Before he became well known around the country, one of America’s most famous prison inmates had ties to Alaska history. He dug gold nuggets out of a mine in Juneau during 1908.
But justice proved swift and sure after he killed a man on Jan. 18, 1909, on a dark street in the territory’s capital. A coroner’s jury convened the evening of the murder, and after hearing testimony from the various parties, returned its verdict that Charles F. Damer met his death at the hands of the rival suitor for the affections of a woman named Kitty O’Brien. The jury included O’Brien as an accomplice.
The man who killed Damer, Robert Stroud, was working as a part-time bartender in Juneau at the time. He and O’Brien both were charged with murder and arraigned on Jan. 21. Authorities later dropped the charges against O’Brien, and Stroud pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to serve seven years at the federal penitentiary on McNeil Island near Tacoma, Wash.
While the convicted killer served his sentence in Washington, his mother and sister continued to work in Alaska, spending most of their earnings on attempts to have him pardoned or paroled.
Authorities transferred Stroud to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., in 1912, where he kept to himself at the maximum-security facility for hard-case prisoners. Convict Morris Rudensky described him:
“Physically he was a disgrace – tall, thin and as attractive as a barracuda or a herring bone without the herring. He seldom spoke to anyone, including the cons, and vice versa. He was a ferocious misanthrope.”
Just before his scheduled release on March 26, 1916, he walked into the Leavenworth mess hall and stabbed to death prison guard Andrew F. Turner in front of 1,200 convicts and prison officials. No one knows why. Later he said to Rudensky:
“The guard (Turner) took sick of heart trouble. I guess you could call it heart puncture. I never have given them any reason for my doing it, so they won’t have much to work on; only that I killed him, and that won’t do much good. I admit that much.”
Convicted of Turner’s murder, Stroud was sentenced to die in April 1920. However, his mother successfully gained an audience with President Woodrow Wilson’s wife. She begged Mrs. Wilson to convince her ailing husband to spare her son’s life, since he was just beginning to gain a reputation as a lover of canaries and an expert on their diseases.
Elizabeth Bolling Wilson, impressed with the woman’s son’s pioneer work with birds, convinced her husband to commute his death sentence. The same week as Stroud was scheduled for execution, the President’s order arrived that commuted the death sentence to solitary confinement for the rest of his life.
The gold-miner-turned-bartender-turned murderer carried on experimenting with canary diseases and ornithology while living in two adjoining cells. He also wrote a manuscript called “Looking Outward” about prison reform that was never published.
Stroud later transferred to Alcatraz where he became Inmate No. 594 at the new maximum-security federal institution and gained access to facilities, books and laboratory equipment. Most of America knows him by his nickname, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” which came from his life on the rock. He died there in 1963, after 55 years as a prisoner. His monumental work, “Stroud’s Book of Bird Diseases,” published in 1942, still is regarded as an authoritative source.
By Laurel Bill