A postcard shows New Jersey State Prison at the time of the attempted breakout of 1930, when it had an elaborate Egyptian-style facade.
Robert Elliott Burns' book became a classic real-life prison tale.
|1930: Two convicts who made a break
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
|Make a daring break from prison and you could end up a folk hero.
Robert Elliott Burns did it the right way.
In 1930, Burns slipped loose from the shackles that bound him to backbreaking labor on a Georgia chain gang. After fleeing to New Jersey, he got his story told as a classic movie: "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." Then he made a dramatic bid to clear his record at the State House in Trenton.
Charles Evans did it the wrong way.
In 1930, the life convict at Trenton's state prison became furious over having his privileges taken away. He clubbed one guard and used a stolen gun to shoot another to death. Cornered in a cell while riot alarms blared and tear gas canisters flew, he put a bullet through his own brain.
Burns was hailed as a hero, Evans despised as a villain.
But their adventures managed to serve twin purposes — ripping the cover off abuses and corrupt practices in America's penal systems.
Payoffs and privileges were the rule at New Jersey State Prison in 1930 a powder keg of a penitentiary long before any of today's inmates were born.
After a decade of Prohibition-fueled banditry and crime, the South Trenton prison had capacity for only 1,000 but was stuffed with 1,600 inmates.
They were the toughest of the tough. "The type of prisoner who remains in this old prison is selected from the worst," admitted the state prison commissioner, William J. Ellis.
Yet the prison had grown with almost no planning over 95 years of existence, sprawling over a residential neighborhood in the South Ward with an elaborate, Egyptian front facade featuring the words "labor" and "penitence" in hieroglyphics.
An irregular stone wall, 30 feet at its highest, surrounded the prison. But in Wing 7, facing Third Street, prisoners could peek out from, behind bars and talk to passers-by — or smuggle in money, drugs and other contraband.
Meanwhile, on the inside, the free flow of money and drugs made guards feel helpless to control their own prisoners. The worst of them simply gave up, took bribes and granted favors like stationing the wealthiest prisoners in the choicest cells of Wing 7.
By the prison's own rules, certain inmates could become "trusties." Trusties ran errands for guards, passed along messages to men in their cells and helped out on guard duty. In return, they were free to roam the prison unsupervised.
Only inmates who displayed good behavior were supposed to be trusties. But in reality, all it took was a single, sneaky con man to subvert the whole system.
Charles Evans was that type of sneak.
In 1918, he murdered a Hoboken, baker in a stickup, then shot a cop dead. He got two life terms and was sent down to Trenton.
"Above normal intelligence, emotionally unstable ... fearless, irresponsible, lustful and uncontrollable," read Evans' evaluation. Yet somehow he got to be a trusty. Promptly, he went to work trading in drugs, bribes and forbidden messages from the outside.
Commissioner Ellis, to his credit, wanted to stop the abuses. Early in 1930, he ordered the trusty system to be abandoned.
But the 29 year old Evans had grown used to the comforts of prison life — and decided he would rather give up his life than his privileges.
At 6 p.m. on March 13, 1930, before Ellis' order could go into effect, Evans struck. Roaming the top tier of Wing 2, he came up behind Deputy Thomas Soren and clubbed him in the head with a blackjack made from a printer's slug.
Evans grabbed Soren's gun and charged the stairway leading down to the prison center. Deputy Frank Butcher stood in his way, armed only with a club.
Three shots from the stolen gun tore through Butcher's head and body, killing him. More shots hit another guard in the shoulder.
By this time, dozens of officers were closing in on Wing 2, firing guns and lobbing tear gas. Sirens panicked the South Ward neighborhood amid rumors of a full-scale riot. More than 300 prisoners banged on their cells as gas clouds surrounded them.
Evans was outgunned, and knew it. He backed himself into an empty cell and shot himself to death.
On his body were found $193 in bills and a vial of heroin. The press and public were shocked. Ellis was forced to confirm that drug peddling was a fact of life on the inside, often winked at by guards.
Over the years, prison authorities would not only end the trusty system but gradually seal the prison tighter than ever before. Third Street was closed to traffic in front of the prison. The Egyptian facade came down, and in its place were erected further brick and barbed-wire barriers to escape.
If New Jersey State Prison was rife with corruption, the Georgia state penal system was an exercise in sheer sadism.
Brooklyn born Robert Burns found out what it was like all too well.
After fighting in World War I, where he had been wounded, Burns became a vagrant bumming his way throughout the South. Desperate for money, he robbed an Atlanta grocery store in 1922.
His take: $5.80. His sentence: six to 10 years on the chain gang.
