Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud

Prison Life

Stroud quickly learned the prison rules, realizing that it was essential for his survival. He knew that any disobedience would result in serious injury by the guards, who relentlessly threatened the prisoners with clubs at the slightest hint of a noncompliance. It was a world that Robert grew to hate but one, which he could not escape. Weekly letters from Kitty and his mother were the only source of contact he received from the world outside. During his first couple years in prison he never heard word from his brother or father and only saw his mother on one occasion.

While incarcerated, Robert became increasingly disillusioned with the prospect of ever having a normal life. He grew into a cold and bitter man, full of anger over the bad hand dealt to him by fate. One day, his pent up hostility spilled forth when he got into an argument with another inmate who informed on him for having stolen some food. The dispute resulted in Robert stabbing and wounding the informant for his lack of loyalty towards another prisoner.

As punishment, Robert received an additional six months tacked onto his already existing 12-year sentence. However, most of his time would not be served at McNeil penitentiary. In 1912, Robert along with several dozen other inmates was transferred from the overcrowded prison to a newly constructed maximum-security compound in Kansas, known as Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary

During the first few years in the foreboding penitentiary, Robert underwent drastic changes. With the hopes of broadening his education, Robert enrolled in a series of correspondence courses, which included astronomy, structural engineering and physical science. It was through these courses that he realized his passion for knowledge and his burgeoning intelligence.

For someone who had entered the prison with only a third grade education, guards and cellmates alike were surprised to learn that Robert had excelled in all of his courses receiving exceptionally high marks. Yet, his recent scholastic accomplishments were only just the groundwork for what would later lead to more advanced fields of study. 

Robert Stroud in his cell
Robert Stroud in his cell

Robert began to evolve not only academically, but spiritually as well. According to Gaddis, he became enthralled with the field of theosophy, a religion that combines various forms of philosophy, science and religion and studied its teachings on a daily basis. Theosophy and its teachings provided Robert with a degree of spiritual release, which allowed him to better accept the surroundings in which he lived. His newfound ideology and interest in learning would later support him during the most difficult years of his life that were to follow.

In 1915, after suffering chronic pain Robert was interred at the penitentiary hospital where he was diagnosed with Brights disease. The diseases signature is inflammation of the kidney, which can result in high blood pressure, fever and facial puffiness. His six-foot three frame grew more gaunt and weakened from pain as his health slowly declined. He feared that the disease would kill him before he had a chance to see his family again.

While Robert was ill, his mother traveled to Kansas to be closer to her son and offer assurances. When she learned the severity of the disease, she wrote a letter to the United States Attorney General pleading for her sons release, yet her request went unanswered. Eventually, Robert began to show signs of recovery but he remained weakened by the debilitating disease.

During his recovery, he spent a majority of his time in his cell. Robert became increasingly detached and bitter because of the pain he suffered due to his illness. He even began to abandon his study courses that he enjoyed so much. Roberts anger and depression about his situation was further compounded by tensions between him and a new menacing guard named Andrew F. Turner.

Turner was a club wielding, cocky guard who taunted many of the prisoners, often evoking in them a combination of rage and fear. Robert was no exception. His intense dislike for the guard would later prove to have deadly consequences.

In 1916, Marcus traveled to Leavenworth to pay a long awaited visit to his older brother, but was refused permission to see him. Enraged, Robert voiced his anger to another cellmate, which was overheard by Turner. Turner promptly wrote a report stating Roberts breach of silence for talking among prisoners was forbidden in the penitentiary. The report led to the retraction of Roberts visiting privileges, which infuriated him even further.

On March 26, 1916 Robert entered the dining hall full of more than one thousand other prisoners. Gaddis states that during the meal, Robert raised his hand for an unknown reason and was soon after approached by Turner. Words were exchanged between the two men, however fellow inmates were unable to hear much of the conversation because of the noisy prison mess hall.

Suddenly, Turner reached for his club to use against Robert. Before he could strike him, Robert grabbed hold of the club and the two men struggled for several seconds. Robert then produced a knife from the inside of his shirt and thrust it into Turners chest. Shock clouded over the guards face before he fell dead to the floor.

Robert was immediately seized by surrounding guards and placed in a solitary confinement cell in the isolation ward. There he remained while awaiting trial for the murder. The prison authorities and their lawyers, headed by U.S. Attorney Fred Robertson worked diligently to build a case against Robert, with the goal of convincing the state of Kansas to re-enforce the abolished execution law.

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