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What The Film, “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” Got Wrong, by Rodger Jackson, provides a very detailed discussion of how Burns’ book and the Hollywood movie differ. 

The primary source on this story is Robert Burns' own book I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, which has been reprinted many times.  The book is excellent and easy to read.  One can't help but feel a bit manipulated by the book, since Burns is trying to convince you of his case.  It is easy to forget while reading it that he did commit a crime. (1932, Vanguard Press, New York)

His brother Vincent followed up with a similar book, The Man Who Broke a Thousand Chains (1968, Accropolos Books, Washington, D.C.)  This book picks up where his brother left off.  While critically a better written book, I found it to be a bore. 

The New York Times featured many articles on Robert Burns.  Here are some of the more significant stories:

  • "Chain-Gang Convict Fights Extradition" - December 16, 1932, page 3, column 6
  • "Police Here Claim Chain Gang Fugitive" - December 18, 1932, page 3, column 1.
  • "Burns Extradition is Widely Opposed" - December 10, 1932, page 40, column 2.
  • "Burns Extradition Refused by Moore" - December 22, 1932, page 1, column 4.
  • "Georgia 'Outraged' by Burns Decision" - December 23, 1932, page 7, column 1.
  • "Fugitive Burns Goes to Georgia" - November 1, 1945, page 40, column 1.
  • "Georgia Frees Burns, 'Fugitive from Chain Gang,' After 23 Years" - November 2, 1945, page 21, column 3.
  • "R.E. Burns Dead; Fled Chain Gang" - June 7, 1955, page 33, column 1.

No, not that one.  The other one.

I am a firm believer that if you commit a crime, you should be prepared to serve the time.  And, if you get nabbed, the time should be proportional to the severity of the crime.  Which leads us to the story of a slight, bookish man named Robert Burns who achieved great fame in the earlier part of the twentieth century for his incredible escapes from the arms of the law.  His book I am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang was a runaway bestseller.  His life story became the subject of two Hollywood movies, the original of which was nominated for three Academy Awards. 

Burns started his life out in a similar way to most people.  He was a law-abiding citizen who was a hard worker and held a steady, well-paying job.  When the United States entered World War I, he gave up all to fight for his country.  Upon his return, he was unable to get his life back together and became somewhat of a drifter.  He moved from job to job, city to city, eventually finding his way to Atlanta, Georgia in 1922.

While in Atlanta, two strangers, known today only as Flagg and Moore, asked Burns if he would like to make some easy money.  With just a few coins in his pocket, he agreed to meet them back there the next day.  Yet, Burns was eager to get to New Orleans to witness Mardi Gras and decided to blow them off.  He jumped the next train, but was quickly spotted and made a run for it.  Failing to board that train was a fateful move that would haunt Burns until the day that he died.

The next day, Burns met up with the two men in an effort to get his share of the money.  What he didn't know was that these two lowlifes had been planning a robbery.  Burns wanted nothing to do with it, but Flagg pulled out a gun and forced Burns to be part of the holdup.  They targeted a Jewish store owner who was rumored to be carrying a big wad of bills and held the guy up at gunpoint.  The three men netted a total of $5.80 from the robbery and were arrested twenty minutes later. 

The court did not look favorably upon these men and their crime.  Flagg, the supposed mastermind of this botched robbery, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of ten to fifteen years.   Moore received one term of eight to twelve years.  For his first offense, Burns received the shortest sentence of six to ten years of hard labor.

Hard labor meant time on the Georgia chain gang.  Upon arrival at the Fulton County chain gang, steel shackles were immediately placed around Burns’ ankles to make sure that he couldn't go anywhere.  At night, a “building” chain ran from one end of the building to the other, passing right through a chain attached to each prisoners shackles.  Conditions in these camps were deplorable and the physical work brutal.  Burns was certain that he would die there.  After just two weeks in prison, Burns concluded that if he was going to die, he might as well do it while trying to escape.

Burns requested a transfer to the Campbell County chain gang where he felt his chances of escape were greater.  The conditions on this chain gang were equally deplorable, except that, unlike Fulton County, the workers were not chained together while working the roads.  Once on the Campbell County gang, Burns next had to deal with the problem of getting the shackles off.  In an effort to bend the shackles, he enlisted the help of another gang member to whack each shackle with several precise blows of a sledgehammer. 

June 21, 1922, the longest day of the year, was the day that he chose to break out.  Burns gave the standard chain gang  “Getting Out of Here!” yell to a guard to indicate the need for a bathroom break.  He went into the bushes and quickly slipped the shackles over his feet and made a run for it.  Guards shot at him and dogs were at his feet for hours.  He ran and ran, through the rivers, swamps, woods, and fields.  That evening he came upon a paved highway and hitched a ride to Atlanta and then on to freedom.

Burns took up residence in Chicago and lived an honest life, if you exclude the very fact that he was a fugitive from the law.  With money that he earned from real estate investments with his first wife Emily, he started the Greater Chicago Magazine and started moving in more influential circles. 

Life was very good for Robert Burns.  But, as they say, all things good must ultimately come to an end.  And they certainly did for Burns.  Burns fell in love with another woman and asked Emily for a divorce.  She refused and, having had some knowledge of his criminal background, turned him into the authorities.  Burns was arrested a few days later.

This unusual case generated quite a bit of sensation in the press and brought Burns some much needed bargaining power in getting his sentence reduced.  It was verbally agreed that if Burns voluntarily returned to Georgia, he would only have to serve forty-five to ninety days on the chain gang and would be automatically paroled or pardoned after that.  In addition, he would not have to wear the shackles and would serve only in a clerical capacity. 

Seven years and five days after his escape, Burns was returned right back to the chain gang in Campbell County.  As a promised, he was made a trusty with light duties.  About one month later, after Burns’ celebrity status died down, there was a quick turn of events.  He was transferred to the chain gang in Troup County, put back in shackles, and ordered to do hard labor.  The State of Georgia’s promise of a parole never materialized.  His case came up for a hearing on July 9, 1930, but no decision was handed down.  Burns felt battered, beaten, and bitter about the whole situation. 

As a model prisoner, Burns had once again been elevated to being a trustworthy member of the chain gang and no longer had to wear the shackles.  He decided to take advantage of his newfound trust and make another run for freedom.  On one of his routine water runs, he met a man that was sympathetic to his case.  For the bargain price of sixty bucks, which was a lot of money during the Depression, Burns was able to arrange his escape with the man.  September 4, 1930 was the day that Robert Burns pulled off his second successful escape from the chain gang. 

Burns made his way to Newark, New Jersey and spent the next two years living in that area under various assumed names.  During this time, with the help of his brother Vincent, the escapee cranked out a six part serial exposing the horrors of the Georgia chain gang system to the world.  Initially published in the pages of True Detective Mysteries, the story was revised and published as the best-selling book I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!  For obvious reasons, the book and its accompanying 1932 Academy Award nominated movie I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang were banned from the state of Georgia.

All of a sudden, Burns was in high demand.  He let his fame go to his head and became somewhat careless at hiding his identity and whereabouts.  To promote the film, Burns started making personal appearances in theaters near his home.  Almost immediately, the police were on his tail.  Newark police arrested Robert Burns on December 15, 1932.

Would he go free?  Should he be returned to Georgia?  Should he serve out his time?  These were questions to which no one at the time knew the answers. 

The Governor’s office in New Jersey was deluged with letters and telegrams from all over the country in support of Burns.  The State of Georgia, on the other hand, wanted him back to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore heard the arguments for both sides of this highly unusual case.  On December 21, 1932, the Governor announced his decision. 

Drum roll, please…

Governor Moore refused to sign the extradition papers.  In order to assure his freedom, all Burns basically had to do was remain in New Jersey and pray that future governors were also sympathetic to his case.
The fallout from the Burns case created quite the stir back in Georgia.  While the state initially denied all the claims of the cruelty described in the book and movie, a 1933 investigation by the Georgia Legislature found many of the conditions to be even more deplorable.  Initially, the chain gang system was reorganized, but was ultimately outlawed completely in 1937.

Over the next fifteen years, Burns was a model citizen, became a tax consultant, married, and raised four children.   In 1943, Ellis Arnall took office as the Georgia’s new governor and was sympathetic to Burns’ case.  For two years, Arnall sought a full pardon for Burns, but could not secure one unless Burns returned to Georgia and surrendered to authorities.  During this time, major reforms were made to Georgia’s penal system.  While facing the risk of more jail time, Burns placed his trust in the governor and voluntarily returned to Georgia in an effort to finally clear his name.  On November 1, 1945, twenty-three years after the robbery, the Board of Pardons and Paroles let Burns off for his time served.  Burns was now a free man, one that was finally able to enjoy all that life had to offer. 

While he was able to escape from the chain gang and survive on the lam for many years, Burns could not escape the ravages of life itself.  He died from cancer on June 10, 1955 with the satisfaction of knowing that one man really could change an unjust system.

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