Alabama Folkways Articles
August 11, 1999

ESCAMBIA COUNTY BADMAN LEAVES LEGACY OF FACT AND FICTION

By Burgin Mathews

In October of 1892, deputy sheriff Alan Brewton of Bluff Springs, Florida fired a shot at a turpentine camp worker who refused to register his rifle in accordance with the state’s license laws. The worker returned the shot, wounding one of Brewton’s men and fleeing into the swamps for escape.

This man’s name was Morris Slater, but he was soon known across northern Florida and southern Alabama as Railroad Bill, gaining status as a hero of African-American folklore. Bill was famous for jumping freight trains and stealing goods, throwing cans of food out of boxcars and returning by foot to collect the loot. Then he’d sell the provisions cheaply, or, according to the popular story, simply give them to the poor.

As the stories and ballads detailing his exploits grew, Railroad Bill’s life became surrounded by legend, so that the facts and the tales remain blurred today. Because of his ability to elude the law, he was believed by many to possess supernatural powers. Many believed he was a conjurer, trained in the powers of hoodoo, and that he could change himself into an animal, a trick he, reportedly, used to escape. Once Bill supposedly joined the sheriff’s pack of hounds in the shape of a dog and "chased himself" all the way to his girl friend’s house, where he remained as the posse and dogs continued their search.

Legends arose that Bill could be killed only by a silver bullet, and that he could painlessly catch bullets in his hands. He was said to be so skilled with a gun that he could shoot a hole through a dime, and, according to one ballad’s verse, he sportingly "shot all the buttons off the brakeman’s coat." Some people believed that simply touching him would bring luck.

To others who tangled with Bill, however, his touch brought death, and he gained the reputation as a murderer as his career continued to unfold. Brewton sheriff Ed McMillan took on the case of capturing Bill, and on July 3 of 1895 he found and cornered the outlaw, only to be shot and killed.

Rewards were offered for Bill’s body, dead or alive, and the hunt escalated. Candidates for public office throughout south Alabama promised, in their speeches, to catch the villain. Several black detectives were hired to gain Bill's confidence and capture him, but all failed. One detective by the name of Mark Stinson traveled with Bill for months without ever catching the outlaw with his guard down, until finally his reports to the local officials stopped coming. Stinson was never seen nor heard from again.

Railroad Bill’s career ended at last in Tidmore and Ward’s general store in Atmore. On March 7, 1896, he walked into the store to buy some food and was shot by Sheriff Leonard McGowan. McGowan’s bullet sent the outlaw to the floor, where the body was riddled by further shots to ensure that Bill was dead.

But Railroad Bill’s story continued, even in death. His body was put on display in Montgomery, Brewton, and Pensacola, where visitors could pay 25 cents for a look. Souvenir hunters bought pictures of McGowan posed with the famous corpse, and even stripped the body itself of buttons, scraps of clothing, and bullet cartridges. And still the legends continued.

The son of Sheriff McMillan, one popular story claimed, placed bitterweed in the dead man’s mouth as a symbol of his hatred and revenge. Another story explained how one of the men who tended the outlaw’s body was scratched and died of blood poisoning. And still others insisted that Railroad Bill did not die at all, but that he still roamed the piney woods and swamps, as a fox or an eagle or a hound, always laughing at the white society which believed him dead. As late as the Depression, stories circulated that the food some families received from federal relief was actually from Railroad Bill. And even today, Railroad Bill’s name looms large in the memory of Escambia County, an often-recalled symbol of the local history and lore.

Railroad Bill, coming home soon

Killed McMillan by the light of the moon

Then it’s ride, ride, ride.

_________

Burgin Mathews interned with the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture during the summer of 1999. Railroad Bill is the subject of his senior thesis at Vassar College.