The Breaking of the Chains: The Legacy of Robert E. Burns

by Marula

R.E. Burns Book Cover
Cover of the book,
by Robert Elliott Burns
For those of you not familiar with the story of Robert Elliott Burns, it is a tale of injustice and cruelty that shocked the American public. The story begins with Brooklyn-born Burns returned from World War I a shell-shocked victim of the atrocities of war. A victim of disillusionment and suffering from his mental condition, Burns wandered aimlessly through the country. Living in flophouses and leading a hobo-like life, Burns claimed he was tricked into participating in a petty robbery where apparently a meager sum of $5.81 was taken. Convicted of this crime Burns was sentenced to six to ten years on a Georgia chain gang. After suffering the unbelievably cruel conditions of the prison chain gang, he escaped, was recaptured and escaped again. Burns wrote the now famous story in 1931. There is no doubt that Burns' book caused a stir. Almost immediately after being published, it was picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie - a project that attracted a leading director and leading star of the time.

Burns' story as told in I Am A Fugitive From The Georgia Chain Gang was an unbelievable tale of a man caught up in a system of cruelty and injustice. The book, and the film made from it, makes the point that such a system of injustice degrades not only its victims but also everyone associated with it. Within the prisons of his time, the aim was not just to punish the guilty for crimes they may have committed, but to utterly destroy them. It has been argued that this system of justice was used to not just punish criminals, but to warehouse and exploit "undesirable" elements of society - the poor, and minorities. It was not a system of justice as much as it was a brutal system of social control.

But did I Am a Fugitive From The Georgia Chain Gang actually help to bring about the reform of the southern penal system? Unfortunately, there is very little direct historical evidence to support that this is the case. However, there can be no denying that the book, and the film made from it, did draw public attention to the issue. And perhaps this social awareness did have an impact even if we cannot measure it. It can certainly be argued that Burns' book and the movie did inform the American public of the inside, dirty details of an atrocious penal system during a time of other social reforms. "Warner Brothers, which made the movie, was self-consciously moving into the arena of social reform with that picture and others, while Paul Muni said in a 1932 interview that he "would have been something less than human not to have seized the chance to expose such evil in I Am a Fugitive." (1) The studio apparently recognized that the time was right to release such a picture to the theater-going public.

In his forward to the Brown Thrasher Edition of the book, Matthew Mancini states that the immediate result of the popularity of Burns' story was "to harden Georgia's resolve to get Burns back, and to turn aside calls for prison reform as the rantings of misinformed Yankee outsiders." Burns had effectively embarrassed state officials and put them on the defensive. (1) To have taken steps to address the issues raised in the book and the film would have been tantamount to admitting fault and no official associated with Georgia's penal system was going to allow that to happen under such public scrutiny.

Mancini argues that "It was not humanitarianism, but face, that Governor Arnall himself emphasized when he represented Burns before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. "If I am to get credit for anything during my administration," he contended, "I believe that I have helped the state's reputation abroad." (2) It seems Arnall was chiefly concerned with saving face for Georgia more than he was concerned with instituting any reform policies. However, in an interview fifty years later, when arguing in defense of a system that has been proven over time to be cruel and unjust would not be popular let alone politically astute, Arnall commented that he had indeed committed himself to reforming Georgia's prison system after viewing the movie in 1932. (2) But whether these statements are indeed fact or the utterances of a politician looking to save face for both state and office is difficult to argue. And this seems to be the only direct link to Burns' story and prison reform. Though it is interesting to note that fifty years after the fact, Arnall thought it politically astute to mention that Burn's story was a direct influence on his reform action. It is a testament to the fact that, if nothing else, the impact of Burns' story has endured.

To understand the system that Burns found himself trapped in and to assess the impact, if any, his story may have had on penal reform one needs to look at the history of the southern penal system. For nearly a century after the Civil War, the State of Georgia treated its convicted felons harshly, first leasing them to private companies and later working them on county roads. In fact, at the time Burns was sentenced, Georgia did not have an actual prison. It had not had one since 1874, and would not acquire one until 1938. Under the influence of the social upheavals of that era, Georgia's penal system became a system that had nothing to do with punishment and reform and became focused on the profits to be gleaned from a source of exploited, cheap labor. It was also a brutally effective method of social control.

The Legacy of R.E. Burns by Marula
These 2 pics were taken by photo journalist Ed Clark for a story on prison chain gangs. Ed Clark got exclusive permission from the Georgia governor to enter prison camps, much to the dismay of prison wardens, in 1943. By 1943 little had changed in the southern penal system and these accurately portray conditions that would have existed in the 1930's.

