The Birdman of Alcatraz–A Comment

Robert Stroud. The name might sound familiar, but you might think he was the fellow who painted your house when you were small. But if somebody said Robert Stroud, Birdman of Alcatraz, you’d immediately know who the person was talking about. But chances are you’d only associate the name with a certain film. It was a great film, Burt Lancaster did a truly memorable job portraying the man. It’s just too bad that a lot of the film was pure fiction.

Robert Stroud was not the kind, almost grandfatherly fellow portrayed in the film. There was a rather substantial section of Stroud’s life the film ignored either by choice or ignorance. Robert Stroud was first incarcerated at McNeil Prison in Washington State. There he was violent, and hard to manage. He threatened other prisoners. He viciously assaulted a hospital orderly who had reported him attempting to get drugs via threats and intimidation. He  also stabbed another inmate. The film completely avoided the fact that Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas because of a constant stream of complaints about him made by other prisoners whom he threatened.

I always thought that a biography should get the facts straight before putting them on film. According to the film Stroud stabbed a guard in 1916 for not allowing a visit between Stroud and his mother. But according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons the mother of Robert Stroud made no application to visit her son, or even attempted to visit her son at any time in 1916. However, his brother Marcus Stroud did, and was he traveled to Kansas and not Stroud’s mother. The name of the warden was not Harvey Shoemaker as the film would have you believe, nor was any warden of Alcatraz named Shoemaker. So the report that Shoemaker wrote and figured so strongly film may not have existed either.

When Stroud began working with birds he did request some scientific equipment. However some of the equipment was not used to assist his in his study of birds. Some of the equipment Stroud requested was used in the construction of a  still – a crude way of producing alcohol.

When Stroud was selling birds one of his customers was J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, who purchased a bird for his mother. In January 1943, after Stroud’s transfer to Alcatraz, he was labeled a psychopath by Dr. Romney M. Ritchey. In the film Stroud married and his wife’s name was Stella. In reality his wife’s name was Della, and she did not visit him at any time while he was in Alcatraz. It should be mentioned that he did not take part in the riot  that is shown in the film, in which Lancaster did take part. At the end of the film Stroud is transferred yet again – however this time its to the Medical Center for Federal Inmates in Springfield Missouri. He spent the previous 11 years in hospital at Alcatraz. He passed away one day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, on Nov. 21, 1963.

I’m really disappointed. I was hoping to do a blog post on the film. But it seems Hollywood is more interested in making a buck, than in telling the truth. Who knows, maybe when Hollywood gets around to telling the story of 9/11, maybe Ronald McDonald will be a terrorist. Hollywood likes to change names, and re-write history. Does anyone want to bet they won’t try ?

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