Con Heir

Meet a truly dangerous prisoner. Literate. Political. Published. His teacher: the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Prison officials in Springfield wanted to administer shock treatments to Carey, but his family refused to sign the necessary paperwork. Although at one point he was allowed to pursue his correspondence courses, his studies were abruptly terminated when guards seized his textbooks, citing a new rule against "fire hazards" that prohibited inmates from having more than five books in their cell. (Carey had twelve.) He sued the warden for the $92.89 he'd invested in the course he could not complete; he lost.

The official prison education programs he encountered were a "sham," Carey says now. The textbooks were often outdated or scarce, the skills taught too elementary to be of use to men coming out of prison. Yet he persisted, eventually becoming a teacher's aide himself, helping others with their grammar and their reading skills.

"I take pride in the fact that I did help prisoners," he says. "The only way to beat the prison system is to develop the mind. You can't resist them physically, and the courts aren't any help. So why not develop the mind? But they try to hamstring you."

Actually, federal officials did Carey a favor in sending him to the medical center, since it was there that he met the champion mind-developing inmate of all time. Carey heard pieces of the story from Stroud himself; only later, though, did he come to appreciate the scope of what the Birdman had accomplished.

In 1909, shortly before his nineteenth birthday, Stroud had killed a man in Alaska in an argument over a few dollars--money that may have been owed to Stroud for the services of a prostitute he provided. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. Seven years later he stabbed a guard to death in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in an altercation over his visiting rights; the slaying earned him a death sentence, soon commuted to a bizarre sentence of "life in solitary confinement" after his mother doggedly pleaded his case before the Wilson administration.

Confined to the bowels of Leavenworth, Stroud launched a successful canary-breeding operation with the warden's blessing. When his birds began to die of mysterious illnesses, Stroud read everything he could get his hands on--anatomy, biology, chemistry--and developed patent remedies that he marketed by mail. Working with crude tools (it would be years before he was allowed access to a microscope), he researched and wrote two books on avian diseases that were, at the time, the most authoritative works in their field; in fact, they were just about the only works of their kind.

Despite his growing reputation, or perhaps because of it, in 1942 the BOP took away Stroud's birds and shipped him to Alcatraz. But Stroud was a skillful manipulator of friend and foe alike, and his bird-fancying supporters mounted a campaign to free him that only grew in force as the years rolled by. In 1959, under pressure from the clamor of publicity and a lawsuit by Stroud challenging the unique nature of his confinement, the BOP reluctantly moved him to Springfield. He was soon suing the government over his lengthy treatise on the history of penology in the United States, which officials had let him write but were determined not to see published.

In Stroud, Carey found not only a friend but an exemplar, a man who seemed to have found the secret to preserving his own identity within the bleak, dehumanizing cave of prison. "In spite of everything he had suffered, he was not cynical or bitter," Carey recalls. "He was an inspiration to me. Here I was, thinking this whole thing was lunacy and feeling sorry for myself; but when I saw what this man had gone through and the attitude he was able to develop, then I gradually began to put things into perspective."

Stroud's fame reached mythic proportions with the release of the somewhat fictionalized movie about his life, featuring Burt Lancaster's memorable portrayal of the convict as a kind of gentlemanly scholar who had utterly rehabilitated himself in spite of the system. The BOP did what it could to counter that image, leaking sordid details of Stroud's prison record to friendly reporters and hinting that his bird business was actually a cover for a moonshine operation.

Stroud died of a heart attack at the age of 73, the day before President Kennedy was assassinated. But the battle over his memory continues; three years ago a woman named Jolene Babyak published a book, Birdman: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud, debunking the earlier Gaddis biography and branding Stroud as a creepy sociopath whose bird research was deeply flawed and who exhibited a lifelong sexual interest in adolescent boys.

The daughter of a former associate warden at Alcatraz, Babyak clearly set out to write an apologia for the BOP. Yet her portrait of Stroud, unflattering as it is, only serves to underscore the kind of threat he posed to authorities, having accomplished so much in brazen defiance of their rules. That his research was primitive, by modern standards, is hardly news; late in life, Stroud himself admitted that the development of antibiotics had made his work "irrelevant." As for his character, Babyak's account of the eccentricities he developed while imprisoned on The Rock--a penchant for raw meat eaten without benefit of utensils, a fondness for shaving his entire body and other weird rituals--is as much an indictment of the government that kept him in solitary confinement for 43 years as it is any reflection on the man himself.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest