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Tom McGee’s Back on the Chain Gang – Podcast #161

I can say with almost certainty that you have never heard of Tom McGee, at least not the Tom McGee that I am about to tell you about. For a brief period between 1928 and 1930, his story would appear in newspapers across the United States. This is a bit surprising since Tom was the type of person that few people would have ever taken notice of. Tom had no known family, no true friends to speak of, could never find suitable employment, was illiterate, and his home was “under the stars.” In fact, it was his down-on-his-luck story that brought him to national attention.

During the evening of Wednesday, February 8, 1928, 32-year-old Tom McGee walked into an Atlanta, Georgia police station and calmly told Captain A. J. Holcombe, “I want to go back to the chain gang. I was released from the River camp several weeks ago and Warden Claud Mills told me that if I ever got out of a job to come down to the police station and they would send me back to the gang.”

Considering the horrific reputation that the Georgia chain gang had, to any outsider Tom’s request seemed insane. Men were desperate to escape from the chain gang, not to get back to it. Robert Burn’s 1932 book “I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang,” one of my favorite books of all time, told in detail of his harsh treatment while on the chain gang. This book and the Academy Award-nominated movie based on it are credited with bringing the cruelty of the chain gangs to national attention, ultimately leading to their complete outlaw in 1937.

So there Tom McGee stood before Captain Holcombe pleading to be sent back to the chain gang. The problem was that Tom had committed no crime. Holcombe explained, “Well, we can’t send you for absolutely no reason at all, you know.”

Tom replied, “But, cap’n, if you won’t send me up for vagrancy, excuse me a minute and I’ll go out and steal something. That’s how I got in before. And I’m hungry.”

Holcombe handed Tom some cash and told him to go next door and purchase some food. He figured that would fill Tom’s stomach and would put an end, at least temporarily, to Tom’s desire to return to the chain gang. Tom took the money and went to get something to eat.

Before we continue, let me first state that all of Tom’s previous crimes had been minor offenses. His first time on the chain gang was the result of him stealing a mail sack. While there, Tom discovered his true calling in life. The guards there kept a litter of pigs, along with a few hogs, and Tom found immense joy in caring for these animals.

After his release, Tom was miserable and wanted nothing more than to go back and care for the hogs. His solution was to commit petty crimes which would result in him being sent back to the chain gang. The first of these was the theft of a red lantern that belonged to the city. Tom pleaded with the judge for a one-year sentence on the chain gang and was disappointed when he only assigned him a six-month stint.

For his next offense, he walked up to an officer on Marietta Street and asked to be sent back to the chain gang. The officer explained to Tom that he needed to commit a crime first. So, Tom took a few steps, picked up a brick, and heaved it through a plate-glass window. He then stated, “Now, I reckon you’ll send me up for burglary.” Once again, Tom did not receive the lengthy sentence that he desired. Tom requested five years and the judge sent him away for twelve months. Tom said, “You get food and clothes and plenty to do at the River camp and that’s all any man could want.”

Tom McGee
Syndicated photograph of Tom McGee that appeared on page 17 of the January 2, 1930 publication of the Munster Times.

Now that I’ve given you a bit of background on Tom, let’s return to that February 8, 1928 evening when Captain Holcombe gave him some money to get a meal. It didn’t work. Tom soon returned to the police station. “I still wanta to go, cap’n. I had such a good job at the River camp. Warden Mills is the finest man in the world. When I was at the gang I had lots of work to do, but he always had plenty of clothes and plenty to eat, too. Feedin’ the hogs and cows was my job.” Holcombe clearly felt sorry for Tom, but there was little that he could do. Tom walked out into the darkness.

Two days later, Tom approached Officer Hambrick at Atlanta’s Five Points intersection and asked if it was a crime to steal a red lantern. Hambrick gave the obvious answer of “Sure,” and added, “If you did that I would be obliged to lock you up on a charge of larceny.” At that very moment, Tom pulled out from under his coat a red lantern that he had stolen from the Georgia Power Company and stated, “O.K. Call the wagon.” While being booked, Tom unsuccessfully tried to convince the recorder to increase his bond from $100 to $300, which is approximately $4,600 adjusted for inflation.

Tom may have not gotten his bond increased, but he was sentenced to another six-month stint on the chain gang. This allowed him to be with the only friend that he thought that he had, Warden Mills, and to do the one thing that he truly was good at; to feed and care for his hogs.

By June of that year, Tom was once again a free man. Then, on Wednesday, June 20, 1928, Tom was hauled into city court and charged with vagrancy. He pleaded with Judge Jesse M. Wood to give him a two-year sentence on the chain gang. He was disappointed when Judge Wood determined that six months would suffice.

This short sentence placed Tom back on the streets of Atlanta by January 1929. He was destitute and truly missed his hogs. Then, on Saturday, February 16, 1929, Tom once again wandered into the police station and demanded that he be charged with larceny. His crime? Once again, he had stolen a red lantern.

Tom pleaded with Lieutenant J. A. Scott to arrest him, but Scott declined, claiming that he had no time to appear in court. While Scott was uninterested in arresting him, he did suggest that Tom go out on the street and find a patrolman who would arrest him. And that was exactly what Tom did. He once again located Officer Hambrick at Five Points, who proceeded to arrest him. On March 4, Tom pleaded guilty before Judge Wood and was sentenced to ten months at the River camp. Again, Tom was disappointed with this sentence. He told Judge Wood, “Trouble is that your sentences ain’t long enough.” He had requested (2) ten-month sentences. According to the Atlanta Constitution, this would be Tom’s seventh trip to the chain gang, although it is clear that he was being given preferential treatment at the River camp because his crimes had been so petty.

He was released on December 1. Tom was a lost man. Unable to find employment, he walked into the police station during the morning of Wednesday, December 18, and asked to be returned to the River camp on a charge of disorderly conduct. Recorder Murphy Holloway could not justify sentencing Tom on a charge that he made up against himself and Tom was released.

Tom wasn’t about to give up. He was again back before Recorder Holloway on Saturday. This time he used his old trick to get back on the chain gang: he stole another red lantern. He told Hollway, “The River camp is the only home that I have ever had and if you won’t send me out I’ll violate the law where the county police have charge and go before another judge who will send me there.” Tom continued, “The only way I can have a happy Christmas is to be at the River camp feeding the hogs.” But, Holloway wasn’t buying it. He found “insufficient reason for imprisonment,” although officers were kind enough to let Tom spend Saturday night in a police headquarters’ cell. Tom wished to stay in that cell until Monday and predicted, “at that time something must happen. I’ve been away from the camp almost a month now and the hogs must be getting terribly thin while I’m tryin’ to get back.”

Upon Tom’s release Sunday morning, he was desperate to find a way to get back to his hogs. His old trick of stealing a red lantern had clearly failed, so he needed to do something that would result in a definite conviction. After pounding the pavement for hours, he stopped in front of Berman’s Men’s Shop at 14 Decatur Street, picked up a heavy rock, and then threw it through the window. He proceeded to steal a shirt valued at $1.65. (Approximately $25 today.)

Tom’s next move was to go down the street to Five Points and question Officer Paul Jones as to what he would do if a man broke a store window and stole a shirt. Jones replied, “I’d lock him up.” Tom then stated, “Well, that’s what I did” and then pulled the stolen shirt out from under his coat. Jones immediately arrested Tom and he was locked up on a burglary charge.

Tom was about to learn that he had finally gone too far. He was brought before Recorder A. W. Callaway on Monday morning. Tom explained to Callaway, “I’m not crazy, Judge. I just haven’t got any other home and I wanta go back to the River camp where the hogs are waiting to be fed.”