"Georgia embraced the concept of the penitentiary as a form of social control earlier than most of its southern neighbors. Its penal code of 1816 replaced or curtailed such traditional punishments as whipping, the pillory, fines, or death. Georgia's control over felony convicts effectively began in 1817, when the state prison at Milledgeville accepted its first convict." (3)

Martha A. Myers, in her research, also found that Georgia led the South in embracing the convict lease system as an alternative to incarceration. In Race, Labor, and Punishment in the New South, she examines the social, political, and economic forces that shaped punishment over a seventy-year period. Between 1870 and 1940, Georgia's system of punishment shifted from capital and corporal punishment to hard labor in the penitentiary, then to the convict lease system, then to county-run chain gangs, and then back to incarceration in prison. (3)

The post-Civil War era in Georgia was a time of social and administrative chaos. This problem was not exclusive to Georgia - these conditions existed throughout the entire South. Legislation was passed that effectively created a system of prisons that leased convicts to private individuals and corporations. During the first forty or fifty years following the Civil War, southern states leased prisoners for private exploitation to coal mines, turpentine farms, sawmills, phosphate pits, and brickyards. Two factors led to this system - the first being an unwillingness to expend scarce resources on building new prisons. Most Southern states had no prison buildings at all as we understand them. Those few that did exist, prisons in States like Texas and Arkansas, were minor facilities. Small and understaffed, they had little impact on the penal system.

The second and probably the most influential factor on the Southern penal system was the white fears generated by the new rights and assertiveness of former slaves. (4) Matthew Mancini and Martha Myers both agree that the convicts themselves filled the niche left vacant after the abolition of slavery. Convicts now provided the labor the newly slaveless South needed. (1/3)

It was this second factor, the social climate of the times, that led to the brutalities that Burns brought to public attention in his book. Lichtenstein argues that petty crimes that whites would have overlooked during slavery now resulted in ridiculously lengthy sentences for both the black and indigent populations. Add to this the fact that the private entities contracted to maintain and guard convicts did so with little or no controls on how this was to be carried out. The convict lease system by its very nature would quickly degenerate into a system of out of control brutality. It was a system that encouraged the private individuals and corporations that leased the convicts to work prisoners to the extremes while providing little incentive for humane treatment. If a convict died, another one was always available from the "penitentiary" for the same low price. Critics of convict leasing at the time objected to the profits being reaped by those favored "lessees" at the expense of the rest of the public. However, these critics of the time were not concerned with the treatment of the convicts but rather who was benefiting from the convict lease system. The result was to "employ" convicts to improve the South's roadways and beleaguered infrastructure after the Civil War. This made critics of the time happy because convict labor would now benefit all the people. It was from this time of social crisis and administrative chaos that the chain gang on which Burns found himself sentenced to hard time was born.

The results of this penal system were horrific. By the time Burns found himself a victim of the convict lease system in 1921, conditions had deteriorated to inhumane depths, reducing convicts to mere pseudo-slaves suffering at the hands of private individuals on whom there were no controls. Prisoners were scattered all over the state in small squads and large gangs. The mostly black convict population endured conditions as brutal as anything you could imagine: foul living conditions, meager portions of putrid food, unbelievable backbreaking labor, and brutal punishments with whip and stocks, and sometimes literally torture.
scene from
starring Paul Muni
States maintained little or no oversight of their chain gangs. In the 1930s, for example, three prison commissioners in Atlanta feebly monitored conditions in over 150 county chain gangs in Georgia. "When civil rights activist Bayard Rustin spent a month on a North Carolina chain gang in 1947, he reported conditions that had changed little over the decades. Convicts labored, ate, and slept with chains riveted around their ankles. Prisoners worked under the gun from sunup to sundown, shoveling dirt at fourteen shovelfuls a minute, a killing pace. They ate bug-infested, rotten food and slept in unwashed bedding, often in wheeled cages nine feet wide by twenty feet long containing eighteen beds. Medical treatment and bathing facilities were unsanitary, if available at all." (4)

"Corporal punishment and outright torture, casual blows from rifle butts or clubs, whipping with a leather strap, confinement in a 'sweat-box' under the southern sun, and hanging from stocks or bars followed from the most insignificant transgressions. With the exception of a few 'trusties,' all the guards and certainly all the wardens in the South were white: thus African-Americans, who remained the majority of chain gang prisoners, were singled out for punishment. Rustin correctly concluded that the chain gang's ultimate purpose was to degrade and brutalize." (4)

