'Birdman of Alcatraz' Robert Stroud publishes book, long after his death

4:27 PM, Feb 3, 2014   |    comments
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Springfield, Mo. (News-Leader) -- The Birdman of Alcatraz - Robert Stroud - died 50 years ago behind bars in Springfield's U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners.

But his voice is about to be heard.

When Stroud was moved to the "Fed Med" in Springfield in 1959, the well-known prisoner brought with him two manuscripts he had penned: "Looking Outward," a book about the history of the prison system and his experience in it, and "Bobbie," an autobiography.

While in Alcatraz, he was forbidden to publish the books. He tried to publish the books when he was moved to Springfield and was denied once again.

In 1962 - the same year a movie about his experience with birds was released to theaters - Stroud filed a lawsuit in Springfield against the Bureau of Prisons for violating his freedom of speech rights.

Local lawyer Dudley Martin represented Stroud at no charge.

Stroud died before a decision was made in the case, and his manuscripts went into probate.

The manuscripts were handwritten on legal pads available from the prison commissary. His penmanship is precise, almost delicate. The pages are weathered - some have water stains - but here Stroud's life experiences unfold.

Martin spent 21 years fighting for the manuscripts before he obtained them through the court system. It took another 29 years before he released part one of "Looking Outward, A Voice From the Grave."

It is the first installment of a five-part e-book series.

Martin, who is 80 years old now, also sold the book's movie rights to Coolfire Studios.

Coolfire Studios is based in St. Louis and specializes in cable projects. Two of its notable series include "Sweetie Pies" and "Fast N Loud."

James Cornwell, a local publisher and author who worked with Martin on the project, said they were not given a timeline of when the manuscripts may be turned into a series, but they were "excited about the interest."

One reason it took so long for publication is because initially publishers were afraid of being sued.

"The statute of limitations has run out and no one can complain. Oh, Grandma can holler, but she can't bring a lawsuit," Martin said.

Stroud: The early years

Robert Stroud was born Jan. 28, 1890. He was raised - and is buried - in Metropolis, Ill.

At the turn of the 20th century, he moved to Alaska, where he became a pimp. When one of his prostitutes was badly beaten, Stroud killed the man who hurt her, said Martin. (Some historical accounts say Stroud killed the man for not paying the woman.)

"That wasn't unusual in Alaska at that time, but there was a new judge in town and he vowed to clean up crime," Martin said.

In 1909, Stroud was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years. He was 19.

Initially, he served time in Washington state, but then he was transferred to Leavenworth, a U.S. penitentiary in Kansas.

A historical gem that Cornwell and Martin recently discovered in Stroud's documents were Stroud's early hand-drawn maps of Leavenworth.

"We didn't even know we had them. He drew these maps pretty much to scale," said Cornwell.

Stroud had a third-grade education, but he was very intelligent and taught himself to read German and French.

While he would later be portrayed by Burt Lancaster on film as a reformed, mild-mannered man, Stroud had serious rage issues.

In 1916 while at Leavenworth, Stroud murdered a prison guard in the mess hall.

"He was a psychopath," Cornwell said. "He killed a man with his bare hands in the chow hall."

Stroud received a death sentence for the murder.

In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted the death sentence to life in prison after Stroud's mother begged that her son's life be spared.

However, Stroud would live out most of his life in solitary confinement, first in Leavenworth and eventually in Alcatraz.

Springfield connection

At 20, Springfield native Martin was in the Army and stationed in Maryland. His good friend's father was a lawyer and took pro bono cases several times a year to help people.

"That stuck with me," Martin said.

When Martin returned to Springfield, he told his parents he wanted to be a newspaper man.

They told him he'd starve to death.

So he became a lawyer, and he never forgot the importance of giving back through his work.

"I defended blacks for free at a time when they were looked down upon," he said. "I took several cases a year at no charge."

And that's how he met Stroud.

Martin heard that Stroud was trying to publish his manuscripts and that the prison system was fighting it. His lawyer was in California when Stroud was transferred from Alcatraz to Springfield.

