What to my wondering eyes should appear

Just like our sister blog What’s Cookin’ @ Special Collections, this blog has been on WordPress for about 4 years and the platform has been great! Still, it was about time for a new look. This new template should be more responsive and easier to use on mobile devices. You’ll still find the great content we’ve always had – just with a more contemporary look and feel. Thanks for following us and look for some new content tomorrow!

The Words of a Massachusetts Ambulance Driver

Sometimes figuring out a subject for the blog is surprisingly challenging. I like to look at what I’ve done lately, but a lot of that amounts to committee work, organizing incoming materials, and cleaning up data for the catalog and archival management software. And the end of the semester/year is my usual “catch up” time to dig through the piles in my office, problem solve, and return to some on-going projects. Interesting for me, but not “blog” interesting, to be sure–trust me! The most recent collection I processed is the topic of a relatively recent post on “The Sherwood Anderson Odyssey” (if you’re interested in that topic, the finding aid is available online), so there’s no need to re-hash that subject just yet. After a bit of digging through the memory banks, I thought it might be fun to revisit a manuscript collection we acquired in three parts back in 2011: the William Leonard Papers, 1864-1865 (Ms2011-106).

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Inside cover of Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary

William Leonard was born about 1843 in Massachusetts, as were his two sisters, Leonora and Roselia. In his letters, he often mentions Leonora, who he calls “Nora.” He was living with his family in Great Barrington when he was drafted into service in July 1863, supposedly for a three-year term with Company F, 16th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry. The following year, however, the 16th Regiment mustered out and along with the remaining veterans, Leonard was transferred to the 11th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry.

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Page from Leonard’s March 15, 1865 letter to his mother, in which he writes, “You must keep up good courage + not get the blues for we are going to whip them out this Summer. we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. [Ulysses S. Grant] Sheridan [Philip Henry Sheridan] & Sherman [William Tecumseh Sherman] are giveing them fits. I have seen Grant [Ulysses S. Grant] & Mede [George Meade] a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go Soldiering”
The collection includes the 1864-1865 diary of Leonard, along with 35 letters written to his both is parents or specifically to his mother during the same time. His letters indicate that by August 1864 and through Lee’s surrender in April 1865, he served as an ambulance driver, shuttling the wounded from battlefield to hospital, primarily around the Petersburg area.

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The earliest of Leonard’s letters in the collection, dated June 15, 1864. He writes about, among other things, the lack of food, stating, “most of the boys are out of rations again but we are going to draw this morning. I have a few hard tack + Coffe + Sugar yet. they had ought to give us rations for the nights to for they keep us up so much.”

While waiting to muster out in 1865, he was stationed around Washington, DC, where he continued to serve in a driver capacity, often civilians in and around the city. He continually reassures his mother not to worry about it and passes along war news, though he had a distinct lack of interest in the soldier’s life, writing, “we have got a good man to steer the machine, that fellow they call U. S. Grant. Sheridan & Sherman are giving them fits. I have seen Grant & Mede a number of times this summer I had a great deal rather see you + Pa. I dont want to see Nora because she wanted me to go soldiering”

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Pages from Leonard’s 1864-1865 diary, noting “Apr 25 Moving Camp and Washing Ambulances. Fireing a cannon every half hour all day. 13 guns this morning + 32 at night for the death of abram Lincoln President of the U.S. who was shot by a man by the name of Booth”

In spite of his medical association during the war, he does not hesitate to share his opinions on what he sees around him. In a May 1865 letter, he wrote that “The Doctors here dont have any thing fit to give any one and the bigest of them dont know how to doctor a hen anyway. They take the wounded men legs and arms off half the time. when there is no need of it, do it practice there has been a number of times I have heard of that…The Doct of the Regt was a clerk in an apothecary shop…” and the following month, detailing the sight of unburied dead men and horses on the battlefield.

After the war, Leonard returned to Massachusetts. He worked in a local woolen mill and later purchased and ran a plumbing and steam-fitting business. In June 1886, he married Hattie Goodsell (b. 1862). They had at least one daughter (Nellie, b. 1897).  It is unknown when Leonard died, but he does appear on the 1910 census and not on the 1920. Both Hattie and Nellie were boarding with another family in 1920, suggesting William died in the interim. Nellie later married Courtland Sparks and they had a daughter.

Since its acquisition, Leonard’s diary and letters have all be digitized. They are available on our digital platform. The images also include transcripts, which are searchable, in case you want to dig around and see what he talks about most! You can also see the finding aid for the collection online. And, of course, you can always visit us and see Williams’ words in person.

