutally stabbed a young guard named Andrew Turner. Although the details of the incident are sketchy, Stroud had apparently become distraught after learning that his younger brother had attempted to visit him, but was turned away because he had come on a day not designated for visitations.

The scenario unfolded with deadly speed… While Stroud was eating, he broke a well-known rule by talking too loudly. Turner approached Stroud and took his prison number, indicating that he would pursue the case. Acting on what was later described as a violent and rapid impulse, Stroud reached under his prison coat, and drove a crudely fashioned steel shank forcefully into Turner's chest. Turner, stunned and nearly paralyzed, slumped to the ground unconscious. The wounded guard was carried away by his colleagues, and was pronounced dead only minutes later.
Robert Stroud, AZ-594
Robert Stroud seen reading in his hospital ward prison cell at Alcatraz. Stroud would be locked-down in this cell for eleven years.
Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder, and was sentenced to death by hanging. He was ordered to await his execution in the harsh conditions of solitary confinement. His mother desperately pleaded for his life, and finally in 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. As a result of Stroud's unpredictable and violent outbursts, Warden T.W. Morgan directed that he be permanently placed in the segregation unit, to live out his sentence in total isolation.

Over the course of his thirty years of imprisonment at Leavenworth, Stroud developed a keen interest in birds, after finding an injured sparrow in the recreation yard. Stroud was initially allowed to breed birds and maintain a lab in two adjoining segregation cells, as it was felt that this would provide for productive use of his time. As a result of this privilege, Stroud was able to author two books on canaries and their diseases, having raised and observed nearly three hundred birds in his cells. Although it is widely debated whether his remedies were actually effective, many supporters believed that Stroud was able to make scientific observations that would later benefit mainstream research on numerous bird species.

Stroud managed to build a very lucrative bird business from his cells in Solitary. He had capitalized on his perceived importance to the bird lovers’ community, and the lenience of the prison administration. But instead of being appreciative of his extended privileges, he became more demanding. Meanwhile, his cells became foul-smelling and grossly unsanitary. Stroud himself would often be found sitting amongst his birds with excrement on his shirt, and cigarette butts and ashes covering the floor. There might be several bird carcasses, on which he would perform autopsies, strewn on his worktables, and cages stacked from floor to ceiling. Cell searches were nearly impossible, and it was said that many of the guards held great animosity toward Stroud.

In point of fact, Stroud had become an administrative nightmare. The huge volume of mail and special requests that he burdened the staff with on a daily basis came to be almost unbearable. The task of censoring his copious mail and filling his orders for bird feed, reading materials, and other research items could have justified hiring a full-time personal assistant. Stroud had been extended special privileges that were unheard of anywhere else in the prison system. Leavenworth was severely overcrowded, yet he was allowed to maintain residence in two cells. For years the local administration lobbied to have Stroud transferred to a prison were he could be more closely monitored, and his activities better supervised. Stroud's birds and his research had at one time had great publicity value for the prison, but now his demands had become a bitter nuisance to the administration.

In early December of 1942, the prison administration got their wish – Stroud was to be transferred to Alcatraz. After he had vacated his cell in preparation for transfer, prison officials discovered that some of the equipment he had requested had actually been used to construct a still for brewing alcohol. It soon became clear that his bird research had helped conceal several other illegitimate items, such as a crudely fashioned knife that was hidden in a hollowed cavity of his work desk.

Stroud would spend the next seventeen years of his life on Alcatraz (six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital), and his identity would forever become linked with the name of the island. He was never permitted to keep any birds while on Alcatraz, and he endured the deepest lock-down of his imprisonment in the hospital ward. In 1959 Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he was found dead from natural causes on November 21, 1963 by convicted spy and close personal friend Morton Sobell.
Great Escapes
During the twenty-nine years of the prison's operation, there were over fourteen attempted escapes from Alcatraz, in which thirty-four different men risked their lives to flee from The Rock. Almost all of the escapees were either killed or recaptured, but of all the attempts, two were especially significant to the island's history. In 1946 an inmate named Bernard Coy managed to fashion a makeshift bar-spreader, and climbed up to break into one of the Gun Galleries. Coy overpowered an unsuspecting guard, took his weapon, and dropped additional firearms down to several waiting accomplices. Led by Coy and fellow inmate Paul Cretzer, the inmates had devised a plan to "blast out" of the prison using the stolen firearms, but they were unable to locate the key that would give them access to the prison recreation yard. The desperate convicts eventually took several guards hostage, and proceeded to wage a violent war against Alcatraz.

