Chain Gang in Oglethorpe County

The Georgia penal system had been under national scrutiny for nearly a decade when Jack Delano made these photographs in 1941. All Images: Jack Delano/Library of Congress. (May 1941)

I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang! was a sensational best-selling book by Robert Elliott Burns. Published in 1932, it recounts the dramatic story of the author’s imprisonment in Georgia and his two successful escapes, eight years apart, with seven years of freedom, business success, and emotional intrigue in between.

Burns’s book is full of sensational, lurid, yet mostly verifiable descriptions of mistreatment, brutality, disgusting food, and labor so unrelenting and exhausting that it left men in a stupor. As he soon learned from his wretched fellow prisoners that to leave the chain gang a man had to “work out, pay out, die out, or run out,” Burns decided to run out. He did so in June 1922, after serving only a few months’ time. Burns’s dramatic escape to Chicago was crowned by brilliant success in the publishing business, social recognition, and marriage. But years later when he proved an unfaithful husband, his wife, Emily, turned him in to the authorities. His arrest on May 22, 1929, caused a sensation in Chicago. Burns had never told Emily about his past, but she discovered his secret by opening letters from his brother, the Reverend Vincent Burns, an Episcopal priest.

Source: The New Georgia Encyclopedia: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-793

While the book brought national attention to the plight of Southern prisoners and was perceived horribly by the rest of the nation, such practices remained common in the South for another two decades. Delano’s curiosity was surely piqued when he came across these scenes in rural Oglethorpe County.

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