Unionist in Southern Lines: The Life of John Henning Woods

 

Although Thanksgiving has its roots in the 1620’s, the nationally recognized holiday in late November is a product of the American Civil War. After two years of horrific fighting, Abraham Lincoln established the national day of thanks in 1863, encouraging the public to remember those “who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.” Despite the name, the first official Thanksgiving, planned for November 26, 1863, was not a day of celebration. As the Northern people prepared for their proclaimed day of thanks, a battle raged in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unaware of the upcoming holiday,

Battle of Chattanooga, (http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-chattanooga)
Battle of Chattanooga. Image courtesy of History.com

a twenty-nine year old man named John Henning Woods sat in chains behind Confederate lines, listening to the cannon fire. A resident of Alabama, husband to the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, and an outspoken Unionist, Woods had brought nothing but trouble to the Confederate Army of the Tennessee since his conscription in October of 1862. Thankfully, the highly unusual story of his life survives in the form of two journals, one diary, and a three-volume memoir that now reside in Special Collections.

A native of Missouri, Woods was born on July 4, 1834. At the start of the war, he was a law student at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee and husband to a wealthy Alabamian woman. The outbreak of conflict sent him back to Alabama, where he spent his days farming and arguing about the fate of the Union. He ignored his first conscription notice in May of 1862, refusing “to take part with the Slave-holders in this wicked rebellion.” However, the threat of imprisonment in October finally

Page from Woods' memoir, including a drawing of his view of Chattanooga.
Page from Woods’ memoir, including a drawing of his view of Chattanooga.

forced Woods into the ranks of army. His conscription only hardened his pro-Union sentiments, inspiring him and a few other conscripts to pledge “to work against . . . this unprovoked rebellion.” Their so called “Home Circle” attracted an increasingly large number of soldiers, eventually planning a mutiny to take place during a review parade. Before the plan could be enacted, the plot was betrayed and Woods was imprisoned to wait for a trial. His memoirs reveal his experience of the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga as a prisoner, wistfully overlooking the Union camps across the battlefield and wishing to walk across and “embrace the emblems of my country.”

Following his court martial in mid-December, Woods was informed that he was to be executed by firing squad the following day. His memoir includes a moving account of his reaction regarding the news:

I felt a flush through my system, upon the announcement to me, similar in feeling to that of an electric current from a Galvanic battery. . . . I told him I felt prepared to die whenever the proper authority should call for me, — that I thought God’s power is above the power of the Southern Confederacy, and that, notwithstanding the apparent certainty of my pending execution, I believed he would provide means for my escape.

Woods’ faith in God was rewarded, as his execution was delayed at the request of General A.P. Stewart. He was then sent to Confederate prisons at Tullahoma, Wartrace, and Atlanta, awaiting his death once again. As he endured the horrors of imprisonment, his father-in-law and A.P. Stewart mobilized to secure a pardon from Jefferson Davis, a relief that did not come through until just two days before his proclaimed execution date. Following his pardon, Woods was assigned to building defenses around Atlanta until his eventual escape to Union lines, where he spent the remainder of the war as a clerk in the Union army. Unfortunately, the memoirs and journals reveal very little about his life following 1873; however, we do know that he died on March 5, 1901 and is buried in Lawrence Country, Missouri.

Woods' drawing of the Atlanta Prison Barracks
Woods’ drawing of the Atlanta Prison Barracks

The detailed drawings, genealogical trees, and colorful prose that Woods left behind in these journals provide a unique look into the mind and experience of a Unionist Southerner during the war. It is clear through out that he wrote with the knowledge his unique place in history, making it invaluable to researchers. Though the collection is brand new to Special Collections and therefore currently closed to the public, it should be available fairly soon. In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving!

The Political Record in Special Collections

Since the 2016 election was last week, I thought I’d take a look at what political items Special Collections has in our collections. We have papers of politicians, committees, and local interest groups from students at Virginia Tech to U.S. legislators. These are, of course, only a handful of the collections in Special Collections that you may find of interest if you desire to know more about politics and campaigning in the New River Valley, Virginia, and Appalachia, so come down to learn more or contact us with your queries!

William C. Wampler Congressional Papers, Ms1982-003

I mentioned previously the William C. Wampler Congressional Papers, when I discussed our offsite storage in A Look Behind the Glass Door… Part 2. A Virginia Tech graduate, Wampler served nearly two decades in the U. S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s-1980s. His collection contains legislative files, constituent letters, photographs, campaign material, and documents from the house committees he served. Photographs below depict just a portion of the 250-box collection while being inventoried.