Thousands of spectators watched from the San Francisco shores while U.S. Marines rushed the island, barraging the cellhouse with mortars and grenades. Inmates inside the cellhouse took refuge behind water-soaked mattresses, and lay helplessly trapped while bullets whizzed around them. The convicts had realized that all hope of escaping was gone, and so Alcatraz inmates Bernard Coy, Joe Cretzer, and Marvin Hubbard, Sam Shockley, Miran Thompson, and Clarence Carnes decided to fight it out.

Warden Johnston was unable to get a full assessment of the number of inmates involved, and he believed that there was a potential threat to the city of San Francisco. With the entire prison under siege, Johnston called for aid from the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Marines. Meanwhile Joe Cretzer became desperate, realizing that the hostages, all of whom were prison correctional officers, would probably credit him with plotting and executing his second escape attempt. Coldly and methodically, he pointed his pistol into the crowded cell where the officers were penned, and opened fire.

The fighting lasted two full days, and finally with no place left to hide from the ceaseless gunfire, Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard retreated to a utility corridor for shelter. The rest of the accomplices returned to their cells in the hope that they would not be identified as direct participants in the break attempt. In the final shootout, Cretzer, Coy, and Hubbard were killed in the corridor by bullets and shrapnel. One officer named William Miller died from his injuries, and a second officer, Harold Stites, was shot and killed during an attempt to regain control of the cellhouse. Inmates Thompson and Shockley were later executed together in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their role in the murder of Officer Miller, and Clarence Carnes received an additional ninety-nine-year sentence.

The most famous attempt at escaping from Alcatraz was carried out by Frank Lee Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin. In 1962, a fellow inmate named Allen West helped the trio to devise a clever plan that involved constructing a raft and inflatable life vests to navigate the Bay waters, and human decoys to fool the guards during the routine counts. Over the course of a several months, the inmates used special tools stolen from various prison work sites to chip away at the vent covers in their cells, meanwhile carrying on with the creative fabrication of the dummies and decoys.

The vents were located at the rear of each cell, and were covered with 10x6-inch thatch-patterned metal grills. The true ingenuity of the plan lay in the prisoners’ methodical camouflaging of the vent grills to hide the chipped paint and cement from detection, and their creation of lifelike decoys that would deceive the guards up-close during inmate counts. The quality of the faked grills and dummies was remarkable. The inmates utilized paint kits and a soap and concrete powder to create the lifelike heads, which were decorated with human hair collected from the Barbershop. The preparations took over six months of planning and fabrication.

On the night of June 11th, 1962, immediately following the 9:30 a.m. count, Morris and the Anglins scaled the utility shafts to reach the roof. Allan West, whom the FBI would later suspect of masterminding the whole plot, had spent the majority of his time over the past six months in building the decoys, and hadn’t been able to make as much progress as the others in widening the concrete vent opening in his cell. His accomplices therefore had no choice but to leave him behind. Once they reached the roof, they climbed through a ventilator duct where they had spread apart the thick metal bars, and made their way to the edge of the roof. After descending utility pipes attached to the cement cellhouse wall, all three scaled a fifteen-foot fence, and hurried down to the island shore where they inflated their rafts and life vests. The inmates ventured out into the freezing Bay waters, and were never seen again. Back at the cellhouse during the morning count, a guard probed his club into one of the inmates’ cells, and the dummy head rolled off the bed and onto the floor.

Decades later, it is still unknown whether the inmates ever succeeded in making their escape. The story was dramatized in several books, and in the famous motion picture “Escape from Alcatraz,” starring Clint Eastwood and Fred Ward. The FBI actively pursued the case for several years, but never came across any effectual leads. They did, however, make a final determination that the attempt had been unsuccessful. (Please see the "Escape Attempts" section for specific details.)
In 1946, two correctional officers and three inmates would die during a desperate and violent escape attempt known as the Battle of Alcatraz.
In 1962, Frank Morris, brothers John & Clarence Anglin and Allen West devised one of the most historic prison escapes in American history.
Using dummy heads as human decoys, the inmates were able to fool prison officers while they crawled through tunneled spaces dug with specially acquired tools. Their escape took several months of planning and execution. Inmates Frank Morris, John & Clarence Anglin made into the water and were never heard from or seen again. Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The roof-top vent the inmates disassembled and crawled through to accomplish their escape.
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