"I called his lawyer in California and said 'Are you licensed to practice law in Missouri?' He said 'No.' I said, 'Well, I am,'" Martin, recalled, waving his hand. "He said 'What will you charge?' I said 'Nothing.'"

Martin met Stroud only once.

"They brought him in; he was a great big, tall man. He said 'Thank you, Mr. Martin' and shook my hand. That's about all he said," Martin said.

The attorney representing the prison system asked that the book be barred from publication because there was a lot of lewd content pertaining to sex in prisons, Martin said.

"The judge said, 'There have been many important books written by people in prison. I don't know if this is important or not.' So the judge decided to keep the manuscripts in the custody of the court, read them, and then give his decision," said Martin.

But Stroud died 11 months later on Nov. 21, 1963, before a decision was handed down.

Stroud's belongings went into probate, and the manuscripts were sent to Jackson County in Kansas City.

Martin set out to be appointed administrator of Stroud's will. He was eventually named administrator, and after more than 20 years, the manuscripts were handed over to Martin.

It was 1984.

Martin hired the same publicist used by Thomas E. Gaddis, who wrote the biography and screenplay for "Birdman of Alcatraz," the film that made Stroud famous.

They sent the manuscripts off to all the big publishing houses in New York.

"And they all had the same response. They said 'We'd love to publish it, but we'll get sued. Stroud is the only person that can verify this and he's dead. He said Warden so-and-so was taking bribes; Guard so-and-so was a sadist who liked to whip prisoners,' " said Martin.

These people were still alive and still employed in the prison system. In addition, the book has graphic sexual content.

So in 1985, Martin put the manuscripts in storage.

He was disappointed.

"But more than that, I thought this information should be available to the public. They think the prison system is OK. It doesn't transform prisoners, it makes them worse," Martin said.


In addition to "Looking Outward," Stroud wrote "Bobbie," an autobiography so titled because it's the name his mother called him.

"He was 23 hours a day inside, one hour outside. He wanted to feel like it was some kind of real life. I think that is why he wrote 'Bobbie,' " Cornwell said.

But if all you know about the man is Burt Lancaster's portrayal in the movie, these books will shed light on the real man, not the Hollywood version.

In real life, Stroud never had birds at Alcatraz, where he was transferred in 1942.

"I guess 'Birdman of Leavenworth' didn't sound good. Alcatraz sounded better," Martin said.

Stroud spent nearly 30 years in Leavenworth, and he studied birds for the first 15 years, according to the History Channel. During that time, he raised nearly 300 birds in his cells and learned about their habits and physiology, according to alcatrazhistory.com.

Making strides in ornithology, he wrote the book "Diseases of Canaries," published in 1933, and in 1943 published "Digest of the Diseases of Birds," a 500-page text that included his own illustrations.

He even developed medicines for various bird ailments which were used by veterinarians, said Cornwell.

While he was allowed to have microscopes and equipment in Leavenworth, they were eventually taken away, and it was said he used the equipment to brew alcohol.

Something else people might be surprised to learn about Stroud is that although he had a wife, according to his manuscripts, he was homosexual. That was never mentioned in Gaddis' 1955 book because it was too controversial at the time, but Stroud is open about it in his writings, said Cornwell.

While stories in the books "Looking Outward" and "Bobbie" are told through Stroud's perspective, he doesn't glorify himself, Cornwell said.

In 2009, Martin decided he wanted to see the books published so he approached Cornwell, whose expertise is actually in cookbooks and children's books.

First, they researched the market to see if people would be interested in Stroud's writings, and then were in negotiationswith Coolfire Studios to buy the movie rights,but it fell apart. They decided to publish an e-book and were again contacted by Coolfire about buying the rights, which they sold at the end of last year.

The men are publishing the e-book under "Looking Outward, LLC" and are thrilled to release it after all these years.

"It was quite an undertaking," said Martin. "We're excited about providing access to it. You never know who's going to pop up in Springfield."

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