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Fri November 20, 2009
"Birdman of Alcatraz" rests in Metropolis, Illinois
By Angela Hatton
Metropolis, IL – On November 21, sixty-six years ago Robert Stroud died in a hospital prison in Springfield, Missouri. Stroud was better known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz" for his research into the diseases of canaries. He found fame in the 30's through a series of newspaper articles. A book and then a movie a few decades later made Birdman a household name. But when he died in 1963, few in the nation paid attention. His remains were interred in a small cemetery on the southern tip of Illinois. Angela Hatton has this story about how Stroud came to rest in Metropolis.
In 1909, Robert Stroud killed a man in Alaska for allegedly not paying a prostitute friend her full fee. He was eighteen. A judge sentenced Stroud to 12 years in prison. While behind bars, Stroud killed a prison guard and for it received the death penalty. However, Stroud's mother, Elizabeth, managed to petition for clemency and Stroud's sentence was reduced to life. His mother Elizabeth grew up in Metropolis and was buried here. When Stroud died, his family placed him next to her.
It isn't hard to find Robert Stroud's gravesite. Drive a few minutes north of town, just past the city limits and turn in at the cemetery on your left. Get out and walk a few hundred feet along the drive. See the big stump? See the blue trash can? See the cluster of three gravestones about halfway down the row? That one there, in the middle.
"Over here watch the hole there is Robert Stroud."
Kerry Krempasky is a member of the Massac County Genealogical Society. She first got to know the cemeteries in the area when her father began caring for them.
"My father started mowing the lawn out at both cemeteries and I remember the Stroud. And people were coming up and looking and his grave and I thought, hmm."
Birdman stories had circulated around while Krempasky was growing up, but she hadn't paid much attention.
"As I was going in high school I heard about him and when I joined the society I thought who is this guy and what did he do and why was he in prison so long?"
Krempasky became an amateur Birdman scholar, collecting newspaper clippings from across the country and gathering local stories of Stroud and his family. His grandfather, John McCartney, was a prominent lawyer and Civil War veteran. Krempasky says many buildings in Metropolis bore the McCartney name.
"He started a newspaper here in Metropolis back in the eighteen hundreds, late eighteen hundreds. I think he started a bank and it's no longer here, and, uh, the opera house back in the twenties."
Writer Jolene Babyak has also spent a lot of time researching Stroud. She's the author of Birdman; the Many Faces of Robert Stroud. She says McCartney's oldest daughter and Stroud's mother, Elizabeth, had a difficult childhood. While her father fought in the Civil War, Elizabeth's mother died, and she and her brother were shunted from family to family.
"Psychologically she was abandoned. She may have had some inconsistent and even poor parenting from some of these families. We don't really know." 9 sec, Babyak3
Babyak says Elizabeth learned to use emotional manipulation to get what she wanted. That carried over to her relationship with her son. While Stroud was behind bars, she was his strongest advocate, moving around the country with him when he was transferred to different prisons. But a disagreement caused a schism between the two and Elizabeth left.
"And in Polk's Directory, which is a reverse directory, she listed herself as the widow of Robert Stroud. Y'know there's a hint there of course of unnatural relationship, but I think what was going on there was he was dead to her and she was to be pitied."
Robert Stroud commanded unprecedented power and influence for a prison inmate. Babyak says Stroud began his work with birds around 1920 after prison officials at Leavenworth allowed him to buy a canary. Other inmates also purchased canaries, but they got bored with them and gave them to Stroud. Then disease began killing the birds.
"Most of the veterinarian books in those days about birds were about farm animals, birds of economic interest to the American farmer."
Stroud was without a known cure for the canary's disease, so he researched one himself. He eventually became a self-taught ornithologist and published two books about birds. His fame spread. Babyak says his notoriety garnered him an easy existence during prison overcrowding in the 1930's.
"There were guys actually sleeping in the aisles; they didn't even have cell assignments. And Mr. Stroud had two cells. One for his birds and one for his bed, and the government had cut a hole in the wall so he could walk room to room."
In 1959, Stroud was in failing health, and officials transferred him to Springfield, Missouri for medical treatment. Babyak says while there doctors gave Stroud a long-overdue mental evaluation and diagnosed him as a psychopath.
Stroud's death in 1963 should have been a media firestorm, but another death obscured it. Stroud passed November 21. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated November 22. Babyak says the circumstances around Stroud's death signaled the end of his popularity.
"It hit the newspapers, but was immediately overshadowed, and, uh, the movie was never was one of the ones that was played on television very often and didn't come back for many, many years. The book got forgotten and he just disappeared."
When Stroud died, his obituary in the Metropolis News called his incarceration "one of the longest in United States penal history." Stroud's grave marker is nondescript and his popularity defunct, but there are always flowers by his grave and a tiny artificial sparrow to mark the place where the Birdman lies.