Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud

Outsmarting the System

Della Jones, a middle-aged widow from Indiana became interested in Robert after reading his many articles written in her favorite journal. One day, she offered up one of her prized canaries to the winner of a contest in the Roller Canary Journal. It happened to be Robert who won the contest and the bird was sent away to him with a letter from Della inquiring about his vast knowledge of birds. Eventually the two began to correspond on a regular basis.

In April 1931, Della paid Robert a visit at the prison. According to the article Robert Stroud: The Birdman (NOT) of Alcatraz together they discussed business plans to sell Strouds Specific bird cures, which Della agreed to fund. Enthusiastic about future business prospects, Della moved to Kansas to put into action the plan the two had devised.

Once the business was established, it didnt take long for the product to become successful and it was purchased by bird owners and breeders across the country. Much of Roberts earnings were handed over to his mother, who was struggling to make ends meet during the Depression.

That same year, Robert and Dellas business came under direct threat by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Robert was ordered to cease all business activity and to get rid of his birds. The shock reverberated through him when he was informed of the disheartening news. He wondered angrily why someone would want to destroy more than a decades worth of hard work that kept him out of trouble and contributed so much to society.

Following the bad news, Robert immediately set about protesting the decision. He began sending letters to radio stations, government officials, bird journals and related organizations. Robert was desperate and frantically tried to contact whoever might be able to help him save his livelihood. Della assisted Robert in getting the letters out of the prison and into the right hands.

Upon hearing of Roberts unfortunate predicament, bird lovers around the world became angry. People began to write letters of protest to congressmen in Kansas and state their displeasure with the decision through national media. Moreover, Della, who was leading the campaign, began to circulate petitions to be mailed to the President of the United States. Eventually she was able to obtain approximately fifty thousand signatures before mailing it off to the executive offices.

Public and governmental pressures came down so hard on the Federal Bureau of Prisons that they denied ever having stated that Robert had to dispose of his birds or business. The battle was won, or so it seemed. Robert was allowed to keep his birds and conduct his business and experiments. However, he was only allowed to keep a minute fraction of the proceeds he made from the business. It was hardly enough to help his mother or pay for the supplies he so desperately needed.

Angered, Robert once again began to protest what he called the socialization of his business by the bureau. He made such an uproar that the bureau decided to negotiate with the prisoner, in the hopes of preventing increased attention from the public and media. Eventually, an agreement was struck and although Robert didnt receive any more money, he did get a new and larger cell and access to all the equipment necessary to conduct his work.

However, exasperated prison officials, who had become wary of Roberts ceaseless petitions, revoked many other privileges that had previously been granted to the entrepreneurial prisoner. Robert was no longer allowed to correspond with a majority of the many bird lovers who wrote to him every week. At most, he was permitted to receive and answer only several letters every week.

Using his spare time efficiently and productively, Robert began to write down everything he had ever learned from his study of birds. He compiled all of the material into a manuscript, which he hoped to publish with the help of the editor-publisher of the Roller Canary Journal.

Diseases of Canaries book
Diseases of Canaries book
 

In 1933, the book Diseases of Canaries was eventually published, however Robert received no royalties from its sales. The very man that offered to help him publish the book cheated Robert out of his share of the proceeds. Gaddis stated that the infuriated Robert bought advertising space in a competitive journal, which he used to inform the public about the unfair treatment he received by the publisher of his manuscript. In retaliation, the publisher complained to prison authorities, who reprimanded Robert by beginning transference procedures that would eventually lead him to a new prison, with a dubious reputation named Alcatraz

When Robert caught wind of the transfer through the prison grapevine, he desperately tried to find a way to get out of his nightmarish predicament. He knew that if he were to be transferred, he would forever lose his birds. He studied law books obtained from the prison library, hoping to find a legal loophole that might save him from being moved. During his search, he found what he believed to be the answer to his current problem. However, it would involve the help of another person to make it possible, Della.

Robert learned from an obscure law that if he were married in the state of Kansas, he would have the right to remain there as a legal inhabitant along with his significant other. Immediately, he contacted Della and informed her of his situation and of the possible legal loophole. Together, the two agreed to secretly marry under federal laws, which required only a sworn contract signed by both parties.

On October 21, 1933, Leavenworth prison officials learned that one of their most problematic prisoners was secretly married, without their consent. The news didnt sit well with the warden who was already irritated with Robert for his gross noncompliance with his system. However, the warden didnt stand alone in his anger. Roberts mother also became angry at her sons marriage.

Since the beginning of her sons incarceration, Elizabeth believed that women only caused Robert trouble. Moreover, Roberts mother was very jealous even though Della had fought vigorously to help Robert. After learning of the marriage, feeling betrayed, Elizabeth severed her relationship with her son. It would remain severed until her death in 1937.

Robert had once again found his way around the system, which allowed him to remain at Leavenworth. However, prison officials continued to make his confinement as unbearable as possible. They viewed him as a troublemaker and a thorn in their side. In 1937, prison officials began to further reduce his privileges, at one point even preventing the inmate from corresponding with Della. In the years that followed, permission was never granted to Robert to resume contact with his wife. It was his punishment for drawing unwarranted attention to the prison and being a nuisance.

Stroud's prison ID
Stroud's prison ID
    

Nevertheless, although he worked in restricted conditions, he continued to conduct research and note his observations. Moreover, he remained in the business of selling canaries and his reputation remained in good stead. Surprisingly, he even received the attention of J. Edgar Hoover who purchased a bird from Robert for his mother.

In 1937, after 29 years behind bars, Robert became eligible for parole. He quickly applied for early release, hoping to reenter society and utilize his vast knowledge in ornithology. To his dismay, he was denied parole.

Over the next two years, Robert delved into his research and writing, having little else to do. His endeavor resulted in him finding yet another bird disease cure. Moreover, he also wrote another comprehensive book on birds, which included illustrations that he drew himself. His brother Marcus assisted him in getting the book Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds published, which was finally released in 1942.

Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds
Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds

During this time, Roberts health began to steadily deteriorate. He contracted lobar pneumonia from which he almost died and he also suffered from the symptoms of Brights Disease. To make matters worse, Robert also developed problems with his prostate. Daily he suffered immense pain from which he had no relief.

Just when it seemed things couldnt get any worse, they did. On December 15, 1942, Robert was awakened in the early morning hours and escorted from his cell. After 26 years at Leavenworth, orders came through for Robert to be transferred.   His next destination was a maximum-security prison nestled on a remote island in San Francisco Bay.

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