Mancini, Myers and Lichtenstein all point out that as this convict lease system continued to provide the cheap labor perceived to be necessary to replace the slave population, and proved profitable for the individuals running the chain gangs, the "prison" population swelled. Sentences became longer, younger convicts were sentenced for ridiculously long periods of time to provide strong cheap labor, and eventually the sentence one received had little to do with any crime committed and more to do with economic status, race and age. As the numbers of convict workers increased, by the 1890s growing to ten times its pre-Civil War size, conditions deteriorated. "Escape and death rates together averaged six percent annually - a condition that was to continue, unbelievably, for forty years." (1)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing facts about this penal system is the fact that it was actually illegal, operating contrary to the laws of the time. As Mancini points out, in his forward to the Brown Thrasher Edition of the book, a state statute of 1879 outlawed it, and two separate decisions of the state supreme court reaffirmed the ban, but this had absolutely no effect on the practice and it continued as if no such decisions had been made. As late as 1908, Georgia's Prison Commission was still complaining to the governor that it had "for ten consecutive years, in each of its annual reports, reported such (county) chain gangs to the General Assembly as being organized and conducted illegally, and contrary to law, and that it had no power or authority to break them up, or impose fines." (Joseph S. Turner to Hoke Smith, 16 September 1908, Hoke Smith papers, Russell Memorial Library, University of Georgia, Athens).

During the time of the Great Depression the general public was made aware of the horrors of the South's penal system and the use of chain gangs. Burns' book and the film "cast instant national disgrace upon Georgia's penal system and made Burns a popular hero, a white everyman struggling against bureaucratic indifference and state-sanctioned cruelty." (4)

Burns' story was not the only one to emerge. Other accounts, focusing more on the plight of black prisoners, also started to become known. In 1932, radical investigative reporter John Spivak talked his way into Georgia's convict camps and published a thinly fictionalized novel about the chain gang entitled Georgia Nigger. This book of Spivak's came complete with photographs documenting the shocking tortures he had observed. "By the mid-thirties the International Labor Defense (ILD) pledged itself to defend anyone who escaped from a southern chain gang, white or black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made common cause with the ILD when it successfully defended an escaped African-American convict, Jesse Crawford, against extradition to Georgia." (4)

scene from
starring Paul Muni
This was the system that Burns' found himself mired in. Finding conditions to be unendurable, he devised an escape plan and succeeded in fleeing the camp to which he had been sentenced. In order to fully understand what effect Burns' story may have had on penal reform in the South, it is necessary to look at the events that followed his escape and the public attention these events drew.

Making his way to Chicago, Burns proceeded to literally reinvent his life. Becoming a successful businessman, over seven years he entered the publishing business, successfully launching a new magazine. He married Emily, a woman who he described as extremely jealous. Finding out about his past, and furious that he was seeing another woman, Emily turned him over to the authorities. The fact that he had established himself as a high-profile and successful businessman caused a flurry of media interest when he was rearrested.

Against the advice of his lawyer, Burns accepted a deal with Georgia officials, which was supposed to have meant serving out ninety days as a "trusty", avoiding hard labor and ultimately receiving a pardon. It did not work out that way. The Georgia officials reneged on the promises made and Burns once again found himself trapped in the horrors of the chain gang camp. Burns attributed this betrayal to the fact that his exposure of the chain gang system had recently appeared in True Detective Mysteries and had embarrassed the state. Whether this is true or not, when Burns' ninety days were up, the Georgia Prison Commission insisted he work for one more year before he could be considered for any act of clemency and ultimately, when the year had passed, denied his request for a pardon.

On September 4, 1930, Burns escaped again making his way to New Jersey. It was during this time that he wrote his book and became famous for his experiences. His arrest in Chicago in 1929 and his second escape from the prison camp in 1930 both received extensive press coverage. When the book came out in 1932, much of the public had already heard of Burns. His book became a best seller and effectively placed Georgia State officials in a most embarrassing position. If this were not bad enough, the film made from his story served to bring even more public attention to the chain gang issue. And the fact that Burns was involved in a consulting capacity on the film drove home the point to Georgia officials that there were now two other US states effectively harboring one of their escaped convicts - New Jersey and now California.

