Railroad Bill

Written by Jeremy Ray Jewell. Illustrations by Yulia San Miguel.

“Railroad Bill he gone around the curve
If you go around now you better raise your nerve
I’m scared of Railroad Bill”

“Railroad Bill”, Vera Ward Hall, 1937. Documented by Alan Lomax.

As the Mobile and Montgomery (M&M) railway line departs from Mobile, Alabama, USA, it heads north along the Mobile River. Trains on this line pass Mobile’s Africatown/Plateau district as the mudflats of Mobile Bay give way to the floating vegetation and cypress stumps of the Mobile–Tensaw River Delta. The M&M leaves the city as soon as it crosses Chickasaw Creek, stretching out across islands and bayous as it leaves civilization behind. Very little has changed here since the days of Railroad Bill, besides the railway’s technology and the amount of carcinogens in the water. Alligators, carnivorous butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all swelter in the swampy stew with a primordial stillness that conceals imminent danger.

The line follows Bayou Sara in its jaunt around Twelvemile Island, passing Catfish Bayou and a loop in the bayou named Nenemoosha with a reported maximum elevation of 7 feet. From there it continues to Big Bayou Canot, where Amtrak’s Sunset Limited derailed in 1993 killing 47 people. The railroad bridge crossing the bayou had been hit by a lost barge, leading to its collapse. Those are the kinds of places along that stretch of track: most folks ain’t got no reason to go there unless they’re passing through or never coming back. It isn’t until the line crosses the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers into Baldwin County at Hurricane Bayou that human settlements appear again. In the 1890s, this was the beginning of turpentine country, and poor, isolated, and Black homes were dotted throughout the pine forests here.

Between the years 1894 and 1896, freight cars on the M&M running between Mobile and Flomaton, Alabama were hemorrhaging goods worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars. This line, acquired by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) in 1880 (now owned by CSX), leaves the Gulf of Mexico port heading east and north to the state capital with its cargo. It passes through the forests of Baldwin County before crossing the Perdido River which separates Baldwin from Escambia County, Alabama, and Escambia County, Florida. The line then follows the state border on the Alabama side between the community of Perdido, at the river crossing, and Flomaton. The man responsible for the railroad’s losses was said to be a Black “woods-rider”, or turpentine worker, from Bluff Springs, Florida. It was just an hour and a half to two-hour walk from the turpentine camps, with their company stores and scrip, to Flomaton’s M&M tracks with their world of consumer goods ripe for the taking. The journey is less than half on horseback.

Not a lot is known for sure about the man called Railroad Bill. His most lasting legacy is in the ballads sung about him, which have had many permutations. The only photo we have of him was taken postmortem. He was known to carry two pistols and a Winchester rifle with a cartridge belt of .44-caliber ammunition. Having left the turpentine camps of Bluff Springs, he fired his rifle at a brakeman who threw him off the L&N while stealing a ride to Mobile, allegedly starting his vendetta against the company. He led a gang that would routinely board the M&M at night and throw cargo off along the line to be collected by others. His gang would disappear into the woods and swamplands, often hidden by the Black communities in their path. In this fashion, Bill avoided capture for more than two years, despite mounting pressure to apprehend him which led to several deaths. His undertaker measured him as 5’11” (180.3cm), 165lbs (74.8kg). He had a light, “ginger-cake” complexion, and also reportedly a large scar on the left side of his face, and perhaps an additional bullet wound on the right side after being shot by Nat Crosby on the M&M in March, 1895. Local law enforcement and private detectives determined that his name was Morris Slater, or Salter, or Salters. His tombstone reads “Morris Slater / Railroad Bill”. 

Most accepted histories state that he had been hired from South Carolina by Confederate veteran Captain Theodore J. Hughes in the 1870s to work in the booming turpentine industry. Turpentine production was prominent first in the Carolinas and Georgia, perhaps meaning that Bill had previous experience there. Histories also state that Bill had once toured with a circus, where he demonstrated exceptional skill and dexterity, and where he learned numerous tricks which he would show to the White children of Bluff Springs. They claim that he was adept at contortion, juggling, and heavy lifting, even being able to lift with his teeth. They also describe him as always carrying his two pistols and his Winchester rifle. These accounts claim that Bill was affable, hardworking, and charismatic. The postmaster of Bluff Springs said that Bill would often send letters with a bird drawn on the envelope as a flourish incorporated into the address.

