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Robert Elliott Burns (May 10, 1892 – June 5, 1955) was a World War I veteran who gained notoriety after escaping from a Georgia chain gang and writing his memoirs exposing the cruelty and injustice of the chain gang system.[1]

Biography[]

He was born in Palisades, New Jersey, and served in World War I as a medic. Upon his return from Europe, he was unable to recover the wage he was earning in his job and became a drifter, which is how he eventually ended up in Atlanta, Georgia in 1922. Burns was convicted of joining two other men in the armed robbery of a grocery store, which netted the trio $5.81 and got Burns sentenced to 6 to 10 years of hard labor.

Burns escaped from the chain gang with the help of another inmate who struck his restraints with a sledgehammer, bending and weakening them. He was able to escape the eyes of the guards on the pretense of a two-minute bathroom break in the trees. After evading capture, Burns made his way to Chicago, where he eventually became the editor and publisher of Greater Chicago Magazine. During his stay in Chicago, he became involved with a Spanish woman named Emily del Phino Pacheo, from whom he rented a room. Eventually he married her when she threatened to betray him to the local police.

Seven years later, he sought a divorce in order to marry Lillian Salo, whom he professed to love. Del Phino Pacheo had made an agreement with him, but the same day she betrayed him to the authorities. Owing to his status in the community, many people helped him fight extradition to Georgia, but he surprised everyone by agreeing to return to Georgia, basing his decision on a verbal promise from state prison officials that he would serve no more than 90 days of "easy" time.

Burns returned to Georgia in July 1929 to finish his prison term. He soon realized that his 45 to 90 days had turned into at least 12 months of hard labor. They tortured him even more than before. He served a brief stint in Campbell County, where he was, according to his book, treated "intelligently and fairly". Burns later implied he was denied the promised parole after 45 days and had his term lengthened because he did not have $500 with which to pay off the parole board. After several failed attempts at parole, on September 4, 1930, Burns again escaped. He had waited until he had earned enough of the guards' trust that he could obtain the privilege of not being chained. He then paid off a local farmer with money he had received from his brother in Newark and headed to New Jersey.

Burns could not duplicate his Chicago success in New Jersey because of the Great Depression and took on odd jobs around New Jersey for a few years, all the while writing his autobiography. Burns was arrested in Newark late in 1932, but the governor of New Jersey refused to extradite him since his book and a movie had been released and public opinion was firmly against the idea. The governor of Georgia pardoned him in 1945, and Burns lived as a free man until his death from cancer in 1955. His book and the movie are largely credited with the abolition of the chain gang system in the South.

Book[]

  • I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang (Vanguard Press, 1932)

Media portrayals[]

His book has been made into two movies:

  • I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1932
  • The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains in 1987

References[]

  1. I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! , The New Georgia Encyclopedia

External links[]

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