The film was well received by audiences and film critics alike - the media interest was intense. Mancini comments in his forward to the Brown Thrasher Edition that it was likely "the excitement generated by all this publicity that led Burns to overreach. On at least two occasions he appeared at theaters that were showing the film to deliver an oration before boisterously sympathetic crowds. Somehow, he allowed his confidence to turn to arrogance. His public appearances embarrassed the police department in Newark, where he was then living under an alias, earning a living as, of all things, a dynamiter in a copper refinery. On December 14, 1932 he was arrested." (1)

And thus begins a second drama that rivals the one recounted in his book. Warden J. Harold Hardy of the Troup County chain gang - a prominent character in this book - and Troup County police Chief R. B. Carter went to New Jersey to take Burns back to Georgia after extradition. However, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore received hundreds of telegrams and letters, including one representing the 800 members of the Fourteenth Engineers Veterans' Association, Burns' old outfit, opposing extradition. All this outpouring of support was a result of the media coverage Burns received at the time and the overwhelming popularity of his story, both the book and the film.

Elliott on the moveAt the extradition hearing, held in Trenton before 1,000 spectators, Samuel Bernstein, the Atlanta grocer whom Burns had robbed in 1921, testified that he thought Burns should not be returned. "William B. Cox, the secretary of the National Society of Penal Information called Georgia's system "one of the worst" citing Burns' book to be "substantially correct."" The extradition request was denied and Burns was allowed to remain in New Jersey. (1) While his story had yet to influence actual reform, the fact that his account of the system he had fallen victim to was validated by Cox resulted in his being allowed to remain in New Jersey, and once again brought the issue of chain gangs into the public spotlight.

Although state officials and Warden Hardy denied all claims made by Burns, Georgia tried to extradite Burns on two more occasions and was denied both requests. Burns was able to build a new life in New Jersey, marry and raise a family, but his legal standing would not be officially addressed again until the 1940s. During this time Georgia elected a new Governor, Ellis Arnall, who immediately set to work to reform the state penal system. He instituted a series of reforms that "included segregating youthful offenders, eliminating stripes, and, most important, prohibiting leg irons and abolishing the state highway camps - the successor institutions to the county chain gangs that Burns had served on. In other words, Arnall oversaw the elimination of chain gangs in his state." (1) Given the comments that Arnall was to later make, one can easily speculate that it was Burns' story and the enormous press coverage he received throughout his ordeal that influenced Arnall's actions. In fact, it was Arnall himself who would later represent Burns in his bid to finally receive a pardon from the state of Georgia.

"In December 1943, when Arnall was in New York to address a meeting of the New York Southern Society, Burns arranged to meet him in his suite at the Savoy Plaza, and requested a pardon. The governor himself was no longer in a position to grant pardons - that was one of his reforms - but he formally requested one from the Board of Pardons and Paroles when he returned to Atlanta. The Board, still sensitive to all the slights it had received from Burns, required that he return to the state and surrender to it. Burns did so in November 1945, with Arnall as his counsel, and the board commuted his sentence to time already served." (1) And so Burns' personal ordeal ended, but what of the lasting effect, if any, his story was to have on American society?

The chain gang became a lasting image of the South - an emblem of sorts of its perceived backwardness. "They were a preeminent symbol of southern ignorance and underdevelopment. And Robert E. Burns did more than anyone to fix that image in the hazy gallery of half-conscious impressions that shapes the nation's popular culture." (1) If nothing else Burn's book has become a classic of American literature and "an invaluable document of the cultural and social history of the 1920s and 1930s." (1) Of all the prison films that were produced during Hollywood's formative years, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang was the one which will forever stand out. To this day it is used as an example in film schools and is still held up as an example of how popular film can influence public attitudes and affect social change.

Some film critics and scholars argue that the book and film did indeed have a measurable social impact on actually changing prison conditions and suggest that the film's account of the brutal chain gang system in the American south led to its abolishment by Federal edict in 1937. Legislation is written and passed by politicians. Politicians are sensitive to prevailing public sentiments. It is not difficult to conclude that Burns' story, though not given direct credit for changing laws, had to have had an impact on reform legislation.

Though officially abolished in 1937, the truth was that in spite of continued revelations during the 1930s and 1940s, in many states this harsh penal system persisted until the 1960s, when the civil rights movement finally forced a change. The last chain gangs were abolished in the United States in 1962.

