Robert E. Burns
Editor, publisher, author, chain gang fugitive.
Although he is best remembered as the man who twice escaped from Georgia’s brutal chain gang system, what Robert E. Burns did with his life while on the lam is as interesting as his escapes.
Robert E. Burns, originally from New Jersey, was a returned WWI veteran down on his luck. Instead of returning to his old factory job at a severely reduced wage, he drifted around the country, working odd jobs. In 1922 he met up with two strangers; the three of them robbed a grocer of $5.80. They were arrested, convicted and sentenced to hard labor in Georgia’s severe prison system.
A slight, bookish man, Burns realized he would not likely survive his six to ten year sentence on the Campbell County chain gang. After only a few months, Burns enlisted the aid of another prisoner, renowned for his precision with the sledgehammer, to hammer his leg shackles into a shape that made it possible for Burns to work his legs out of them. He hid in a river to avoid the tracking dogs, then made his way north, to Chicago, by train and car and on foot.
In Chicago, Burns initially worked as a day laborer and handyman. He could have laid low the rest of his life, but he had higher ambitions. He got a job as an accountant for a real estate firm. Eventually he founded a real estate trade magazine, Greater Chicago Magazine, which he edited and published. He became a important civic leader, even being honored by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce.
Ultimately, it was a woman who led to Burns’ return to the Georgia chain gang from which he had escaped. His wife, formerly his landlady, was a jealous woman who resisted Burns’ wish to divorce when he met a woman with whom he had fallen in love. She found a letter from Burn’s brother, the Rev. Vincent Burns, which referred obliquely to Burns’ past, and reported him to Georgia prison authorities.
The state of Georgia demanded Burns’ extradition. Chicago residents formed the “Burns Citizen Committee”, writing petitions and letters advocating Burns’ release or pardon. To everyone’s surprise, Burns agreed to return to Georgia, relying on verbal promises from Georgia state prison officials that he would serve only a month or so of “easy” time. Burns returned to Georgia in July 1929, only to learn (surprise, surprise) that Georgia officials had no intention of keeping their word. After a month Burns’ was transferred to the infamous Troup County prison camp, reputed to be the worst chain gang in the state.
Burns served 14 months, performing “endless heart-breaking toil” on Troup County’s roads. He grew bitter, beaten down by the brutal chain gang system. He was determined to escape again; this time planning required more subtle]ty. Burns became a model prisoner, eventually being promoted to trustee. As trustee he was given more freedom and responsibility, including fetching water for work crews. In 1930 Burns executed his second escape. He managed to bribe a local farmer to hide him in his vehicle under produce. As a trustee fetching water, he was not missed until more than an hour had passed.
This time Burns fled to his native New Jersey where he told his story in serial form to True Detective Magazine. The sensational story attracted nationwide attention; Burns’s story was published in book form by Vanguard Press, I Am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang then made into a movie produced by Warner Brothers, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni. Two years later in 1932, Burns was re-arrested in Newark, generating front-page headlines across the nation. The governor of New Jersey refused to extradite him, infuriating Georgia officials. Burns became a free man, stating, “I am through with publicity.”
Burns led a quiet life, avoiding the notoriety brought by his previous experiences. He did write another book about a Georgia prisoner; his brother Vincent also wrote a story about the events surrounding his brother’s escapes. Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall pardoned Burns in 1945, closing the book on Robert Burns and the Georgia chain gang system.
Robert E. Burns died in 1955.