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.

In Support of the Veterans in Society NEH Summer Institute

Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute website
Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute

For months, co-directors Jim Dubinsky of the English Department and Bruce Pencek of the Library, along with Heidi Nobles have been working to plan and seeking to provide for every detail necessary to make this three-week long NEH-supported Summer Institute for College and University Teachers a reality. This past Monday (the 11th) was the first day in a schedule that will have the 25 extraordinarily accomplished participants from all over the country in Blacksburg this week and in D.C. next week before returning to Blacksburg for the third and final week of the program.

The official name of the Institute is “Veterans in Society: Ambiguities and Representations.” The impressive list of faculty include Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Among his other accomplishments, Shay has served as the Chair of Ethics, Leadership, and Personnel Policy in the office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and, in 2007, received a MacArthur fellowship for his work on trauma and the moral injuries of war. Jim Marten is past president of the Society of Civil War Historians, author many books, including Sing Not War: Civil War Veterans in Gilded Age America and the award-winning The Children’s Civil War. Donna Musil is a documentary filmmaker, writer and activist, whose film, Brats: Our Journey Home will be shown as part of a three-show film series that is open to the public. More about that in a moment. Actually, these are just three of the stellar faculty that are participating in the Institute along with Tech’s own Paul Quigley, Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History; Edward Fox, Professor of Computer Science; and David Cline, also from the History Dept. and who specializes in 20th century U.S. social movements, oral history, and public history. You get the idea . . . and I’ve left all kinds of folks out. For a complete list, see the Institute’s terrific website.

So, what is it that all these fine folks have come to Virginia Tech to discuss and study? Broadly speaking, they are defining the dynamic that may be leading to the emergence of a new interdisciplinary field, that of Veterans Studies. More specifically, the topics range widely, from the ways in which classical literature may play a part in understanding and assisting veterans to the role commemoration and monument building play in cultural memory and the process of reconciliation following war; from the ways in which stories of military service can be captured in oral history to a consideration of the unique perspectives offered by women veterans; from asking, “Who is a veteran?” and considering the social status of veterans to the effects of war on military children and the ways the voices of veterans emerge in music and literature . . . and everything in between and beyond. The reality is that the fact and aftermath of military service define threads that run through every culture, across the generations, and have an impact on the most significant aspects of life and society. Through the seminars, presentations, and activities listed on the Institute’s syllabus, the participants will seek to investigate these and other questions, while defining the beginnings of individual research projects.

Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute
Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute

On their second full day in Blacksburg, the members of the Institute had an opportunity to hear about collections of primary sources that may be of interest to them at Special Collections. We set up a display of a few documents and other items and, after a brief introduction, made that exhibit available to them, and to the library community for much of the week. While some of the materials have been displayed before, there were several items that have not been exhibited in recent memory.

Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057
Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057

For example, to the right is a scan of a letter written in 1907 by Theophilus Cocke of Carroll County, Virginia. Mr. Cocke was a veteran of the Mexican War (!) writing about the provisions of a new pension bill that would raise his allotment from $12 per month to $20.

In a letter written from Kansas in June 1865, H. E. Norton complained that veteran members of his Michigan Brigade were due to be mustered out following the end of the Civil War, but were instead sent west. He writes, “[I]t is Generally Believed that the Michigan Brigade was Basely sold by the Governor of the State of Michigan for we could never have been transfered to this Dept. if he had not consented to it.” Norton ended up in Nebraska Territory. Extended tours are, apparently, nothing new.

From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland
From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland

Once in Washington, the Summer Institute participants will spend a day at the Library of Congress and visit Arlington National Cemetery. They’ll talk about the LC’s Veterans History Project and stop at the Confederate memorial, Arlington House, and the U.S. Colored Troops graves. On the way back to Blacksburg, they’ll stop at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

Back in town, there will be more seminars, more opportunity to explore topics of interest, and to discuss ideas with the other participants. More time to check out primary sources.

Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night
Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night

There is also a public component to all of this. The Institute is sponsoring a Free Movie Night. The showing of Coriolanus has already gone, but on July 21st they will be showing The Best Years of Their Lives, a terrific, Oscar-winning movie about returning World War II vets, and on July 25th will be a showing of Brats: Our Journey Home, the documentary mentioned above, with writer and director Donna Musil on hand. These shows begin at 7PM in the MultiPurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library. Again, the public is invited and admission is free!