Dana Harmon Papers, Ms2011-013

Special Collections is also home to the Dana Harmon Papers, who ran as a Republican in Tennessee in the early 20th century. The two-box collection contains letters, newspaper clippings, family papers, financial papers, and a scrapbook.

Virginia Tech Young Democrats Scrapbook, Ms2014-005

We also have collections related to the Democratic Party in Special Collections. First, we have the Virginia Tech Young Democrats Scrapbook. This collection contains a scrapbook put together by the Young Democrats for 1986 thru 1988. It contains photographs, event programs, newspaper clippings, certificates, newsletters, and local campaign materials. Below are items from the scrapbook.

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The following is the Virginia Tech Young Democrats Constitution, c. 1986:

Montgomery County [Virginia] Democratic Committee Records, Ms1989-061

Next is the Montgomery County, Virginia, Democratic Committee Records. Dating from 1961 thru 1994, this eight-box collection consists of minutes from the county Democratic conventions, correspondence with the state electoral board, committee meeting minutes, materials about candidates and campaigns, newspaper clippings about local political issues, polling and registration information, and assorted publications. While the bulk of the material focuses on the Democratic Party’s issues and candidates, there is also literature about Republican and independent/third-party candidates as well as the League of Women Voters.

 

Capturing Virginia Tech’s past through VT Stories

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Although we have a lot of important records and collections in the university archives that document Virginia Tech’s past, there are still countless stories, traditions and experiences that have never been recorded. But these personal stories are just as important to understanding our history as any document from the President’s office or the Office of Student Affairs. And that’s where the VT Stories project comes in.

Since 2015, a team of current students and faculty have been recording oral history interviews with Virginia Tech alumni, capturing the stories and experiences of VT students from the 1940s all the way up through the past decade. The goal behind this project is to promote engagement between older Hokies and newer Hokies, with current students interviewing alumni to learn their history and make mentoring connections, in addition to sharing and preserving stories from Virginia Tech’s past that may otherwise be lost.

With the public launch of VTstories.org this month, I thought I’d share a little bit about the project and Special Collections’ role. The project was started in 2015 by the President’s Office and is managed by faculty and staff in History, English, TLOS, the Alumni Association, and us here in Special Collections. After the interviews are recorded by the VT Stories team, fully transcribed by a professional transcription service, reviewed by the interviewees, and permissions are granted to share the stories with the public, the master files and documents are deposited in Special Collections. As the completed oral histories trickle in, the full audio and transcripts are uploaded to VT Special Collections Online, where they are available for listening in their entirety.

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Lisa Ellison, Class of 1986, listen to her story here

A lot of the technical skills and workflows that we developed for the VT LGBTQ Oral History Project  are being used for the VT Stories project, including the use of the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer  developed by the University of Kentucky. A good thing too; with over 60 interviews already recorded, and many more planned, it helps having a blueprint for managing an oral history project this big already in place.

Just a handful of the interviews are available online so far, with many more to come in the next few months. In addition to the full audio and transcripts available on our site, VTstories.org features sound clips, photos and write-ups on the interviewees, plus more information about the project and its participants. Check it out!

American Song: A Sign of the Times

<em>These Times They Are A-Changin</em>, Bob Dylan, 1964
These Times They Are A-Changin, Bob Dylan, 1964

Did you hear? (Of course, you did.) Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few weeks ago. As the Nobel committee wrote, it awarded the prize to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” That is a mighty step up for an already valued and valuable tradition that is even more varied than are Dylan’s songs themselves. Political, personal, complicated, narrowly topical, broad and metaphorical, silly, stupid, catchy, maddening, romantic, lyrical, sentimental, commercial: Whatever human emotion, quality, or experience you may think of, there are songs to go along. And when it comes to reflecting, initiating, or participating in social trends, songs are certainly there, too. So, although the occasion of Dylan’s winning the Prize didn’t, by itself, make me think about the sheet music collections we have here at Special Collections, specifically, collections of “popular” music, it did provide some of the impetus that leads me to write just a bit about some of them.

Sheet music has a long history. Printed sheet music goes back almost to Gutenberg, at least in the West, to about twenty years after his printing press. The variety of printed music is nearly endless–church music, orchestral music, opera, dance music, tunes, lieder–so much so that the best definition of sheet music has to do with its description as a physical object. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University offers the following:

On this basis then, sheet music is best described as single sheets printed on one or both sides, folios (one sheet folded in half to form four pages), folios with a loose half-sheet inserted to yield six pages, double-folios (an inner folio inserted within the fold of an outer folio to make eight pages) and double-folios with a loose half-sheet inserted within the fold of an inner folio to produce ten pages.