Harry and Hyman Berman, owners of the Decatur Street men’s shop, opted not to testify against Tom at the hearing, since they felt that he could “easily obtain his Christmas present — a commitment to the gang — without them.” Harry Berman continued, “We do wish, however, that he’d chosen a larger and more prosperous place to plunder.” The brothers did not have insurance and the estimated cost to replace the broken window was $75 (approximately $1,150 today). Hyman stated, “I’m not one to hold a grudge, and I wish Tom well in his attempt to get back to the only home he knows.” Harry added, “We’ll just have to charge it, I guess, to a gift for Tom McGee.”

At the end of the hearing, Recorder Callaway decided not to send Tom back to the camp. Instead, he referred the case to the Fulton County grand jury, who would not hear Tom’s case until after the New Year. Tom immediately realized that he would be unable to spend Christmas with the hogs and pleaded with Callaway, “Those fellows out there — Aaron Thompson, Warden, and Tony Gilbert and J. W. Dollar, the guards, need me and I’m going to get there as soon as possible.”

Tom, who believed that he hadn’t a friend in the outside world, suddenly found out that he did have some. A group of people familiar with Tom’s love for his hogs learned that he would be spending Christmas Day in jail and made a last-minute Christmas Eve appeal to Fulton County Superior Court Judge John D. Humphries requesting that Tom be permitted to spend Christmas up at the River camp. Humphries agreed to do so and Tom placed his signature, a simple “X,” on the documentation.

Yet, it was too late to get Tom up to the River camp. Darkness had begun to set in and the steep, slippery roads proved far too dangerous to travel on. Early the next morning, a deputy sheriff drove Tom to the River camp, giving him plenty of time to feed the hogs their Christmas breakfast. At the end of a great day, Tom was returned to Fulton Tower, the nickname for the Fulton County Jail, to await the outcome of his case.

Fulton Tower. (Georgia State University Library image.)

On Wednesday, January 8, 1930, Tom stood before Superior Court Judge Virlyn B. Moore and pleaded guilty to the charge of burglary. Judge Moore made it clear that he would not be going easy on Tom. Moore felt that Tom was making a mockery of the prison system and that no one should desire to be a part of it. He wanted to make sure that Tom finally got a bad taste for prison life. Moore handed down a sentence of two to three years, although it was up to the prison commission to determine where he would serve his time. They ultimately decided to send Tom to a different prison camp. Tom would never get to see his beloved hogs again.

I’ve known this story for several years, but I felt that my research had been incomplete. I had a sticky note attached to the file on which I wrote, “No Definite Ending.” Once or twice a year, I’d pick up the folder and start searching the various databases for more information, but I never found out how this story ended. That all changed a few weeks ago. I stumbled across Tom’s name in the Georgia Central Register of Convicts on Ancestry. And it offered the worst of worst endings:

Entry for Tom McGee in the Georgia Central Register of Convicts.
Entry for Tom McGee in the Georgia Central Register of Convicts. Entry spanned across two pages.

According to the one-line entry in the volume, Tom was admitted to that state’s prison in Talbot on January 12, 1930. I now had a physical description of him: Tom was a 39-year-old white male (older than what the press had been reporting), stood 5’7” tall (170 cm), weighed 180 lbs. (81.6 kg), had black hair, and blue eyes. His crime was burglary and he was scheduled to be released on November 12, 1931. But that date was crossed out and something was written to the right of it. It took me a few moments to decipher the handwriting. It read, “Accidentally killed by truck, September 23, 1930.”

Now that I had the date of his death, a quick search of the newspapers of the day revealed why I had not found the articles reporting his death before. Instead of McGee, the articles all had misspelled his last name as McGhee. The stories explained that Tom had been seated on the back of a convict camp truck when it suddenly jerked, throwing Tom from his seat, running over him, and breaking his neck. Tom was then buried in a potter’s field.

I’ll leave you with one final quote, which was part of an Associated Press story describing Tom McGee’s untimely death: A camp official stated, referring to the hogs, that “they never thrived better than when Tom was looking after them.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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