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The Legend of Railroad Bill On March 7, 1897, while eating crackers and cheese in Tidmore and Ward’s general store in Atmore, a fugitive African-American train robber named Morris Slater was shot and killed by Sheriff Leonard McGowan. Slater’s life was over, but his legend was just beginning. Slater was better known, in life and in death, as “Railroad Bill.” According to the police Railroad Bill had bedeviled trainmen in Alabama and Florida for years and had murdered at least two people, including the sheriff of Escambia County, who had failed to heed Bill’s handwritten warning: “I love you and do not want to kill you so do not come after me.” But to the poor African Americans who lived along the L&N tracks, Railroad Bill was a hero. In their version of the story, he was a law-abiding worker in the turpentine camps that dotted the piney woods, until the police came for him on trumped-up charges. He grabbed his guns, disappeared into the swamps, and spent the rest of his days robbing trains and helping the poor, often by leaving crates of groceries on the porch. To his fans he was the black Robin Hood of Alabama. As Railroad Bill continued to elude capture, wild stories were told about him: He was a hoodoo man, a sorcerer; he caught bullets in his hands and shot holes through dimes; he transformed himself into a bloodhound and ran with the pack that was hunting him; only silver bullets could kill him. Three thousand people, it is said, came to see Railroad Bill’s body on view in nearby Brewton. Later it was put on display in Pensacola and Montgomery. Curiosity seekers were charged admission, and hawkers did a brisk business in souvenir photos of Sheriff McGowan posing with Railroad Bill’s corpse. And yet the wild stories persisted: Railroad Bill’s white enemies had stuffed his corpse’s mouth with bitterweed and later dropped dead of mysterious circumstances; Railroad Bill was not dead at all, but still out there in the swamps, helping the poor, terrorizing the railroad men, and guarding his vast hoard of loot that no one would ever find. Before long people were singing a song about Railroad Bill, parts of which almost certainly are older than Morris Slater. Versions of “Railroad Bill” have been recorded by Etta Baker, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Cisco Houston, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison, and the New Christy Minstrels, among many others. The old song’s many verses include these: Railroad Bill lived on a hillHe never worked and he never willRailroad Bill going down the hillLighting cigars with a five-dollar billRailroad Bill went out WestShot all the buttons off a brakeman’s vest Tidmore and Ward’s general store is long gone, but it was located on the 100 block of Ashley Street downtown. There is no historical marker, alas, for the site of Railroad Bill’s last meal.