Honest Old Abe's Quick Step : for the Piano
“Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step : for the Piano” (Published, O. Ditson, Boston, 1860)
Take your gun and go, John. Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers. (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1863)
“Take Your Gun and Go, John, Inscribed to the Maine Volunteers” (Published by Root & Cady, Chicago, 1862)

Some of the earliest popular sheet music we have in our collection dates from around the American Civil War. On the left is a tune published in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign, Honest Old Abe’s Quick Step. On the right, from just a couple of years later is Take Your Gun and Go, John, a song of resignation and sorrow, sung by a wife as her husband leaves for war.

Don’t stop a moment to think John, your country calls then go; Don’t think of me or the children John, I’ll care for them you know.

But take your gun and go John, take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .

And now goodbye to you John I cannot say farewell; we’ll hope and pray for the best John; god’s goodness none can tell.

Be his great arm around you John to guard you night and day; Be our beloved country’s shield till the war has passed away.

Then take your gun and go John take your gun and go, for Ruth can drive the oxen John and I can use the hoe. . . .

This song may be from the Civil War, but just about 150 years after its publication, it still is timely. In 2013, it was recorded and released by Loretta Lynn, and although it is on an album of Civil War-era songs, it does continue to speak. Give it a listen.

Moving into the 20th century, the music publishing business increased dramatically as the theater, music, and entertainment industries grew. With the availability of inexpensive color printing, sheet music for popular songs began to feature colorful covers, illustrations that, along with the music and lyrics, offer an additional window into the contemporary currents of the time. Societal norms with regard to gender and race may be represented, as well as less weighty subjects, such as the sudden fashionability of bicycle riding, or the more significant increase in automobile travel, along with all its attendant themes of freedom, mobility, and romance, among others. World events, also, made their way into the popular song of the day. Consider “America, Here’s My Boy.”

"America, Here's My Boy" (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)
“America, Here’s My Boy” (Published by Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917)

Before listening to the song, what do we see? I don’t know about you, but the sight of “Every American Mother” offering up her son to face what was, by May 1917, well-known carnage, is remarkable. Also, let’s just take a moment to reflect on how the image of American motherhood–even idealized American motherhood–has changed in a hundred years. But America needed men (and boys) to fight, so here was the message, as proclaimed in the chorus of the song:

America, I raised a boy for you.
America, You’ll find him staunch and true,
Place a gun upon his shoulder,
He is ready to die or do.
America, he is my only one; My hope, my pride and joy,
But if I had another, he would march beside his brother;
America, here’s my boy.

If you’re curious, here’s a recording of the song from 1918 by The Peerless Quartet. I should also mention something about this cover that I hadn’t seen and was pointed out to me by a most perceptive student. Apparently, the United States shares a northern border with another country, but has no such neighbor to the south! Mexico, though officially neutral throughout the First World War, shared a difficult, and often openly hostile relationship with the U.S. at the time. On 28 February 1917, a few months before this song was published, the contents of the Zimmerman Telegram was made public by President Woodrow Wilson. The contents of this communication, intercepted and deciphered by the British in January of that year, was sent from the Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, with instructions to propose a military alliance with Mexico, should the U.S. enter the war against Germany. (OK, it’s more complicated than that, but the deal was to involve return to Mexico of land lost to the U.S. in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.) Anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. was already high, and this incident only led to its increase. So, as far as the illustration on the sheet music was concerned, perhaps, geography was taking a back seat to politics.

"Somewhere In France is Daddy" (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)
“Somewhere In France is Daddy” (Published, Howard and LaVar Music, New York, 1917)

Staying with 1917, the title, “Somewhere in France is Daddy,” is just sopping with sadness. As shown on the cover, a young mother, with a framed photo of her soldier-husband in the background, has to explain to her young son why Daddy isn’t home. Daddy, of course, is fighting for home and country, for liberty . . . “somewhere in France” and he “won’t come back/ ‘Til the stars and stripes they’ll tack/ On Kaiser William’s flagstaff in Berlin.”

