Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud

Unhappy Beginnings

Robert Franklin Stroud was born in Seattle, Washington on January 28, 1890 to Elizabeth and Ben Stroud. He was the couples 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 fathers 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 fathers 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 OBrien.

Cordova, Alaska circa 1910
Cordova, Alaska circa 1910

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 enroute 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.

Juneau Alaska courthouse, 1909
Juneau Alaska courthouse, 1909

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.

McNeil Penitentiary
McNeil Penitentiary

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.

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