The Legend of Railroad Bill

On March 7, 1896, a famous outlaw was shot dead while eating crackers and cheese in a general store in Atmore, Alabama.

The outlaw, Morris Slater, was better known as “Railroad Bill.” He was an African-American train robber who had murdered two men, including the sheriff of Escambia County. Authorities had been hunting him since the spring of 1896 and had offered a reward of $1,250 for his capture. (In 1896, $1,250 was real money!)

However, this wasn’t a simple manhunt. Railroad Bill had achieved fame among the African-American population of south Alabama as a sort of Robin Hood character who left crates of groceries on the porches of poor families. For a time he became a larger-than-life figure in the region.

As Railroad Bill continued to elude capture, wild stories were told about him: He was a hoodoo man, a sorcerer; he caught bullets in his hands and shot holes through dimes; he transformed himself into a bloodhound and ran with the pack that was hunting him; only silver bullets could kill him.

Perhaps in an effort to dispel these rumors, the authorities put Slater’s body on public display in Brewton, Pensacola, and Montgomery. Thousands of people showed up to take a look. But the stories didn’t die:

Railroad Bill’s white enemies had stuffed his corpse’s mouth with butterweed and later dropped dead under mysterious circumstances. Railroad Bill was not dead at all, but still out there in the swamps, helping the poor, terrorizing the railroad men, and guarding his vast hoard of loot that no one would ever find.

Railroad Bill's body on display. His killer, Constable J.L. McGowan, stands over him.

Railroad Bill’s body on display. His killer, Constable J.L. McGowan, stands over him.

Railroad Bill inspired a folk song that has been recorded by everyone from Etta James to Bob Dylan to Taj Mahal. I listened to quite a few of these renditions, and several of them are instrumental only. For the versions with actual lyrics, the one I like best is by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Give it a listen.

(By the way, the above quotations are from a delightful book we bought just after returning from Atmore. Alabama Curiosities by Andy Duncan contains all sorts of funny stories and information about Alabama. I recommend it to anyone who is planning to spend any amount of time in the Deep South. I’m sure we’ll be referring to it many times as we continue our travels.)

2 Responses to “The Legend of Railroad Bill”

  1. Untemplater says:

    History was my worst subject in school. I was really bad at remembering things. So much has happened in history that we often forget about. I haven’t spent too much time in the deep south.

    • Dr. Jewell says:

      Don’t feel bad . . . I’ve done loads of doctoral work in history and had never even heard of this story until last week. There are so many interesting local characters and events wherever you go that it’s impossible to learn them all. For me that is one of the most fun things about traveling.

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