Alaska Life

Before he was the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud committed the ‘coldest blooded murder’ in Juneau history

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On July 3, 1962, the prison drama “Birdman of Alcatraz” premiered at the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles, a true Hollywood event. Star Burt Lancaster played the titular role. Though filming in Sicily, he took the long flight back for the event. And while “Birdman of Alcatraz” was not a major box office success, it was still a significant movie, positively draped in glowing reviews and award nominations, including Lancaster’s win from the British Academy Film Awards, or BAFTA. John Frankenheimer, the celebrated director of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Ronin,” helmed the film.

The film is a highly fictionalized account of Robert Stroud, the longtime prison inmate who should have been notorious but was instead widely celebrated by the public. From 1909 to 1963, Stroud was a required guest at some of the more infamous American prisons, including McNeil Island, Leavenworth, and, more obviously, Alcatraz. The plot begins with a prison transfer from McNeil Island in 1912, but Stroud’s carceral adventures began three years earlier in Juneau, with a cold act on a cold day by a colder man.

For Robert Franklin Stroud (1890-1963), his upbringing was a proper prologue to murder. He was born in Seattle, the oldest son of an abusive, alcoholic father. He wrote, “My father was a wastrel scion of a once wealthy and powerful southern family, who, through his devotion to slow horses, fast women, and red whiskey, had accomplished the financial ruination of his family and reduced himself to the status of a day laborer before meeting my mother.”

Regardless of any romantic backstory, Stroud indeed grew up within a violent, desperate context. Violence, vice and crime were the backdrop of his life, in and out of the home. Stroud and his father reportedly each took a shot at killing the other. Sometime around 1904 to 1905, after his father had abandoned the family in favor of another woman, the teenage Stroud ran away from home. As he described it, home was “dominated by three women in a household where petty bickering had become a habit. Naturally I cut out from under as soon as I was big enough.”

Stroud did some traveling, somehow finding trouble wherever he went. There were good times, as when a scattered family member or kind-hearted stranger provided shelter and meals. And there were bad times when he had to steal to eat, always one jump ahead of the slowpokes and one skip ahead of his doom. His first jailhouse experience came during this period, busted for hopping trains somewhere in the South.

Life taught him two primary virtues: strength and viciousness. As far he knew, that was how to make it, to survive the world. He was more cunning than smart, disturbing where he could have been sweet-natured given a different childhood.


By 1907, he was in Alaska, working on some railroad construction labor. He was around six feet tall. The grueling work, combined with a morphine addiction, left him rough, lean, and wiry. He enjoyed many aspects of his brief time north, though not always for the best reasons. As he put it, he liked that Alaska had “none of the social bonds that exist in the states,” a disturbing takeaway. The territory was also light on law enforcement, an attribute he exploited or attempted to exploit repeatedly.

At some point around 1907 or 1908, he formed a bond with Kate Dulaney, a woman twice his age. Certain aspects of Stroud’s life are more legends than history, sourced from people like Stroud himself, a profoundly unreliable narrator, and fanciful accounts, like that written by Thomas Gaddis. His book, published in 1955 and also called “Birdman of Alcatraz,” made Stroud a real celebrity and was the basis of the movie. According to these legends, Dulaney nursed Stroud back to health from a bout of pneumonia. According to other legends, Dulaney was a prostitute, and Stroud was her pimp. Regardless, their relationship was both deep and complicated by their backgrounds. If the legends are true, she was both a mother figure and an employee to the future murderer. And in his truncated independent life, she might have been one of the few steadfast points upon which he could depend.

Stroud bounced around Katalla and Cordova. As 1909 began, he was sharing a room with Dulaney in Juneau. There, he sold peanuts and ran errands, just enough to fund a threadbare existence. The locals called him the “peanut kid,” a reminder that he was still young despite his experience, height, and general shadiness. He was also never seen without a dime store novel. The cheap sensational stories offered glimpses, even if fantastic, of a world he had never and would never know. On the night of Jan. 17, Stroud and Dulaney were seen drinking with a young Russian bartender known as Charlie Dahmer, whom they knew from their stint in Cordova.

