For those of you in the reading audience who enjoy local history, I highly recommend a new book by Larry L. Massey called “The Life and Crimes of Railroad Bill: Legendary African American Desperado.”
To be published by the University Press of Florida on Sept. 8, this 192-page book examines the criminal career of one of Alabama’s most famous outlaws, a Robin Hood-type figure who was wanted on multiple charges of robbery and murder up and down the Louisville & Nashville Railroad in the 1890s.
For those of you unfamiliar with Railroad Bill, most sources agree that his real name was Morris Slater, who probably came to Southwest Alabama and the Florida Panhandle from South Carolina in the 1890s to work in the turpentine mills. Slater first ran afoul of the law in Florida when officers tried to arrest him for carrying a repeating rifle without a license in 1894. This led to a gunfight with a deputy and Slater’s ability to elude the ensuing manhunts made him one of the most famous outlaws in Alabama and Florida history.
About a year later, in July 1895, Slater became perhaps the most wanted man in the South when he shot and killed Escambia County Sheriff Edward S. McMillan of Brewton. McMillan had vowed to bring Slater to justice, but Slater got the upper hand in the end. A massive manhunt was launched and this led to one of the most famous episodes of Slater’s criminal career, “The Castleberry Chase.”
During “The Castleberry Chase,” which Massey devotes an entire chapter to in his book, Slater took to the swamps along Murder Creek between Brewton and Castleberry and managed to outwit and escape a massive manhunt that was composed of dozens of armed men and state prison bloodhounds. Despite their best efforts, the manhunt was eventually called off after the fleet-footed Slater managed to out-run, out-hide and out-think the men that were hot on his track. The fact that Slater was also a deadly shot with his famous Winchester rifle also aided in his escape.
Slater’s ability to elude these manhunters, which included a wide variety of Sheriff’s deputies, reward-hungry bounty hunters and professional Pinkerton and L&N Railroad detectives, was such a big deal that Slater began to gain the reputation as a supernatural shape-shifter. All kinds of stories began to circulate that Slater could escape by turning himself into an animal and even inanimate objects. Slater apparently fostered many of these stories, which only added to the mystique around him and caused many to help him out of sheer fear.
Of course, Slater came to a bad end. In March 1896, Constable James Leonard McGowin shot and killed Slater in the Tidmore & Ward’s Store on Ashley Street in Atmore. Massey’s book gives a vivid description of this incident and of how Slater’s body was shuffled around in the following days as hundreds of onlookers tried to get a firsthand look at the famous outlaw’s corpse before its final burial in a Pensacola graveyard.
In the end, I highly recommend this book to anyone in the reading audience with an interest in local history. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better book on Railroad Bill, and it’s worth every penny. The book won’t officially be released until Sept. 8, but you can pre-order copies of the book online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.