Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Legend of Railroad Bill - Alabama's Robin Hood

There is a legend in south Alabama, associated with the spirit of a man known as, “Railroad Bill”. This story, from slave cultures, during the post-Civil War era, during the reconstruction of the South, documents a “Robin Hood” type character who stole from food trains and sold the items to poor, rural southern families for less than they could buy them in general stores. The true identity of Railroad Bill is still very much a mystery. However, his ghost is still roaming the L&N Railroad tracks to this very day.

The Louisville to Nashville Railroad was the catalyst that literally drove Railroad Bill from destination to destination, eluding law enforcement from Alabama to Florida for exactly a year and a day. On March 6, 1895, an armed vagrant was spotted by L&N railroad employees. As they attempted to apprehend the man, believed to be Railroad Bill, the man fired at them and escaped by jumping into a passing box car headed south.
"Railroad Bill" was an infamous character who robbed food trains on the L&N Railroad during the reconstruction of the south.

A month later, on April 6, 1895, in Bay Minette, Alabama, a man hunt was organized to catch the bandit. The posse confronted a man, who they believed was Railroad Bill and he fled on foot. The group tracked him to a farm house in Baldwin County and the fugitive fired on the men, mortally wounding Sheriff, James Stewart and disappearing into the surrounding forest.

The man believed to be the elusive railroad bandit was identified as Morris Slater, a convict who ran away from a turpentine camp in Bluff Springs, Florida after he murdered an officer. A $500 reward was placed on Bill Slater and bounty hunters from as far away as Texas and Indiana organized to find him and collect the reward.

On July 4, 1895, Brewton County Sheriff, E.S. McMillian, was hot on the trail of Railroad Bill and his posse tracked him to a house near Bluff Springs. Bill, once again, showed no mercy and shot the deputy sheriff who later died from the wound. This sparked an even bigger manhunt, and according to records, over one hundred men, from all over the south joined vigilantes, organized poses and deputized groups to hunt down Railroad Bill.

Throughout the summer of 1895, articles from newspapers all over the state, showed up that read, “The Wrong Man Shot” (Pine Belt News – Brewton, Alabama) and of the groups forming from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida looking to collect the reward, capture and or kill Railroad Bill. Still, he eluded them, and tales from black communities began to circulate that Bill Slater had some mystical power that enabled him to shape shift into a dog. This apparent magic also enabled him to escape authorities. Others believed that he possessed the power to throw off his trackers, even causing the best bloodhounds to lose his scent and become confused and disoriented.
Rumors in African America communities, all over Alabama, resulted in the belief that Railroad Bill had the mystical ability to shape shift into a large black dog.
By September 1895, the bounty for the capture of Railroad Bill grew tremendously to $1,250 and many blacks in the south were being targeted as potential suspects; misidentified as Bill Slater or accused of being an accomplice, and men were desperate to collect the huge reward. On March 7, 1896, at Wards General Store, located in Atmore, Alabama, a group of men positively identified Bill Slater as the bandit and killed him. Dispelling the identity of the railroad marauder came as a result. People from Brewton, Alabama, who came to see the body, say he was a local man named, Bill McCoy.

His true identity is still very much a mystery but his death served the purpose of satisfying authorities. Railroad Bill was put on public display, his body shipped from Brewton to Montgomery and to Pensacola, Florida. The public paid a meager .25 to view the corpse and he was later buried in an unmarked grave, in an undisclosed location.
The body of this man was Bill McCoy, according to Brewton, Alabama townspeople. Leaving the actual identity of Railroad Bill a mystery to this day. (Constable J.L. McGowan pictured here with the rifle that allegedly killed Railroad Bill) 
Since his death in 1896, songs and plays about Railroad Bill have been a prominent part of African American music and cultural arts. His spirit lives on in music, and in the form of a huge black hound that is frequently seen along the tracks of the L&N Railroad from Tennessee, to Florida. The death of Railroad Bill may have come at the hands of fate, but his ghost will live on, lingering over the miles and miles of railway tracks dodging authorities and offering a hand out when he can.  


  1. Im from Canoe ( 7 miles from Atmore), and the stories of bill have died down in recent years to now be almost non-existent. No stories of a large black dog .

  2. Im from Canoe ( 7 miles from Atmore), and the stories of bill have died down in recent years to now be almost non-existent. No stories of a large black dog .