An aside on names: the press gave Charlie’s name as F.K.F. von Dahmer, and some sources spell his surname as Damer. Newspapers of this era could be wildly inconsistent and inaccurate with names. In Alaska, Stroud was called Straud almost exclusively. Apart from newspaper mishaps, Dulaney was also known as Kitty O’Brien, perhaps a nom d’amour.

The next day, Jan. 18, was the day of infamy for Stroud, Delaney, and Dahmer. The inciting incident is uncertain. To be more accurate, there were many proposed inciting incidents, and the correct one is uncertain. According to the legends — that word again — Dulaney spent some time with Dahmer and reappeared with bruises and a black eye. Or Dulaney spent some time with Dahmer, an experience for which Dahmer declined to pay the required fee. Or Dulaney spent some time with Dahmer, and Stroud was jealous. Or Dahmer owed Dulaney and Stroud money to complete a legitimate exchange of goods and/or services.

Some legends say Stroud loved Dulaney. Whether he did, simply found her convenient, or anywhere in between, the one certainty is Stroud’s response, a cold, calculating rage. That afternoon, he went to a store and tried to buy six bullets, just enough to fill his .38 revolver. The storekeeper informed him that bullets were sold in complete boxes, not broken into lots. So, Stroud bought a full box of ammunition, knowing he did not need all of them.

Around 7:30 that evening, he visited Dahmer at his cabin. The details are vague. They argued and fought before two shots rang out in the night. Dahmer was dead, shot in the temple. In the most probable chain of events, the two men fought, and Stroud struck Dahmer on the head with the gun. A stray shot went off as Dahmer fell to the floor. Then, Stroud shot again, this time with careful purpose and aim.

In 2017, Matt Miller of KTOO tracked down the likely location of the murder. He followed the events across Juneau, from the Montana Saloon on Front Street where Dahmer worked, to the boarding house on South Franklin where Stroud and Dulaney shared a room. The path continued up Franklin through what was once a redlight district before turning onto 4th Street. Dahmer lived in a cottage between Gold and Franklin Streets, where Stroud killed him.

Two men in the neighboring cottage heard the shots and went outside, where they ran into Stroud. The normally wordy, even loquacious shooter mumbled a response to their queries before walking away. The murderer dropped the gun off with Dulaney and left to find City Marshal J.A. Mulcahy. To the marshal, Stroud announced that he had killed a man and gave himself up.

In later decades, people who wanted to celebrate and defend Stroud would use this moment to support a claim of self-defense. However, turning himself in might have been an act of self-preservation. In the version of events reported by the Juneau-based Alaska Weekly Transcript, Stroud begged to go jail and explicitly acknowledged a fear that the locals would lynch him. Even if Stroud was unfamiliar with the limited history of lynchings in Alaska, he had almost certainly heard of the failed hanging of roadhouse operator Jack Kenney in 1907, the fallout from which was still awaiting its time in court as of 1909.

The Alaska Weekly Transcript called it the “coldest blooded murder in the annals of Juneau.” Safe in his cell, Stroud spun a tale wherein Dahmer owed him $10. The visit had just been an attempt to collect a debt and the shooting nothing more than self-defense. As the normal conversation turned heated, Dahmer moved as if to grab a weapon, or so Stroud claimed. Only then did Stroud attack, as he believed his life was in danger, or so Stroud claimed.

Needless to say, Stroud initially pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder. However, the case against him was solid. The state of Dahmer’s body and the lack of any weapon in the cottage told a very different story than what Stroud was peddling. In addition to the bullet purchase, a witness heard Stroud openly threatening to “get” Dahmer, which spoke to the murder as premeditated.

In 1909, Alaska still had the death penalty, a possible sentence for a first-degree murder conviction. As the trial approached, Stroud relented and agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. Dulaney had been picked up on a minor charge, held as a material witness, and then also charged with first-degree murder. After Stroud pleaded guilty, prosecutors dropped her charge.

