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"Looking for Railroad Bill"
On the Trail of an Alabama Badman
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." 1
Later that week, the Pine Belt News rendered the event in the same theatrical terms, proclaiming "the curtain was unceremoniously rung down on Saturday night." The language of the "theatre," the "last act," and the "curtain . . . rung down" created a dramatic finale long awaited by many of Alabama's citizens. For over a year, newspapers had indeed put on a show, a morality play steeped in melodrama and violence, and in a final, grisly climax the show had at last come to its anticipated end. 2
Railroad Bill began his career around 1893 as a turpentine still worker named Morris Slater. According to the often repeated story, Slater had refused to pay any tax on his Winchester rifle and instead, in the words of the Montgomery Advertiser, "bid defiance to the world in general." A couple of policemen confronted Slater, ordering him to hand over the weapon or face arrest; Slater walked away, was shot at, and shot back. Deputy Sheriff Allen Brewton was wounded in the ear, and Slater escaped into the swamps or, according to some later accounts, onto a passing train. Over the next two years, Morris Slater—known forever after as "Railroad Bill"—terrorized trains, illegally riding the south Alabama freighters, often robbing them of their goods and occasionally engaging in shootouts with [End Page 66] resisting trainmen or police. Eventually, in one of those shootouts, he added murder to his record, and by 1895 he was the most wanted criminal in the state. And, most significant to his unfolding legend, he was black. 3
Alabama had recently emerged from Reconstruction and with the rest of the South struggled to adjust to a new racial as well as economic order. During the 1890s white southerners fought to contain black autonomy, creating codes of segregation and developing the corresponding codes of racial violence; lynching had become a regional pastime, enacted publicly and with unprecedented regularity. In an effort to assert their supremacy, whites constructed a unified racial identity and responded with fear and violence to an emancipated and, they thought, unruly African American population. Within this context, the legend of Railroad Bill became a stage on which the white South enacted its bloody drama of race, identity, and power. For white southerners, the elusive character justified their fear of black autonomy as well as the need for retaliation. The hunt for Railroad [End Page 67] Bill, which reached its greatest intensity between the summer of 1895 and the following March, pitted the black demon against the vast and righteous arm of a loosely configured body of white law enforcement; the curtain rung down in Atmore signified plainly the end of Railroad Bill's reign of terror. The white fear of black autonomy, however, would remain, enhanced by the events of the preceding months. And while the law and the press—the white South's most visible extensions—had created from the real life of Morris Slater an allegory of good and evil, black southerners reacted—and, to some...