Friday, June 10, 2011

"I Am a Fugitive From the Georgia Chain Gang" by Robert E. Burns

When Robert Burns mustered out of the Army in 1919 he was elated. He had no idea what lay in store for him after having volunteered to fight for his country. If he had, he probably would've stayed in France! This is the book that spawned so many movies, including the classic "I am a Fugitive From A Chain Gang", which starred Paul Muni. The whole layout of the film "Cool Hand Luke" with Paul Newman is here, as is the story outline for "The Defiant Ones", which starred Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis.

Wandering about with no money, and with no job prospects, Mr. Burns found himself living the life of a tramp, or hobo. When he left for the war he was making $50 a week- when he returned he could only find work for 40 cents an hour, a whopping $17.50 per week. Finding himself down and out leaves him in despair. When approached by two men with the promise of a good job, he readily accepted the offer, not knowing the true nature of the work. It turned out to be a pawn shop robbery that netted them all of $5.80, as well as changing the course of Mr. Burns life forever. He was sentenced to 6 years on the Georgia Chain gang. This was in 1922. The chain gang system in Georgia, at the time, was set up as a contract system, whereby the County Commissioners oversaw the care, housing and feeding of the prisoners. It was a system rife with corruption and misery. It would be home to Mr. Burns for a year, until he made his escape.

When Mr. Burns made his first successful escape, he wound up in Chicago. Renting a room put him in contact with a landlady who was in search of a husband. At first Mr. Burns was was able to avoid the attentions of Emily, his landlady. But then she began to open, and read, his mail. Learning the true nature of his secret, she was able to blackmail him into marriage. This was in 1925, the same year in which Mr. Burns began "The Greater Chicago Magazine." He acted as it's editor. The magazine was a success and for a time life seemed to be going well. But things have a way of changing swiftly, especially for those who are compromised in some fashion.

By 1929, he met a woman with whom he really was in love, and so he asked his wife for a divorce. Emily granted him the divorce, even as she was sending a letter to the State of Georgia, turning him in. Georgia sent 2 men to take him back, and Mr. Burns fought the extradition in court.

On May 23rd, 1929, Judge David, who presided over the Habeas Corpus hearing, refused to grant the extradition. He also delivered a scathing indictment of the Georgia penal system, stating; "Georgia- the home and birthplace of that vicious organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Where they sell the water of the Chattahoochee River at five dollars per gallon to baptize the ignorant and illiterate that they may be initiated into the wonders of the Klan, and so continue their persecution of the Jew, the Catholic, and the Negro; becoming acquainted with the fine art of lynching and midnight beatings and terrorism. It seems to me that Georgia in this case does not seek justice, but vengeance."

This was the beginning of a legal battle that would see Mr. Burns returned to the Georgia chain gang, under a false promise that he would serve only 90 days in a trustee's position. At the conclusion of that period, he was to be freed. Naively, he accepted this offer. What followed are several years of legal wrangling, during which time Mr. Burns was returned to the Chain Gang, and forced to once again make his escape.

Mr. Burns, who, incidentally was Jewish, and born in Brooklyn, wrote the book while hiding out in New Jersey during 1931. In 1932 Georgia tried once again to extradite him, and this time the State of New Jersey outright refused. This was also the year in which the book was published and released as a film. Public sentiment was clearly on Mr. Burns side. In 1945 the Governor of Georgia, Ellis Arnall, finally pardoned him.

An extraordinary look at justice in America during the years between the First World War and the end of the Jim Crow Era, this book chronicles the journey of Mr. Burns, as he attempts to navigate his way to freedom. That one man could withstand 2 decades of such uncertainty, while maintaining some sense of humanity, is simply astonishing.

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