Robert E. Burns: Hollywood Reforms the Prison System

Robert E. Burns: Hollywood Reforms the Prison System

How Hollywood Reformed The Georgia Prison System
From: Georgia Journal, Spring 1992
By Kaye Lanning Minchew

Trivia Question: What top-rated Hollywood movie spotlighted the Georgia prison system and helped bring about major social reform throughout the South?

Clue: Warner Brothers released the movie in 1932. Paul Muni was the star. Leonard Maltin's current movie guide gives it four stars.

Answer: In I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, actor Muni portrays Robert Elliot Burns, an almost-innocent man who was "brutally victimized" by the Georgia prison system. Burns served in three Georgia chain gangs -- old Campbell County's, Fulton County's and Troup County's.

The movie and the book on which it was based, I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, almost single-handedly led to the elimination of chain gangs from the South. The movie also helped establish the Hollywood image of Southern sheriffs and prison wardens as mean, not-too-bright power abusers, an image still too familiar 60 years later.

The film is also one of a long line of 20th century films depicting the horrors of prison life. Maltin's review notes that this movie "still packs a wallop after all these years."

ROBERT E. BURNS was one of Georgia's most famous prisoners as well as one of Troup County's most famous authors. Much of the book and movie centered on how bad things were in west Georgia county prisons. Burns' life reads like a novel, complete with unexpected plot twists.

The New Jersey native worked in a factory before World War I where he earned about $50 a week. He served two years in Europe during the war only to return to his old factory in 1919 to be offered a wage of $17.60 per week! He had seen intense fighting and suffering in France and may well have returned shell-shocked ---or at least psychologically wounded.

Instead of taking the job and resuming his place in society, Burns became a hobo of sorts --- living on odd jobs, jumping trains and drifting about the country. In 1922, he was reportedly run out of New York state for illegal activities during a political campaign. He landed in Atlanta flat-broke.

One day, two strangers offered to pay him for help with a project. He agreed, but later that day hopped a train for parts unknown. Caught and forced off by the conductor, he looked up his new acquaintances and, according to his book, was shocked when the project turned out to be robbery. Burns later wrote that the men forced him to help with the robbery at gun point. The three robbed a Jewish grocer of $5.80 --- only to be arrested minutes later by the Atlanta police.

Burns was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to six to 10 years hard labor. the other men got 20 to 30, and eight to 12 years, respectively. Burns later reminisced that, had he successfully stowed away on that train, he might have been spared his life of crime. He apparently did not consider hopping a train a "real" crime, and it was certainly a less serious offense.

In a sense, Burns became a 20th century Jean Valjean. Valjean, in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's child. Burns got six to 10 years for stealing $1.93, which would have been his share of the "take."

LATE IN 1922, Burns began his prison sentence, serving in camps in Bellwood and Sandy Springs in Fulton County and in Campbell County (now a part of Fulton County). Convicts worked year-round on rural roads under primitive conditions with chains between their ankles. The work was arduous, breaking rocks into gravel with sledge hammers, then spreading the gravel over dirt road surfaces. Meals were poor and repetitious. The Georgia summers were long and hot.

After only a few months, Burns escaped from the Campbell County gang with the help of a black prisoner who broke Burns' chains with the same hammer he used to break rocks. Had the other prisoner been less accurate with his hammer, Burns' daring escape might have turned into a tragedy.

To escape pursuing guards and tracking dogs, Burns "hid" in a river to mislead dogs. In the movie, he is shown breathing underwater through a reed while guards dogs milled about close by. Upon reaching dry land, Burns ingeniously made his way to Chicago by train, car and foot, narrowly escaping recapture several times.

At this point, our factory worker/soldier/hobo/convict took a surprising turn toward respectability. Burns worked several jobs in Chicago before settling down as the very successful editor and publisher of Greater Chicago Magazine, a trade publication. Upon arrival in Chicago, he had changed his name and vowed to become an honest man. He succeeded, becoming an important civic leader. He was even honored by the Chicago Chamber of Commerce.

BUT ONCE AGAIN, being a poor judge of character betrayed him. Burns became involved with an uncaring woman name Emily del Phino Pacheo. Emily offered to rent Burns a room and more or less look after his needs. They married and stayed together seven years, although Burns later admitted he never loved Pacheo. Subsequently, he sought a divorce in order to marry Lillian Salo, a woman he had met and fallen in love with.

Emily, in a jealous rage, refused to let go easily. She apparently decided if she could not have Burns, neither would anyone else. She had learned of his past by reading a letter from Burns' brother, the Rev. Vincent Burns, commending Burns on his new life. The letter contained enough clues a reader could figure out Burns was an escaped convict and a wanted man. Emily reported Burns to Georgia prison authorities.

The state of Georgia demanded Burns' extradition. Almost the entire city of Chicago fought it with him. Residents formed the "Burns Citizen Committee" and wrote petitions and letters advocating Burns' release or pardon. Supporters pointed out that "if corrections and reconstruction be the purpose of prison, surely Robert E. Burns is an example of a man in whom this purpose has been amply fulfilled."

Wife Emily countered that the press and e citizens committee were "making a hero out of a wicked and unworthy party." While Burns had become a very respected and productive citizen, he had also helped committed armed robbery and been sentenced to a prison term which he had yet to complete.

WITH THE PROTESTS still in progress, Burns surprised everyone by agreeing to return to Georgia, basing his decision on a verbal promise from state prison officials that he would serve only a month or so of "easy" time. Burns must sincerely have wanted to clear his name and become a free man; otherwise, why would a man who eluded police and prison guards by hiding in rivers agree to go back to a state he hated?

He had not exhausted the fight against extradition and could have fled Chicago as he did Georgia. Unfortunately, he had nothing in writing about his promised short-term release.

Burns returned to Georgia in July 1929 to finish his prison term. He was soon informed that his 45 to 90 days had turned into at least 12 months of hard labor. Prison officials reportedly told him, "You are now in Georgia and things will be handled from the Georgia viewpoint."

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 did not have $500 with which to pay off the parole board.

E. Merton Coulter's Georgia, A Short History backs up this allegation. Historian Coulter noted that many people, including prisoners, accused Georgia's governors and other high-ranking parole officials of selling pardons. In a major reform of the prison system, Governor Ed Rivers created a Board of Pardons and Paroles which was given sole power to pardon and parole prisoners.

FOLLOWING his parole hearing, Burns was "incarcerated in the worst chain gang in the state" --- Troup County. His book described it as "a place shunned by every one of Georgia's 5,000-odd felons."

The book has no footnotes so this apparently Burns' personal opinion; however, the idea finds support in an unlikely source --- the memorial adopted by the Troup County Commissioners upon Warden Harold Hardy's death in 1933. It reads: "His (Hardy's) ability to handle and control hardened criminals was well-known. Many times when a prisoner in another county became unmanageable, he would be transferred to Troup and placed under Captain Hardy where he soon realized that while orders must be obeyed he would be treated fairly and justly. Consequently, trouble in the Troup County camp was practically unknown."

Burns arrived in Troup County late in July. In the movie, one of the Troup County guards almost immediately looks at Burns and states, "So that's what the Yankee all the fuss is about. He don't look so bad to me." Indeed, Burns did not look the part of the hardened criminal ---at 5 feet 5 inches, 126 pounds, sandy hair with tortoise shell glasses (and a Yankee accent), he did not fit the stereotypical image of prisoners.

He served 14 months --- eating the same breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for over 400 straight days. He performed "endless heart-breaking toil" working on Troup County's roads. The only recreation was semi-monthly sermons by evangelical Baptist ministers. He served with "real" convicts-murderers, bank robbers, rapists, "the most desperate of Georgia's felons."

AS MIGHT BE expected, Troup County's version of Burns' stay and duties differs considerably. Warden Harold Hardy reported that Burns was treated like any other prisoner, though this does not imply decent treatment. After several months, Burns was promoted to trustee and given more freedom, including not having to wear prison stripes.

Conditions depicted in the movie were much worse than reality. Prisoners did not actually sleep chained to their beds, and perhaps the food was better than reported. Even Burns later admitted to reporters he had exaggerated the brutality of the chain gang system --- but he didn't say that until after the movie had been released.