Burns wore a striped wool uniform. He also wore a round shackle around each ankle, joined by a chain. That chain, in, turn, was joined to a second chain, three feet long. Chains and shackles together weighed 20 pounds. It was impossible to walk at a pace faster than a shuffle.
The day on the chain gang began on a stone quarry at 5 a.m. and ended 15 hours later, after a scorching day of pounding rocks into gravel.
Overseers took note of every swing of the sledgehammer. At the end of the day, they took the prisoner who they thought had done the least work and flayed him with leather straps against the buttocks while his buddies were forced to watch the blood fly. Burns, despised as a "Yankee," came in for his share of whippings.
“One was never allowed to rest a moment but must always be hard at work,” Burns later wrote, “and even moving in the mass of chain was painful and tiring — yet if one did not keep up his work greater terrors and more brutal punishment was in reserve.
"If a convict wanted to stop for a second to wipe the sweat off his face, he would have to call out 'Wiping it off' and wait until the guard replied, 'Wipe it off' before he could do so."
The slightly built, glasses wearing Burns felt like he was slowly dying. One hot day in 1922, he asked a fellow prisoner to free him by bending his shackles into an elliptical shape. The cohort swung his hammer against Burns' ankle: one miss, and he would have been crippled for life.
But it worked. The shackles bent and Burns stepped out of them. Then he ran through a swamp, escaping the bloodhounds baying at his heels.
Burns made his way to Chicago, where he became a successful magazine publisher. He married, worked long hours and became successful. One day, he went to his office to find himself under arrest as a fugitive. His wife, jealous about him having an affair with another woman, had tipped the cops off.
Back to Georgia went Burns. Promised early parole, he was instead sent back to the chain gang. In September 1930, he escaped again, this time by bribing a farmer to drive him off a ditch digging detail.
Now Burns had a second chance at freedom, and he moved to West Orange, where his widowed mother and his brother, a Unitarian minister, lived. After working a succession of odd jobs, he published his memoir in 1932: "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!"
It was a sensation. Millions read the horrifying story or saw the film version, "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang." The movie, an early classic of social realism, starred Paul Muni as the beleagured inmate, decrying the injustice of it all.
Burns, who had been living under an assumed name, felt safe enough to go public. He even gave a speech in Trenton on prison reform with state police Superintendent H. Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. at his side.
Georgia authorities, however, burned in anger over being made to look bad, and issued a warrant for his arrest.
For the third time in a decade, Burns would have to answer to justice. Only this time it was not Georgia justice, but Jersey justice.
The governor of New Jersey, A. Harry Moore, set an extradition hearing at the State House in Trenton for Dec. 21, 1932 — and said he would personally hear the case.
Burns, 41, got a resounding cheer when he entered the Assembly chamber, handcuffed to a deputy. It became clear that rather than Burns being on trial for his freedom, the state of Georgia itself would be on trial.
Burns' defense team put on a masterful show. His mom testified about what a good boy he had been. A prison expert testified that Georgia's system of forced labor was the worst of any state.
The most dramatic moment came when Samuel Bernstein, the grocer who Burns had held up a decade before, stepped to the witness stand. He was asked if the prisoner should be forced to serve out his sentence.
“I do not," Bernstein replied.
The prosecutors had a tough case to put on. They were left arguing that chain gangs weren't so bad and that Burns had made up the stuff about whippings. At which point the governor interrupted to produce a 1931 ledger showing the number and names of prisoners whipped in Georgia penal camps.
Moore's verdict was no surprise. “I have constitutional authority to deny extradition. and I do so," he pronounced.
Georgia eventually did away with chain gang labor, and grudgingly gave Burns a pardon in 1945. The "Fugitive from a Chain Gang" was a fugitive no longer.
Burns died in Newark 10 years later, believing the uproar over his celebrated book had forever abolished the chain gang.
He was wrong. In 1995, facing a public fed up with prisoner perks, Alabama reinstituted the system — and now inmates in three southern states can once again be seen shuffling in shackles along the roadside on their way to pick up litter or bust rocks.
ALSO IN 1930
* In open defiance of British rule in India, Mohandas Gandhi led his followers on a march to the Indian Ocean and defied the crown’s monopoly on salt by making salt from seawater. Gandhi went to jail, but his non-violent resistance campaign only got stronger.
* Mixed up in scandal, New York Judge Joseph Crater stepped into a Manhattan cab and was never seen again. The case remains unsolved.
* The Census showed New Jersey’s population had topped 4 million. Trenton’s population was 123,356.
* In Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study was founded by Louis Bamberger and Mrs. Felix Fuld. The institute would not have any faculty for another two years, when Albert Einstein was hired.
* Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics won a second straight World Series behind the slugging of Jimmie Foxx and the fireball pitching of Lefty Grove. The championship was last for the Philly A’s, which moved to Kansas City in 1955.