Yet police in Selma were convinced that the real Railroad Bill was a Will Barker they knew, a former railroad employee fired for stealing meat. Yet others said he was a William Brown, or Zeb. His exploits, demeanor, and even physical description sounded strikingly similar to those of Wyatt Tate, a contemporary Black train robber from elsewhere in Alabama. Residents of Brewton, east of Flomaton, said Railroad Bill was really a man named Bill McCoy from Coldwater, Florida who had been brought to Escambia by Mr. S. B. Botts in the late 1870s, presumably for turpentine work. The story holds that McCoy’s life of crime began when he was shot by local police. A lot of this confusion is understandable when one considers that so many elements of Bill’s story were very common elements of his time: tramping on the railroads, train robbing, exploitative labor conditions, and racial antagonisms all lead to a perfect storm in which many of the details of Bill’s career were shared with dozens of other, forgotten individuals. 

This may have also made Railroad Bill a depository for other exploits which were not his own but were representative of his time and place. Many confuse his life events with that of George Thomas, another Black turpentine worker employed by Hughes along with his two brothers, William and Gus. George Thomas murdered the town marshal of Bluff Springs in 1893 three years after his brother Gus had died dueling with an M&M conductor named McCurdy. An article in The Montgomery Advertiser on March 12, 1895 quotes a conductor named William Neighbors, who wrongly associated the details of the Thomas brothers with the name “Slater” while speculating on a motive for Railroad’s crimes. Neighbors said that the brother, who was in fact Gus Thomas, started the shootout by refusing to pay his fare. This, in fact, resembles the origin story that is most often associated with Railroad Bill since 1895: that he was seeking revenge against the L&N for having been kicked off of the train while stealing a ride to Mobile. Railroad shot at the brakeman, resulting in the persistent lyric in many versions of his song which alleges that he shot a lantern out of his hand.

As for the story of George killing the marshal in Bluff Springs, the story is that George had brought his gun into town and started practicing his aim on some targets. When the marshal tried to confiscate the weapon – restricting Black gun ownership was a significant White prerogative at the time – the Black man shot him and escaped, eventually hopping a train. Yet George Thomas was apprehended two years later, while the M&M robberies kept happening. Clearly, George Thomas and Railroad Bill were not one and the same. Yet, folklorists have perpetuated this conflation of Thomas with Railroad Bill, including Carl Carmer in his 1934 Stars Fell on Alabama and Alan Lomax in his 1960 The Folks Songs of North America in the English Language. It is entirely possible that the Thomas brothers knew Railroad. However, what our primary sources indicate is that White officials didn’t seem to care about the true identity of the Black outlaw – any Black outlaw was potentially a Railroad Bill. Railroad Bill was a placeholder for White fears.

It is said the Black locals in Baldwin County referred to the man known as Railroad Bill as Colonel. Such military honorifics were popularized by White bosses in the post-Confederate South, and their use in reference to the outlaw could be a sign of honest respect, irony, or both. Black residents also began to call him Railroad or Railroad Time. Yet it is The Times-Picayune of New Orleans who may take the credit for christening him, in the end. In 1894 they ran a story on him immediately after another one regarding W. B. Jones, a labor organizer in the Crescent City, allegedly nicknamed “Railroad Bill”. Jones was announcing to Black longshoremen responsible for loading bananas onto L&N cars a free lunch at the union hall “for the purpose of trying to get better wages.” Jones certainly raised hairs, as labor unrest in the port of New Orleans was predicted to erupt into racial violence, which it eventually did in the 1895 Dockworkers Riot. The use of unorganized Black labor to bypass union demands had created a rift in the previously biracial labor politics of the largest port in the South. The article makes it clear that city leaders wanted to make sure that Black workers remained non-unionized, and that that rift widened as much as possible. They didn’t want a Southern repeat of that year’s  Pullman Strike in the Midwest which halted freight transport everywhere west of Detroit, eventually leading to military intervention. Thus we see the layers of meaning in one of the verses sung about Railroad Bill:

Railroad Bill, he ought to be killed

He ain’t never worked and he said he never will

And that ain’t right, old Railroad Bill

W. E. B. Du Bois described the agency of enslaved laborers to stop working as the Civil War progressed as a form of general strike in his Black Reconstruction in America (1935). This power of Black labor to stop production and cripple the social hierarchy had shaken the South to its core, and was still within living memory. Fear of this power contributed to White caricatures of Black indolence and deception, which made the labor organizer out as little better than the outlaw. What is not clear is whether the specific mixup between the two in The Times-Picayune was made by detectives, journalists, or readers. It’s not even clear if the moniker was associated with Jones by mistake. In any case, it is telling of the times that these two were conjoined in print as such. Historian Eric Hobsbawm conceived of “social banditry” as a form of proto-class struggle. It is not without reason, in fact, that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was employed at this time in both breaking organized labor and hunting down train robbers.

Following the end of Reconstruction and the Compromise of 1877, the South would begin its transition into the new Jim Crow order. Wall Street capital and Northern industry were inextricably linked to this transition. The end of the Civil War opened the South and the West to large-scale industrial development. When the Panic of 1873 increased labor unrest in the already industrialized North, investors naturally looked elsewhere for secure investments. A crop-lien system replaced Southern chattel slavery with the quasi-slavery of permanent debt for agricultural workers. Meanwhile, other industries which offered recourse to the poor rural Southerner, White and Black, similarly relied on debt slavery to immobilize laborers and suppress wages. 

Mines and turpentine camps, previously employing slaves, now operated on a “company town” model, wherein workers lived in company-owned towns, were paid in company-issued scrip only accepted at company-owned stores, and where even the local preacher might be on the company’s payroll. Besides such conditions, the “free” laborer would also have to compete with convict labor leased from local governments. The ranks of unpaid convict laborers were substantially augmented by new vagrancy laws. While the unemployed rioted in Northern cities they were incarcerated and subject to forced labor in the former slave states. This made the South eminently attractive to investors, and stories recounting the tales of Railroad Bill often ran in Southern papers beside articles describing enthusiastic tours of Northern industrialists in the region extolling the ‘contentedness’ of the workforce there.

The reality, of course, was quite different. While poverty took its toll on workers, terror was also employed to assure that some semblance of the old racial order remained in effect. The original KKK dissolved at the end of Reconstruction, as the rulers of the “Redeemed” South searched for more acceptable means to re-establish their control. While urban organized labor might be broken along the racial divide, another destabilizing threat, the leftist agrarian movement headed by the People’s Party, was just emerging. In order to keep the investments flowing into the right class of people, the South was to become a testing ground for the kind of racialized divide-and-conquer anti-labor tactics that would usher in the beginnings of Jim Crow with the 1890 Mississippi Constitution. 

It would also eventually lead to the Wilmington Coup of 1898, showing that the expansion of White supremacy would not rely exclusively on legislative processes. It would even presage the 1923 San Pedro maritime strike, in which the KKK (reborn with the assistance of President Woodrow Wilson) would explicitly target the strike for its interracial character. One of the great ironies of the Jim Crow South was the way that it simultaneously conferred inferiority and disdain on Blacks and yet violently prevented them from leaving the labor market in which they were so consciously undervalued. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) is rich with accounts of the fear felt by people attempting to migrate out of the South in the 20th century. We can assume, therefore, that the mobility of a Black turpentine worker in the 19th century was also liable to be subject to some forms of White interference… or, at least, that tales of Railroad Bill would later evoke feelings of horror at the prospect of Blacks freely riding away on the rails. As another version of the ballad, recorded by Will Bennett in 1929, goes:

Buy me a gun just as long as my arm

kill everybody ever done me wrong 

Now I’m gonna ride, my Railroad Bill

While Bill was certainly not the only train robber of his day, in the beginning, his heroic status remained mostly restricted to the Black “side of the tracks”, as the expression goes. His reputation in the rural Black communities along the line may have been a mix of admiration and fear. Reports were clear that the communities were harboring him and implicitly supported his deeds. Yet accounts are divided on whether his modus operandi was selling to the poor, rural Blacks at lower prices, qualifying him as a Robin Hood figure, or whether in truth he was more interested in selling to the same company stores that were trapping him and his ilk in poverty. Other train robbers had similar businesses elsewhere. It is known that he did have criminal associations with Whites, possibly some in business with companies. 

The lore surrounding his eventual victim, Sheriff McMillan, seems suspicious on this point. McMillan ran for office on a promise of stopping Railroad Bill, though legend says the two were previously “friends”. They say that when McMillan won he discovered a note on his desk from Bill which read, “I love you and do not want to kill you so do not come after me.” If this wasn’t simply an attempt to make the bandit-hero more palatable to White society then it may instead indicate that the politically and socially well-connected White man had had some professional dealings with the desperado before.

But there is another question regarding Bill’s relationship with the Black community. Many published accounts indicate that the Blacks of Baldwin County had a supernatural view of Railroad Bill. It is certain that many traditional African beliefs and stories persisted in the region. Carl Carmer would later label the region Alabama’s “Conjure Country”, indicating the strong presence of hoodoo practices in the area. An unnamed railway officer speaking to The Montgomery Advertiser on April 10, 1895, said of the Blacks of Baldwin County: “They’ll protect him in every way possible; they are afraid of him and seem to look upon him as something inhuman. [T]hey believe that his life is bewitched, and this superstition serves the purpose of defeating our plans for capturing him.” 

Much as Railroad Bill’s origins and accomplishments remain less the property of a single man and more an obscure amalgamation of the popular imagination of his time, the Black popular imagination of Baldwin and Escambia Counties held that the man’s death was a matter of public opinion. Many didn’t want to believe that he died at all. The man who was ultimately shot dead at Tidmore and Ward’s general store in Atmore was either not the real Railroad Bill or merely some temporal form of his. For Bill was rumored to have the power to change into animals to avoid his pursuers. Carmer notes in Stars Fell on Alabama: “Once a lean brown short­haired dog appeared from nowhere to yelp with the Mississippi bloodhounds on the trail. But as soon as he joined them, the beasts with the big ears and red eyes lost the scent. Then the brown dog disappeared. Once a white hunter fired at a little red fox as it raced through the woods and he heard a wild laugh […] when he missed and it disappeared.” Others say that he would turn into a sheep and graze while watching a hunting party pass.

Of his extended, supernatural career, Cramer writes in The Hurricane’s Children (1937)

Sometimes when a poor old black woman wakes up in the morning and opens the door of her cabin she finds a neat little pile of canned goods on the step. There may be a couple of cans of soup, a can of snap beans, perhaps some black-eyed peas.

“God bless Railroad Bill,” says the old woman, and she hurries to put the cans out of sight. She knows that Railroad Bill has taken those cans from a freight car on the L&N tracks and she knows he shouldn’t have done it, but she is happy because she is hungry and now she knows she will be fed.

It truly matters less in these accounts if Bill was the real man or the stuff of legend. As little as it matters if the mythical High John de Conqueror went back to Africa or stayed in the form of a plant root. Furthermore, in Black tradition, it matters not whether Bill was “good” or “bad”. “Bad”, in the ‘double-consciousness’ of Black people described by W. E. B. Du Bois, is often more honorific than admonishing, as the African American toast tradition which evolved into rap attests to. What matters is that for the people along the M&M line, Railroad Bill was one of their own, no more iniquitous than the world in which they lived.