On July 9, 1930, at his second parole hearing, Burns was again denied parole. His brother, the Rev. Vincent Burns, spoke eloquently on his behalf and his aging mother sent her request for clemency --- to no avail.

This proved to be another turning point for Burns. He grew embittered realizing he could not beat the prison system; that instead the system was beating him.

In Chicago, officials had said 30 to 45 days; in Troup County, he was beginning his second year in prison camp. On Sept. 4, 1930, Burns again escaped. He wrote, "While Georgia may say I escaped from justice, I emphatically state that ....I escaped from injustice."

IN THE MOVIE, actor Paul Muni escaped by stealing a road truck and leading prison officials on a high-speed chase. In the movie's final dramatic scene, Burns insures his escape by dynamiting a bridge to prevent his pursuers from following him.

The book version is considerably different. It tells that Bums was working in Mountville, east of LaGrange, and paid two local men $150 to let him ride to Atlanta hidden by watermelons and other produce in the rumble seat of a car. Since he was a trustee in charge of fetching water for the work crews, he was gone for over an hour before guards realized he had escaped.

Burns made his way back to tell his story in serial form to True Detective Magazine. The story attracted attention and became a book published by Vanguard Press and a movie produced by Warner Brothers.

Burns was re-arrested in Newark late in 1932, two years after his second escape from Georgia. Burns' brother negotiated his surrender. Given all the national publicity about Burns, including front-page headlines across the nation, the book and the movie, the governor of New Jersey refused to extradite him. Burns became a free man who stated, "I am through with publicity."

This refusal to extradite infuriated Georgia officials, especially those in Troup County. Editors of the LaGrange Daily News and Graphic-Shuttle protested that "such molly coddle attitudes toward the criminal --- such sob-stuff concerning punishment of offenders --- making heroes and martyrs of hold-up men is certainly one of the explanations of the astounding increase in crime in this country." (This was written in December 1932 though the sentiment sounds almost timeless.)

BURNS WAS NEVER reunited with his beloved Lillian Salo and, though he lived another 23 years, never again achieved the success he enjoyed in Chicago during his publishing days. He did write another book about a Georgia prisoner. Brother Vincent also authored a story about the entire incident. Nonetheless, Burns had accomplished a major goal.

He had been determined to destroy the chain-gang system in Georgia when he left in 1930. Indeed, Troup County and Georgia soon began improving and updating their antiquated prison systems. Before long, other counties were sending officials to County to look at its "model" system.

When the movie premiered in November 1932, "Georgia" had been dropped from the title. In a lawsuit against Warner Brothers Motion Pictures, Troup County Warden Harold Hardy, along with former Campbell County Warden Paul Phillips, and the Secretary of the Georgia Prison Commission Judge Vivian L. Stanley, sought damages for their portrayals in the film as being and inhumane in their treatment of convicts.

THE THREE LAWMEN were characterized as "the worst sort of villains." However, Warden Hardy's death in October 1933 in the midst of the trial took some of the force out of the libel cases. Reportedly, the suits were settled in November 1933 for about $3,000 each, though the plaintiffs never officially announced the settlement.

Bums was pardoned by Georgia Governor Ellis Arnall in 1945, and the book was closed on Troup County's closest and most extended brush with a negative national press. The state of Georgia itself had endured close and critical scrutiny of its home rule. But by the time of Burns' death in 1955, the chain gang system was just a memory to most Georgians.

Clearly, three men sentenced to a total of 34 to 52 combined years hard-labor for a $5.80 robbery seems stiff. Chain gangs were an old form of punishment in use for centuries and had been especially popular in the South after the Civil War and the freeing of slaves.

The book, movie and national scandal surely speeded the demise of this form of prison life. The arrival of modern automobiles and modern highway equipment also lessened the need for prisoners to do road work. Georgia had 140 prison camps in 1929 and Troup County had the fortune to become home to the one prisoner whose powerful words and sense of drama helped change the entire system.

Maybe too, Burns' story simply enjoyed perfect timing. At the time of the movie's release in 1932, the Great Depression was in full force across the nation. Downtrodden people across the country were inclined to root for "the little man" fighting the system. Whether Robert Elliot Burns spoke the absolute truth is debatable, but he is one prisoner who made a difference --- in Troup County, Georgia and throughout the South.