Singing Like a Canary: The Birdman's Caged Book

Charles Dudley Martin was just starting his law career when he came across the Thomas Gaddis book Birdman of Alcatraz. The Springfield, Missouri, attorney was so impressed by the story of Robert Stroud, convicted murderer turned bird researcher, that he wrote to a committee of Stroud's associates that was campaigning for his release and offered his support.

Martin was soon mixed up in the cause to a degree he'd never anticipated. In 1959 Stroud's California attorney contacted him and informed him that Stroud was being moved from Alcatraz to the Federal Medical Center in Springfield; would Martin be willing to join his legal team? Martin agreed, and the young lawyer became a key player in Stroud's final legal battle against the federal government--the struggle over his right to publish a book recounting the history of the federal prison system, from colonial times to the creation of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in the 1930s.

Stroud had embarked on the epic work after his arrival in Alcatraz in the 1940s, a punitive move by BOP officials that had ended the research on bird diseases that he'd been allowed to conduct at Leavenworth. "When Stroud was sent to Alcatraz, he was bored to tears," Martin says. "So he asked permission to write this book, and he devoted considerable time and scholarship to it."

By the late 1950s the manuscript had reached 2,000 pages: a stack of yellow legal pads, page after page filled with Stroud's precise handwriting--"like an accountant," Martin observes. But when he sought official permission to send the manuscript to a publisher, along with an autobiography he'd written dealing with his early life, the BOP turned him down.

"The Bureau felt threatened by these manuscripts," Martin says. "They made up a set of rules after he submitted them. They'd never had anyone present anything scholarly before. The stuff that came out of prisons was usually just trash."

In 1962 Stroud went to federal court in Kansas City in an effort to overturn the BOP's ruling. It was Martin's first opportunity to meet his client, whose lifelong imprisonment had recently become a cause celebre because of the recent, Oscar-nominated Burt Lancaster movie about his life.

"Strange fellow," Martin recalls. "He was very thin and gaunt, and he shaved his head. He looked for all the world like a bird, a newborn bird that has no feathers."

In court, government lawyers argued that Stroud's writings were pornographic and glorified criminals. Federal judge William Becker seemed inclined to rule in Stroud's favor; but before a final decision could be reached, Stroud died--and his case died with him. Judge Becker impounded the manuscripts pending appointment of a representative of the prisoner's estate.

Over the years the fate of Stroud's penology manuscript has been the subject of considerable speculation and rumor-mongering among aspiring inmate authors and activists. Some believe the book is locked deep within some vault in the BOP archives, too dangerous to ever see the light of day. Others suggest that it contained scandalous information obtained from guards about the prison heirarchy and that it was discreetly destroyed.

The truth is far less romantic; it says more about the timidity of the American publishing industry than it does about any government conspiracy. For the past thirty-odd years the manuscript has languished in the law offices of Charles Martin, who's been unable to find a publisher for the work.

Stroud left no formal will, Martin explains, but he did write a letter to an attorney stating that he wanted his property to be left to his sister Mamie. The letter was admitted in a California probate court as a will, and Martin was able to use it to win court appointment as the administrator of Stroud's personal property in Missouri. He then obtained custody of the manuscripts held in Becker's court, retained a literary agent and sent copies to New York publishers.

But in the 1960s, no publisher was willing to take on Stroud's work; he had named names, branding certain wardens and corrections officers as sadists or worse. "They said, 'If we publish this, we're going to get our ass sued,'" Martin recalls.

None of the people Stroud named are still living today--"The libel issue is, excuse the pun, a dead issue," Martin quips. Yet interest in Stroud's cause receded quickly after his death, and efforts by biographer Gaddis and others to see his work published went nowhere. Martin still fields occasional inquiries from university presses about Stroud's book on penology, but he hasn't found any takers. Part of the problem may be the manuscript's unsavory reputation, but Martin says that's a bum rap. While Stroud's autobiography, Bobbie, does contain accounts of his early homosexual experiences, the prison history has no such baggage.

"There's nothing pornographic about it," Martin says, "except in one chapter, he clinically describes sexual practices in prison. Which are, gee, masturbation and--what do you call it when one man screws another? The old name for it was "buggery." That's what people do in prison."

Martin hasn't given up hope. Since it was abandoned in the early 1960s, Alcatraz has become the most popular tourist attraction in the San Francisco area, and he figures those hordes of shutterbugs might some day want to read what The Rock's most famous prisoner had to say about the history of the American penal system. Who better to tell that story that an irascible raconteur who spent more than fifty years in the belly of the beast?

"I have never served time," Stroud wrote in a letter to a young friend at the end of his life, "as that term is usually understood, because I have made that time serve me, and I have never been able to find enough of it to do all the things that I wanted to do."


KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast