by Peter Wagner, June 5, 2005

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of Robert Elliot Burns, known as “The Man Who Broke a Thousand Chains”, for his role in ending the brutal chain gang system in the South. A World War I veteran, Burns twice escaped from a Georgia chain gang in the 1920s and brought national and international attention to the brutality of the chain gang system. His life, his book and a 1932 Paul Muni I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang film on his life were the inspiration for the initial abolition of the chain gang system.

After the film’s release, he was arrested again after speaking out a a screening, but three successive New Jersey Governors refused to extradite him back to Georgia. He died of cancer on June 5, 2005 and is buried in a veteran’s cemetery in New Jersey.

The film, re-released on DVD on May 12, has renewed interest in his case, and, one would hope, the stupidity of bringing back chain gangs in symbolic form.

burns gravesite
Robert E. Burn’s gravesite (with red flower, in center) at the Beverly National Cemetery. See larger version

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