By Stephen Haycox
Many Americans have viewed the 1962 Burt Lancaster film, Birdman of Alcatraz, a drama based loosely on the real life experience of Robert Stroud. Few, however, know of Alaska’s role in Stroud’s story. Stephen Haycox, Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage, recounted this aspect of Stroud’s biography in the following article originally published in the Anchorage Times.
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Robert Stroud probably didn’t intend to be a reformer. He was just another drifter knocking about on the Seattle waterfront in the spring of 1908 when he took a chance on a railroad construction gang being assembled for work in Cordova. But the story of his life is known by tens of thousands, and his determination and perseverance are familiar to a generation of moviegoers. Robert Stroud was the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Stroud would serve a long career in some of America’s roughest federal prisons; he would become perhaps America’s most famous prisoner. Though he began his tenure as just one more inmate, he attracted national attention, and the sensitivity of writer Tom Gaddis, through his stubborn insistence on retaining his dignity, and his dedication to learning about and caring for birds.
Stroud would become the longest-serving “lifer” in the federal prison system, and would serve the longest stretch of solitary confinement. By the example of his commitment he would teach that a man’s humanity need not be sacrificed as a cost of paying his debt to society. But before he ever left Alaska, Stroud taught territorial residents another, different kind of lesson about law and order; what it meant on the “frontier.”
Cordova was newly founded in 1908. It was the terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, being built by the Guggenheim mining combine to exploit their prospects; he was simply a common laborer looking to get by, and when the construction season was over that year, he decided to go to Juneau, hoping for something better there. He persuaded a dance hall girl he was living with, Kitty O’Brien, to go with him.
Juneau was a well-established community in 1909, a decade after the Klondike rush, and nearly 30 years after its own gold strikes. Although Stroud canvassed the town, there was little to do for an unskilled laborer down on his luck, and it wasn’t long before he got into trouble. When a former paramour of Kitty’s insulted her one night, Stroud shot him. And then he turned himself in to the U.S. marshal.
The case caused a sensation in Juneau, and a change in venue permitted the trial to be held in Skagway. The judge was E. E. Cushman, recently arrived for a brief, three-year appointment in Alaska before accepting a federal judgeship in Tacoma. He stated upon his arrival in the territory his intention to be tough on violent offenders in order to increase respect for law in Alaska.
Stroud’s attorney convinced him to plea-bargain the charge, and the future “birdman” pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Past experience led them to expect a sentence of three years. What they got was 12 years, for Cushman was determined to make an example of Stroud. And since Alaska was a federal territory, the sentence would be served in a federal prison, the McNeill Island penitentiary in Puget Sound in Washington state. So began Stroud’s career as a federal inmate.
In 1915, Stroud was transferred to the new maximum security facility at Leavenworth, Kan., where, a year later, he killed a guard. He was sentenced to death for that killing, but upon review, President Wilson commuted the sentence to life. Later, the prisoner would be sent to Alcatraz, on Pelican Island, off San Francisco.
But what of Stroud’s lesson for Alaska? It was his misfortune to run afoul of the law at a time when residents were trying hard to convince the Congress and the country that Alaska had come of age, and was ready for self-government, especially for a territorial legislature.
“Frontier” justice was regarded as a thing of the past, and an uncomfortable past at that. And the campaign was successful: The legislature was created in 1912. Judge Cushman played his role in that success, as did many others, and an earlier, rowdier, chapter in Alaska’s history was closed.
But few who watch the Birdman of Alcatraz today remember the drifter’s beginnings in Seattle, Cordova and Juneau, or recall that at the same time when civilization was remaking Bob Stroud, it was also remaking Alaska.