I didn't miss a lick todayIn light of recent reforms in the South, the timing for such a review of the chain gang system of justice is perhaps well timed. Superficially, the chain gangs of the "pre civil rights" South seem resigned to the past. However, it is a fact that American society may once again institute the chain gang system. If it had been popularly accepted that this penal system was inhumane, why then would anyone want to bring them back? The disturbing truth is that the very features that brought the chain gang into disrepute have now become its selling points. Although the chain gang stands as a symbol of a notorious and cruel past, and Georgia's chain gangs came to symbolize the worst, it is unfortunately this dark history that is the very grounds for their renewed popularity among those who believe that modern prisons pamper criminals.

Chain gangs once again emerged in the United States in the mid-1990s, when conservative politicians in Southern states found they could win votes by depicting prisons as "country clubs" and inmates as "vacationers" on the dole. Alabama became the first state to officially bring back the chain gang, with Florida's legislature mandating the use of chain gangs in December, 1995. Although this has sparked some controversy, the practice was reinstated.

As prison reformers will point out, the best way to reduce skyrocketing prison expenditures is to send fewer people to prison. But politicians want to look tough on crime, and prisoners can't vote. But probably the real incentive for politicians to reinvent the chain gang is the fact that the editorial writing public seems to like it. There is a growing feeling that prisoners should be treated as criminals, as social outcasts. These sentiments expressed by letters to the editor in Florida newspapers have given state politicians, such as Senator Charles Crist (who sponsored the bill authorizing chain gangs in Florida) the message that the visible and obvious harshness of the punishment would somehow reduce crime. Unlike officials in Alabama, whose decision to reinstate chain gangs seems to be more fiscally based, Crist's statements to the press indicate he wants prisoners to receive harder punishment. It seems the actual work does not matter but rather it is the symbolism that is everything.

There was apparently some debate in Florida over the use of actual chains but in public statements Crist has stated that this is the way it is done in Alabama, five to a chain. He stated that this is what makes it possible to put dangerous felons on the roads, and that's what makes it a brutal and degrading experience.

Harry Singletary, the director of Florida's Department of Corrections, disagrees. He believes that convicts should not be chained to one another while at work, and he calls Alabama's current experiment with the system a "debacle," designed for media consumption. Singletary, in his comments to the media, seems to think that chain gangs simply provide the illusion that something is being done about crime, but in reality will have little in the way of a deterrent effect. He was also appalled by Crist's suggestion that disobedient convicts be punished by chaining them to a hitching post in the hot sun, as they do in Alabama. In the end Florida finally decided to work prisoners in individual shackles rather than "on the chain."

It's a distressing comment that present day debates have turned to how cruel this unusual punishment should be rather than whether it should "be" at all. The chain gang stands out as one of the most deeply felt symbols and experiences of oppression. It is most difficult, after reading the painful history of the chain gang system, to imagine present day officials advocating their reinstatement. It is true that chain gangs represent a world where tough laws punished crime swiftly and severely, where prisoners paid their "debt to society" in the coin of hard labor. But it is also true that they represent a system where the members of the underclass, the poor, the homeless and racial minorities, knew their place, and where cruelty and degradation became acceptable.

Through books such as Burn's I am a Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang, the movie made from it, Spivak's Georgia Nigger, and other accounts, the chain gang will forever symbolize the worst aspects of Southern society. And despite the denials of present day officials, this is the legacy that exists; this is what the chain gang will forever represent.

Regardless of whether or not it can be proved with certainty that Burns' story influenced penal reform in the 1930's, it is regrettable that it has perhaps not had a lasting enough effect to influence present day decision-makers as indicated by the new reforms being pursued in the South. It is also worth noting that it is only in the southern states that there is a push to reinstate the chain gang. It will be interesting to see how the accounts of past atrocities, such as I am A Fugitive From The Georgia Chain Gang, will continue to influence, if indeed they do at all, the present day chain gang debates.

  1. Forward to the Brown Thrasher Edition of I Am A Fugitive From The Georgia Chain Gang by Matthew J. Mancini (Matthew J. Mancini is also the author of One Dies, Get another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996 - a history of the earlier convict leasing era in both Georgia and the South generally)
  2. Henderson, Politics of Change
  3. Race, Labor, and Punishment in the New South, Dr. Martha A. Myers, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1998. (Dr. Martha A. Myers is a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. She is coauthor, with Susette M. Talarico, of the award-winning The Social Contexts of Criminal Sentencing)
  4. Chain Gang Blues, by Alex Lichtenstein, Dissent, Fall 1996, volume 43, number 4 (Alex Lichtenstein is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, London: Verso, 1996 - this work is also referenced in Mancini's forward to the Brown Thrasher Edition of I Am A Fugitive From The Georgoa Chain Gang)