Van Wallach
A Jew from Texas, who knew?

Fugitive From a Chain Gang: The Jewish Angle

The books that started this post.
The books that started this post.

I recently scooped up I am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! at a library sale. The title sounded familiar and grabbed my attention.

Published as a serial in True Detective and then as a book in 1932, Fugitive remains a sobering and harrowing read. To my surprise, this nonfiction first-person account of World War I veteran Robert E. Burns’ descent into chain-gang purgatory and subsequent escapes had a Jewish aspect, as did the casting for the boffo 1932 film version, I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

The scattered Jewish references are crucial to the story, although Burns didn’t set out to write a self-consciously “Jewish” book. Rather, Jews as individuals and a group hovered in the humid air of 1920s Georgia. He wrote what he saw and experienced, starting at the street level, literally, and advancing to Jews as a collective in an often-hostile landscape.

The books that started this post. 

Burns gets right to the point about the high and low lights of his life. He volunteered for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as soon as the US entered the war in 1917 and served in a frontline medical detachment with the 14th Engineers. His return home in 1919 shocked him and he doesn’t hold back:

Really an ex-soldier with the A.E.F. service was looked upon as a sucker. The wise guys stayed home—landed the good jobs—or grew rich on war contracts, making buttons or some other essential war necessity.

In trying to find a position in society and earn a decent, honest living, I found that ex-soldiers were a drag on society. The position I left at $50 a week was filled. But I could get a job at $.40 per hour—$17.60 a week.

Suffering from what was then described as shell shock, Burns becomes a drifter and winds up in Atlanta in 1922. His mood is bleak: “I am sitting in the lobby of a fifty-cent flop house—broke, weary, disgusted with life, sitting all alone by a wood fire in a tin stove.”

At that point he’s bullied by two men into taking part in a robbery of a “little cross-road grocery store.” The leader, an Australian war veteran named Flagg, describes the opportunity:

“Well,” said Flagg, “the owner of that store is a Jew and he pays his bills in cash, and I know he has about a thousand dollars with him, as he is going to pay his bills today. We three are going to rob him and get that thousand dollars. I have a gun here and I will ‘throw the cabbage’ in his face and cover him while Moore goes to the cash register and you search his person for the roll.”

The plan fails fast and hard, as Moore gets $5.80 from the cash register, then the men are captured in 20 minutes. They all plead guilty and ask for mercy. Burn’s pitch that his actions reflected his “mental attitude caused by the results of my treatment by society after my discharge from war service” doesn’t impress Judge Thomas of Valdosta in Fulton Superior Court. “I pleaded for a minimum sentence. I got from six to ten years at hard labor.”

The book describes just how hard that labor is. Burns would have much to discuss with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, comparing Georgia chain gangs to Soviet prison camps. They’re not so different other than Georgia is very hot and Siberia is very cold.

The anonymous Jewish store owner appears at the fateful hinge of the story. This retail trope continues when Burns escapes the chain gang after several months. His knack for recalling names gives a flavor of the Southern Jewish retail scene:

Before I knew it we were in Atlanta. It was almost eight o’clock. We passed a General Clothing store. The sign read, “I. Cohen & Son.” The store was still open. I got out at the next corner, and went into the store. I bought a suit of overalls, pants, and a jumper that fit, and a fifty-cent cotton shirt, and change clothes in the store. This set me back $2.50. I still had $3.70 left. Not much to get away on.

Burns’ knowledge of Southern Jewish history goes well beyond retailing. While on the run, he considers how Georgians treat social outliers:

The trolley arrived at Marietta at 8:15 instead of 8:30. I had a half an hour to wait for the train. Too long to stay in such a small town. Also I remembered that this was the place where Leo M. Frank had been lynched. He was a New York Jew. The thought sent another quiver of fear through my nervous system. But in a flash I got hold of myself. I had to get through. A cool head and calm nerves, brain power, quick thinking and quicker action should give me an even break.

Later passages sketch the dangers facing anybody who didn’t fit into the rigidly defined white Protestant mainstream culture of Georgia, as led to the murder of Leo Frank in 1913. Burns gives a deft summary of the targets of malice in his flailings with the state’s legal system:

Now, there is the matter of sectional tradition and prejudice which plays an important part in the scheme of things in Georgia. For some inexplicable reason Georgia has always been prejudiced against Catholics, Jews, Yankees and Negros. History will account for their prejudice against Yankees and Negros, but even at this writing, I am at an utter loss to account for their religious intolerance. This sectional tradition and prejudice is not only directed against individuals, but also against cities, especially against the cities of New York and Chicago. These are the two cities where I spent most of my life. . . .

If you were to visit Georgia and were arrested, accused of some violation of the law, the first question the Judge would ask you would be, “Where do you come from?” and “What church do you go to?” If the answers to these questions brought out the fact that you were a Northern Catholic or a Jew, you would be in need of help.

Burns’ legal ordeal lasted 23 years, until Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles commuted his sentence to time served, in November 1945. By then he had a family and lived in in New Jersey, where he owned a toy store, worked as a tax consultant and was an activist on veterans affairs.

The final Jewish aspect of his case is the 1932 film I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Burns, named James Allen in the film, was played by actor Paul Muni. Muni was born Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund in Lemberg, Galicia, now Lviv, Ukraine. His family moved to Chicago and Muni began acting at a young age. Yiddish was his first language and he moved to New York to work at the Yiddish Art Theatre. He didn’t do any work in English until he was 31. His portrayal of Burns won him an Oscar nomination.

I couldn’t tell if Muni ever visited Georgia to promote the film. Given his New York-Chicago-Jewish-foreign background, I doubt it.

About the Author
Van "Ze'ev" Wallach is a writer in Westchester County, NY. A native of Mission, Texas, he holds an economics degree from Princeton University. His work as a journalist appeared in Advertising Age, the New York Post, Venture, The Journal of Commerce, Newsday, Video Store, the Hollywood Reporter, and the Jewish Daily Forward. A language buff, Van has studied Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew, although he can’t speak any of them. He is the author of "A Kosher Dating Odyssey." He is a budding performer at open-mic events.
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