Railroad Bill is one of the most colorful folklore stories ever to exist in the State of Alabama.
As his legend grew, Alabama’s African American community, while condemning his activities, still very much admired his courage as well as his audacity.
Several people gave him supernatural abilities, saying that the only way he could ever be sopped was with silver bullets.
Other folk stories suggested that he could literally change into an animal or an inanimate object to avoid capture, while other say he was a shape shiftier.
He became so popular that an African American folk ballad was born in 1895 that was titled “Railroad Bill”, with the bad man theme.
The true early life of the man call “Railroad Bill” is still to this day not fully known, but there has been a lot of speculation.
His actual true names, location of his birth, and any details about his family have been debated for numerous years, but there are a few facts that are known.
What is known about him is that he once traveled with a circus and while there, learned to be a very talented showman with several skills.
He also joined a turpentine company that was based out of South Carolina and stayed with them when they relocated to Baldwin County Alabama, and Bluff Springs, Florida.
There he was known as Morris Slater, who was extremely athletic and an outstanding laborer.
However, he soon became an antagonist of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, after a brakeman for the railroad caught him stealing a ride to Mobile, Alabama.
He caught him and threw him off of the moving train, where Railroad Bill immediately fired his rifle he was carrying, at the worker.
This action by L & N launched him into a personal vendetta against the company, which would last for several years.
In the coming years, he would wound several trainmen, actually take and commandeer a train, and then force it out of the station.
But Railroads Bill did not just stop there; he would also threaten the life of the Superintendent of the L & N Mobile and Montgomery Alabama Division, James L. McKinnie.
The company, as a result of these threats, hired detectives to investigate him as well as offered their first of many rewards for his capture, a $350.00 reward.
However, the company still did not his actual name, so they simple called him “Railroad Bill”.
Slater soon became wanted in the state of Florida as well for carrying a rifle without a permit, and a deputy attempted to arrest him.
However, this attempt soon led to a gunfight, and the deputy was wounded, which soon led to even more criminal activity.
He then organized a freight-car gang with only one purpose in mind; to steal as much merchandise as they could from any and all L & N trains that were operating in the southwestern part of Alabama.
Their plan for this gang was very simple; place a man inside of a box car at night before the train left the station.
Once the train would start to move, he would then throw freight from the box cars onto the tracks, where other members of the gang would collect it.
This is where some of the legend and folklore of Railroad Bill starts to take shape, as the gang would give the freight to the poor.
Several more gunfights involving Railroad Bill would ensue, and one of the most famous occurred on March 6, 1895.
On this date a freight crew found Railroad Bill asleep behind a water tower located near Hurricane Bayou, on the west side of Bay Minette, Alabama.
The crew snuck up on him and took his rifle as well as his pistol before they woke him up, but he was about to surprise them again.
He immediately jumped to his feet and ran, and once a fair distance away, he pulled out another revolver and started a gunfight with the crew.
He fought the crew back into a section house where they sought protection, and about this time another train pulled up to the tank where Railroad Bill was at.
He jumped onto the train where he forced the engineer to drive it away, but after only a few hundred yards, he jumped back off and fought the crew again.
He finally ran out of ammunition, and then vanished into some swamplands, where the crew could not find him, adding to his folklore.
However, about 30 days later on the night of April 6, 1895, another gun fight would take place.
This time he was in Bay Minette Alabama, where he engaged two more men in a gunfight.
The men were not injured, and immediately alerted a detective from the L & N train company.
He immediately organized a posse, where they tracked him and then surrounded him in a barn about midnight.
There was another gunfight, and one member of the posse, Deputy Sheriff James Stewart, was killed.
The rewards for his capture were increased to $ 500.00, and now it was dead or alive.
The state of Alabama enlisted the help of Sheriff Edward McMillan of Escambia County, to lead this new effort.
He recruited a man named Mark Stinson, who was supposedly a friend of Railroad Bill, as an undercover agent to help find him.
He provided them with the needed information, where this new posse followed him to Pollard Alabama on April 12, 1865.
He made plans to meet up with Mark Stinson in a remote cabin in Mount Vernon, Alabama, where the posse made a huge mistake.
The posse and railroad detectives assaulted the cabin and mistook Stinson for Railroad Bill, and killed him by mistake.
There were still more deaths that Railroad Bill would cause, on the next would occur in July of 1895.
The Sheriff of Brenton County Alabama, Sheriff McMillian, found out that his quarry was located in Bluff Springs Florida.
He had been legally deputized in the state of Florida, so he formed yet another posse, and approached his hideout.
However, as they approached, he surprised them once again, and in the gunfight that ensured, killed the Sheriff from Alabama.
The rewards on him were increased yet again, now to $1,250.00, which now brought in several other groups.
These groups included bounty hunters, railroad detectives, as well as Pinkerton agents, all the way from Chicago.
However, even with all of these people chasing him, he was still not captured. On July 29, 1895, the posse which now numbered over 100 men tracked him to some swamplands between Brewton and Castleberry, Alabama.
However, they could still not capture him and his folklore for miraculous escapes continued to grow even more.
It is estimated that he had over 17 of these types of escapes, which led to the stories that he would change into an animal or some type of inanimate object.
However, all of this would come to an end on March 7, 1896. Railroad Bill was eventually killed in a General store in Atmore, Alabama, where the store owner had set up a trap for him.
He knew he would come into the store about the time it closed, and he set up an ambush to take him out. He had hidden two men inside of the store, and they waited for the signal from the owner to enact their plan.
However, this plan was interrupted by two posse members that were also hunting him, and one of them was Atmore Constable Leonard Mcgowin.
When Mcgowin entered the store, he saw Railroad Bill talking to the owner, and shot his rifle twice at point blank range.
After being in and surviving numerous gunfights, he staggered a few steps, and then fell dead onto the floor.
However, even this story is not completely accepted, as some eyewitnesses say it was a bounty hunter named Dick Jones from Texas, who actually killed him.
The body of railroad Bill was taken to Montgomery, where city officials would charge twenty-five cents for people to see the body.
From there the body was taken to Pensacola, Florida, where the same thing happened, until it was finally taken to Birmingham to be buried.
The grave’s location there was unmarked until the year 2012, where a headstone was placed.
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