It’s not quite at the level of . . . “Please Mr. Conductor, Don’t put me off of your train, For the best friend I have in this whole wide world Is waiting for me in vain; Expected to die any moment, And may not live through the day: I want to bid mother goodbye, sir, Before God takes her away” . . . which I know as a Blue Sky Boys song, and which, deservedly, has won every “Saddest Song contest” I’m aware of. But, as the young boy poses the question, he puts this song right up there:

A little boy was sitting on his mother’s knee one day
And as he nestled close to her these words she heard him say
Oh mother dear please tell me why our Daddy don’t come home
I miss him so and you do too, why are we left alone
He tried hard not to cry, as she answered with a sigh

Here are five more sheet music covers from songs associated with World War I. The links below will take you to a recording of the song, if available.

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We Don’t Want the Bacon: What We Want is a Piece of the Rhine” (Shapiro, Bernstein, & Co., New York, 1918) If this link from the Library of Congress is being difficult, try this.

“We’re Going Over” (Joe Morris Music Co., New York, 1917) Again, if this Library of Congress link doesn’t work, try this.

“Loyalty is the Word Today” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

“Over There” (William Jerome Publishing Corp., New York, 1917). If this link from Library of Congress doesn’t work, you can try this.

“Hoe Your ‘Little Bit’ in Your Own Back Yard: Where the Boy Scouts Go, ‘Tis Hoe, Hoe, Hoe” (Great Aim Society, New York, 1917) No recording available

Sheet music may not be what you think of when your looking for a view on culture and society, but it can definitely provide an interesting, if unexpected, part of the picture. What were folks listening to? How was the music presented? How was it received? How did people react to it? When and where was it played? Who wrote it? What’s their story? Special Collections has three collections comprised entirely of sheet music, as well as individually cataloged pieces and occasional pieces in other collections. These links will take you to the finding aid for each collection, which, among other information, will list all the titles in the collection:

Annie M. Hale Sheet Music Collection
Archer Lawrie Sheet Music Collection
Sheet Music Collection

"When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)" (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)
“When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)” (Published, Campbell, Loft, and Porgie, Inc. , 1942)

To end on a more hopeful note, is a song from World War II, written in 1942, in fact. The United States had been at war less than a year, though it had been a long war in Europe already. I didn’t recognize this one from the title, “When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World),” but once I heard it, I knew I had heard it before. It hit #1 on the Pop charts by early ’43. It’s an interesting illustration on the cover. Of course, where is the source of the light located? And, there is the “Buy War Bonds” logo in the lower right. Here’s how the song starts:

When the lights go on again all over the world
And the boys are home again all over the world
And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above
A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello” to love

No more hard rain.

Lastly, to the folks who, given the beginning of this post, thought it might be about some great Bob Dylan stuff we have in Special Collections, I offer my apologies.

The Fugitive Author

Robert Burns Escaped from the Georgia Chain Gangs, Then Strove to Abolish Them

Here in Special Collections, we hold a number of books that have altered the course of history. Such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Communist Manifesto, Common Sense, and Walden have all profoundly shaped human thought and history, and all have places on our shelves.

Today, I want to tell you about another book in our collection that—though not as celebrated as the above examples—has had a significant influence on the course of events. Robert Elliott Burns’s I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!  is an account of the author’s experiences in—and escape from—the Georgia penal system of the 1920s. Burns’s vivid description of the system’s brutality and inhumanity has been credited with spurring 20th-century penal reforms in Georgia and beyond.

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The Special Collections copy of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, a souvenir edition from Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, is inscribed by the author.

A New York City accountant, Burns volunteered for the army when the United States entered World War I. Assigned to a medical detachment with the 14th Railway Engineers, he served mostly at the front from September 1917, until armistice 14 months later. His service took its toll, and, according to his brother, Robert Burns returned home “nervously unstrung and mentally erratic—a typical shell-shock case.” In more recent years, Burns might have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Returning to New York, Burns struggled to rebuild his life, expecting that his military training and service would be valued by potential employers. He soon found, however, that his status as a veteran instead proved a handicap in securing employment. Burns arrived at the same conclusion as many veterans returning from that war and others.

The promises of the Y. M. C. A. secretaries and all the other “fountain-pen soldiers” who promised us so much in the name of the nation and the Government [sic] just before we’d go into action turned out to be the bunk. Just a lot of plain applesauce! Really an ex-soldier with A. E. F. [Amy Expeditionary Forces] service was looked upon as a sucker. The wise guys stayed home—landed the good jobs—or grew rich on war contracts … I went through hell for my country and my reward was the loss of my sweetheart and my position.