Stroud was sentenced to 12 years in prison. On Aug. 26, 1909, the steamship carrying him to the McNeil Island Penitentiary pulled out of Juneau, the last time the future Birdman was in Alaska. The murder of Dahmer was why he wound up in federal prison, but it was not why he stayed there for the rest of his life. In 1911, he stabbed an inmate who survived the attack. The following year, Stroud was transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary in northeast Kansas. In 1916, he stabbed and killed a guard, for which he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. In 1920, that sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Eleven years before, the citizens of Juneau had widely described Stroud as a cold-blooded killer who deserved the gallows. In 1920, they instead argued that his hanging be commuted to life imprisonment. A petition passed through town, gathering “scores of signatures” from “prominent Juneau people” before being forwarded to President Woodrow Wilson.

The Stroud from before 1920 was, at best, a minor story. It is the Stroud of post-1920 that became famous. As part of his commutation, Stroud was confined to solitary imprisonment. As the legend went, he was strolling the prison yard one day, alone of course, and found some baby sparrows. He fed and nursed them, and along the way became entranced with birds in general.

Soon after, a more lenient and reform-minded warden took over at Leavenworth. He allowed Stroud to expand an interest into a hobby, then a passion. What began as some random baby sparrows became an avian research facility complete with chemicals, cages, a personal secretary, and hundreds of birds over the years. He wrote two books on avian diseases and truly became the Birdman.


His activities and cultivated persona eventually attracted attention, even the support of President Herbert Hoover to allow Stroud’s operation to continue. Yet, the birds and publicity did not change Stroud’s background. He was still the man who had killed twice and tried to kill another. Moreover, he was still the same calculating, mean-spirited person on the inside. When he chose to deploy it, as with the press and celebrities, he possessed an undeniable charm. But guards, staff, and other inmates saw a very different side of the Birdman.

A former inmate said, “That guy was not a sweetheart; he was a vicious killer. I think Burt Lancaster owes us all an apology.” A psychiatrist who spent time with him said, “He described the scores of violence in his life — the killing which constituted the original offense, later the stabbing of a fellow — inmate and then the stabbing and killing of the officer at Leavenworth — in detail and with an apparently sadistic pleasure, repeating the acts symbolically with vigorous motions then laughing.”

Friction with the prison administration escalated until they transferred him to Alcatraz in 1942, but he was no Birdman there except through the past. The movie’s name was a misnomer, as Stroud was never allowed birds at Alcatraz. Still, after Gaddis published his biography in 1955, Stroud was more famous than ever. Influential people lobbied for his release but to no avail.

Production on the film about his life passed without his involvement. The distribution company, United Artists, offered to screen the film at Alcatraz, but Warden James Maroney declined the offer. While he described the film as largely unrealistic, he also suggested that inmates might rather consume entertainment that did not remind them of their current circumstances. In early 1963, Stroud met Lancaster but died later that year without seeing the movie.

Key sources:

Babyak, Jolene. BirdMan: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. Berkeley, CA: Ariel Vamp Press, 1994.

“Both Are Held Without Bail.” (Juneau) Daily Alaska Dispatch, January 21, 1909, 3.

“F.K.F. Von Dahmer Killed in A Quarrel.” (Juneau) Daily Alaska Dispatch, January 19, 1909, 1.


Gaddis, Thomas E. Birdman of Alcatraz: The Story of Robert Stroud. New York: Random House, 1955.

Ganahl, Jane. “‘Alumni’ Revisit the Rock.” San Francisco Chronicle (via SFGate), August 11, 1996.

Miller, Matt. “Where Did the Birdman of Alcatraz Commit His First Murder?” KTOO, August 11, 2017.

“R.F. Stroud and Kitty O’Brien Face the Gallows for Slaying F.K.F. Von Dahmer.” (Juneau) Alaska Weekly Transcript, January 23, 1909, 1.

“Sign Stroud Petition.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, February 10, 1920, 8.

“Two Important Witnesses.” Daily Alaska Dispatch, January 21, 1909, 4.

Untitled article. Juneau Daily Transcript, August 27, 1909, 4.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.