Robert Elliott Burns

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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, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, exposing the cruelty and injustice of the chain gang system. [1]


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 his pre-war job, or the wages he was earning and became a drifter. 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 $5.80 and was 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.[2] He was able to escape the eyes of the guards while they thought he was taking his five-minute rest. 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 divorcee named Emily Del Pino Pacheco, from whom he rented a room. She supported Burns in his real estate plans and helped him set up his magazine with her savings. They married in 1926.

Three years later, he sought a divorce in order to marry Lillian Salo, who, at twenty-two, was sixteen years his junior. His wife sued for divorce. Within a month he was apprehended pending extradition back to Georgia. Burns claimed that his wife had been responsible for the anonymous letter that tipped off authorities there but she denied it. Owing to his status in the community, many people helped him fight extradition to Georgia. In spite of this help and much support from all around the country the ruling went against him.

Burns returned to Georgia in June 1929 to finish his prison term. After initially serving in Campbell County Camp where he was given relatively light work as a painter, he was transferred to Troupe County Prison Camp and worked on the roads, which was much tougher. He wouldn't be entitled to apply for parole until a year after his return. 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, due to the Great Depression. He 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.

In 1943, Burns met newly elected Georgia governor Ellis Arnall in New York and requested a pardon. Arnall had Burns return to Georgia in November 1945 to face the parole board, standing by Burns's side as his counsel. The board commuted Burns's sentence to time served. [3]

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.


Media portrayals[edit]

His book has been made into two movies:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! , The New Georgia Encyclopedia
  2. ^ McPhaul, John J. "The Great Chain Gang Escape,"True Detective Mysteries,(July 1930) pp. 39ff.
  3. ^

External links[edit]