Robert Franklin Stroud, aka The Birdman of Alcatraz was born in Seattle, Washington on January 28, 1890. In 1909 while living in Juneau, Alaska he murdered Charlie Dahmer. He was transferred from Alaska to Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1912. The Stroud biographer, Thomas E. Gaddis documents the artist’s challenges during his penitentiary life.
Stroud was a self-taught artist using correspondence courses. An artist from Trinidad, Colorado sent Stroud art lessons by mail. She corresponded via the art lessons to keep his mind occupied, while he waited on death roll. The president of the United States commuted Stroud’s death sentence.
Now that his life was reinstated Stroud wanted to be productive. He wanted to make something he could sell for a profit. He decided to make seasonal greeting cards. He expressed this new interest to his mother and she brought him watercolors and stiff paper on her next visit. Stroud used his pencil to sketch birthday, greeting and Christmas cards finishing the work in simple watercolor. Stroud also created verses to carry his poetic greeting. His mother sold some greeting cards to her closest friends and neighbors.
To improve the art he reviewed the art correspondence courses and practiced by the hour. The artist, Stroud created pictures in pencil, oil, watercolor, pen and ink from memory and copying while in solitary confinement. His mother Elizabeth proudly displayed his art on her walls. The artworks were copies of standard pictures of the era like the Wolf on the Hill. Gradually the artist became a good card painter. This artistic ability served him will when he illustrated and published his book about canaries.
In one documented incident: Stroud wanted boar bristle brushes to work in oil paints. He gave a guard birthday cards in exchange for fist full of hog bristles. Using the bristles he made brushes for his oil painting. The artist copied other pictures to increase his skill.
A print of Queen Louise of Prussia intrigued him, possibly because he believed everyone is in some type of prison even a queen. He copied the print onto a large canvas working long hours under a 25 watt light bulb. The painting was a gift to bird lover, Cora Peck Finney. The picture today hangs in the Mary Cotton Library in Sabetha, Kansas.
It is documented throughout Stroud’s prison life that guards, wardens, prisoners, the federal government, prison tourists and others traded, purchased or were given his artwork.
He was moved to Alcatraz in 1942 from Leavenworth. The last 3 years of his life were spent in Springfield, Missouri in a federal prison medical center. He died November 21,1963. The death notice obscured by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Gaddis, T.E., Birdman of Alcatraz, 1955, Random House, NY, pp 94-97
Sabetha Herald, Sabetha, KS, October 14, 1992, History of Painting in Library Uncovered, p1
Smith’s personal interview September 3, 2008 with Kim Priest, Director of the Mary Cotton Public Library, Sabetha, KS
Copyright September 2008 Janet Gwendolyn Smith
Submitted by Janet G. Smith, art consultant, art historian, art authenticator and independent curator, www.jgsart.com