Disillusioned, Burns drifted from town to town as a vagrant, alighting in Atlanta in 1922. There, he participated in an armed robbery with two other men. Burns paints himself as a reluctant accomplice in the crime, coerced by the ringleader’s trickery and intimidation. The robbery netted the perpetrators a mere $5.80, and the three were captured 20 minutes afterward.

For his part in the theft, Burns was sentenced to six to ten years at hard labor. Expecting to serve his time in a penitentiary, Burns instead found himself designated for roadwork on a county chain gang. Issued a convict’s striped uniform and shackled with heavy chains, Burns was transported to one of Georgia’s many county prison camps.

Burns describes the Campbell County prison camp as filthy and dehumanizing. The endless days were filled with backbreaking and mind-numbing work; frequent beatings by guards; and subsistence-level, sometimes putrid food. The system made no pretense of reformation but instead sought to inflict harsh punishment and exploit a captive workforce.

One was never allowed to rest a moment but must always be hard at work, and even moving in the mass of chain was painful and tiring—yet if one did not keep up his work greater terrors and more brutal punishment was in reserve. If a convict wanted to stop for a second to wipe the sweat off his face, he would have to call out “Wiping if off” and wait until the guard replied, “Wipe it off” before he could do so.

Dinner came in a galvanized iron bucket …The contents of the iron bucket was boiled, dried cowpeas (not eaten anywhere else but in Georgia) and called “Red beans.” They were unpalatable, full of sand and worms.

Determining that he’d be unable to serve out his time in such conditions, Burns escaped the chain gang after several months. Evading his pursuers, the fugitive made his way to Chicago and arrived there with 60 cents in his pocket. He soon secured employment and began saving money. By 1925, Burns had saved enough to begin publishing The Greater Chicago Magazine, and he became a well-known figure about the city. During his rise to prominence, Burns claims, he was compelled by extortion into an unwanted marriage. Soon after he initiated divorce proceedings in 1929, Burns was arrested as a fugitive—betrayed, he asserts, by his estranged wife.

Citing the law-abiding and productive life that Burns had led in the seven years since his escape, a number of prominent Chicagoans helped Burns fight extradition. Assurances of leniency from Georgia authorities, however, persuaded Burns to voluntarily return. Upon arriving in Georgia, Burns found that the promises of fair treatment soon evaporated. Relegated to Troup County’s prison camp, Burns experienced conditions that were even more primitive and cruel than those he had experienced in Campbell County several years earlier.

After 14 months, Burns made a second escape, and he provides the reader with a step-by-step description of his flight. A natural-born storyteller, Burns keeps the reader in suspense through several close calls and daring risks.

Burns made his way to New Jersey, but, with the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, the success that he’d found in Chicago during the 1920s would elude him. Working at a series of menial jobs and living under an assumed identity, he decided to write a scathing indictment against the penal system from which he’d escaped. “It’s now my life’s ambition to destroy the chain-gang system in Georgia,” he told a friend, “and see substituted in its place a more humane and enlightened system of correction.”

Serialized in True Detective Mysteries magazine in 1931, the fugitive’s story gained national attention. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! was later released in book form and became a bestseller. A popular film adaptation, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, soon followed, netting three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for leading man Paul Muni and Best Picture.

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The Steel Pier Souvenir Edition of Burns’ book features on its end papers several scenes from the film adaptation.

In 1932, Burns was again arrested as a fugitive, but public outcry convinced New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore to refuse extradition to Georgia, and Burns was soon released. In 1945, Burns again voluntarily returned to Georgia and appeared before the parole board, with no less a figure than Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall serving as his counsel. The board commuted Burns’s sentence to time served.

Burns died ten years later, but he lived long enough to witness reforms to the cruel system he opposed. The state of Georgia, spurred perhaps not so much by humanitarianism as by embarrassment, implemented a series of penal reforms in the 1940s. In abolishing the use of chain gangs within the state, Governor Arnall cited Burns’s story as the impetus behind his actions. Though chain gang systems remained in place in other Southern states, their abolition in Georgia signaled the beginning of an incremental change that would accelerate during the civil rights movement.

In Robert Burns, the chain gang system had perhaps created its own worst enemy: an inmate with the background, eloquence, and determination to attack it. His book caused widespread outrage and sparked condemnation of the chain gang system. It is impossible to gauge the influence of I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! within the context of a wider movement for prison reform, and the book certainly didn’t cause the immediate demise of the chain gang system, but it undoubtedly implanted the need for reform in the national consciousness.

In addition to Burns’s book here in Special Collections, the library also holds the film’s screenplay and a videocassette copy of the film.