“Looking for Railroad Bill”: On the Trail of an Alabama Badman

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“Looking for Railroad Bill”: On the Trail of an Alabama Badman

by Burgin Mathews
Southern Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 3: Fall 2003

"Over the next two years, Morris Slate—known forever as "Railroad Bill"—terrorized trains, illegally riding the south Alabama freighters, often robbing them of their goods and occasionally engaging in shootouts with resisting trainmen or police. Eventually, in one of those shootouts, he added murder to his record."

Railroad Bill, the “notorious Negro desperado” of Escambia County, Alabama, stepped into Tidmore and Ward’s general store in the small railroad community of Atmore on March 7, 1896; he left the store dead, his body riddled with bullets, his face and right hand mangled. “About fifteen pistol, rifle and gunshot wounds were found,” the local Pine Belt News reported. “It was the opinion [of the examiner] that the first shot fired by [Constable] J. L. McGowan would have proved fatal.” The fourteen or so others, however, ceremoniously and beyond any lingering doubt closed the case. The full story ran the next morning in newspapers across Alabama. “The forces were all concentrated around Atmore,” Montgomery’s Daily Advertiser announced, “for they knew that that small station was destined to be the theatre where the curtain would be rung down on the last act of Railroad Bill’s bloody career. It was rung all right last night.”