And so the stories of Railroad Bill will continue to be told. They begin with his uncertain origins, and they go on to tell of the way he would throw goods into the palmetto-filled piney woods along the tracks. They tell of his wounding several train workers, of highjacking a train and forcing it to leave a station. They claim that he personally threatened the life of the M&M’s Superintendent and that he had been friends with Sherriff McMillan. Yet for the most part, the stories we can relate with historical confidence begin with the shootout at Hurricane Bayou, at that spot where the M&M leaves the wilderness of the Mobile–Tensaw River Delta and enters Baldwin County. 

It was on March 6, 1895, when M&M crew members found Railroad Bill sleeping behind the Hurricane Bayou water tank. The crewmen attempted to unarm him before he woke up, but he managed to make a getaway and open fire on the men, who took shelter in a section house. Meanwhile, another train pulled in, which Railroad proceeded to commandeer, forcing the engineer to drive past the section house as Railroad fired on the crewmen inside. Rather than attempt an escape on the hijacked train, Railroad instead jumped off it after putting several hundred yards between himself and the section house, and then continued the gunfight before eventually escaping into the swamps.

A month later an L&N detective named T. J. Watts came to Bay Minette riding on the top of a boxcar on freight train number 74, which he identified as Railroad Bill’s “favorite”. In particular, Watts noted that Railroad liked to board the 74 on Saturday nights “on the high grade two miles below Bay Minette”, not far from where the Hurricane Bayou shootout occurred. Watts had come following a lead that Railroad Bill was acquiring some Winchester ammunition from a possible love interest named Emma Davis. He followed the delivery of the rifle cartridges from Mobile to Ms. Davis, and while he was on the lookout for Railroad in the darkness from his perch atop the boxcar, he fully expected his quarry to have less interest in the 74 that night than in Ms. Davis and his cartridges. Upon arriving at Bay Minette, however, he was stunned to hear two men named Wilkins and Stapleton claim to have had a duel with Railroad. 

Wilkins and Stapleton were hunting “sheep-killing dogs” when they stumbled across the outlaw. The pair had gone about two miles north on the rails before branching off into the woods. At some point, they must have sensed another human presence. Railroad called out from a concealed location in the underbrush, “Hello, is that you, John?” Wilkins replied in the negative. Yet Railroad appeared to follow them after that, prompting Wilkins to project a few choice words at the hidden pursuer. With that, Railroad opened fire on the men. Wilkins emptied his revolver and Stapleton was shot in the thigh. Ultimately the two fled. With the news, detective Watts organized a posse with Wilkins, Morgan Ashe, Jr., and a man named James H. Stewart.

“I tell you that tramp through blind roads leading through heavily timbered swamps where the night was as dark as pitch, expecting every minute to hear the crack of ‘Railroad’s’ rifle and hear the disagreeable song of bullet, was one that I shall not soon forget,” Watts told The Montgomery Adviser. After stopping to spread terror in various “shanties” of Blacks suspected of harboring Railroad, the posse eventually made it to the house of James H. Stewart. It was there where they discovered Railroad Bill hiding in the barn. “What do you all want around here?” he demanded. The posse responded by telling him to surrender, and then the shooting began. It would continue late into the night, with the posse intending to keep the outlaw pinned until morning.

Around midnight, though, Watts discovered that Stewart had been killed. There was some light made of the fact that he had been found with his head in his own tilled soil, the embodiment of the expression “to bite the dust”. Railroad had used Stewart’s fall as an opportunity to make his getaway. The killing of Stewart is likely to have been a turning point in public opinion on Railroad; the White community would certainly have been rattled. The governor and L&N together offered hundreds of dollars for Railroad’s capture. It was in this climate that Edward S. McMillan became the sheriff of Escambia County, Alabama, with a promise to end the problems on the M&M.  

A week after killing Stewart, Railroad was again tracked to Pollard, Alabama. But before the posse was able to locate him there, Railroad raided the local armory and fled. It seems that Railroad was suspicious of his opponents’ knowledge of his whereabouts, and likely deduced that his companion Mark Stinson was ratting him out. He set up a meeting with Stinson in a remote cabin a few nights later, only to stand him up. A posse of L&N detectives arrived on the scene and shot Stinson down. This bought Railroad a few more months, but only further incensed authorities. 

In July Sheriff McMillan caught word that Railroad was back in Bluff Springs, Florida. He formed a posse but was ambushed by Railroad en route and died. That accounts for one lyric which recalls how Railroad Bill “killed McMillan by the light of the moon”. Later that month a posse would spend five days pursuing him around Murder Creek in Escambia County, Alabama. During that pursuit he would kill two men and a dog. At this point, the bounty on the outlaw’s head was more than one thousand dollars. L&N also offered Railroad’s captor a lifetime pass on the railroad – in essence, whoever betrayed the criminal who began his career as a freighthopper would be rewarded with the free rides which he had so long been refused.

Eventually, the law and the railroad did catch up with Bill. Or so the story goes. It was March 7, 1896, in Atmore, Alabama. Railroad Bill set out from one of the humble Black homes which often sheltered him. He was on his way to Tidmore and Ward’s general store. Some sources claim he was planning a robbery there, while others claim he was going there to buy provisions. He had apparently made purchases there in the past, and it is believed that the proprietor expected him to return that night, discreetly entering through the side door near closing time. No one knows for sure how complicit Tidmore was, but the trap was set. Railroad Bill entered through the side door and approached the counter. He took a seat in front of Tidmore, and began to converse. Unbeknownst to him, posse members including Constable Leonard McGowin were already taking aim. Like so many other tales in his life, the facts of Railroad Bill’s death are unclear. But McGowin got the credit, and the reward was split between him, two posse members, and Tidmore… though the Black shopowner would later renounce his share. 

Carl Carmer reports that McMillan’s brother rushed to the scene from Brewton an hour later. When eagerly approaching the store to see the body of his brother’s killer, he heard a voice taunt, “Reckon you wouldn’t walk so fast if you knew Railroad was still living.” The body was taken outside and Railroad Bill’s only known photograph was taken with McGowin beside him. At the dead man’s side rested his infamous Winchester, reportedly featuring the inscription “R. R. Bill” in its stock. The body would go on to be exhibited in Brewton and then Montgomery, where spectators were charged 25 cents until officials finally thought better of it. 

It was eventually moved to Pensacola for Florida authorities to verify in order to dispense their reward money, and there it was again made into a spectacle for a paying audience until the city’s leaders decided it was distasteful. 12 years later Leander Shaw would be lynched and his body left on display in Pensacola’s Plaza Ferdinand VII, hanging from a lamp. The next year would see a repeat with David Alexander, before finally, once again, the city’s leaders decided to speak out against mob violence and the public display of its victims. Railroad Bill’s corpse was then taken to Birmingham to be “petrified” so as to permit permanent display, yet it was never shown to the public again. Instead, it made its way back to Pensacola, where it ended its near-month of postmortem travels with burial in the Black section of the segregated St. John’s Cemetery.

A headstone was placed there in 2012 for “Morris Slater”, or “Railroad Bill”. It marks the body of the man killed in Tidmore and Ward’s general store, at least. You may be content to just let it go at that. Or maybe he is still taking the form of animals, or pushing products off that rolling bounty that passes through the piney woods of Alabama and Florida. There is so little we can say for sure, you might as well take both stories as credible. And there are many other stories of Railroad Bill which could not be included here. If you think he’s living still, just don’t go walking too fast to see him. He don’t like being followed.

Further reading:

Massey, Larry L. The Life and Crimes of Railroad Bill: Legendary African American Desperado. University Press of Florida. 2015. https://archive.org/details/lifecrimesofrail0000mass/

Mathews, Burgin. “‘Looking for Railroad Bill’: On the Trail of an Alabama Badman”, Southern Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 66-88, University of North Carolina Press. Fall 2003. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44378698

__________________

Jeremy Ray Jewell is an American writer of folkways. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com

Yulia San Miguel is a Colombian artist and designer. Her Instagram is www.instagram.com/yuliasanmiguelart

Support this project on Patreon: www.patreon.com/jeremyrayjewell

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