Two Notorious Sons And An Honest Father.
ASHS Column for 09 28 06
Many folks have heard of Rube Burrows – although more
than one source claims it should be spelled "Burrow." But
I’d say there are those who hadn’t heard of the infamous
train robber and killer before today.
Santa Rosa County, Florida has a partial claim on
another legendary outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, but Burrow
beat a lawman in a bet with sharp shooting in Milton about
the time Hardin had made his reputation.
Vernon, Alabama, county seat of Lamar County, was
the place of his birth, not ten miles as the crow flies, from
the Mississippi state line. He was the oldest of four
siblings raised by Allen and Emily Burrow. He and his
brother, Jim, or "Buck," wearied of the life of poverty and made their way to Texas. There they bought a small farm which eventually served as a refuge for the criminal life ahead of them.
Rube and Buck were in the process of robbing a stagecoach when Rube noticed one of the passengers coughing in a fit of consumption. The man had only five silver dollars to his name and in a surprising show of compassion Burrow allowed the sick man to keep his money.
Two other men joined the brothers in their schemes and they soon raised the stakes from stagecoaches to trains. When holding up a train that had stopped for water, Burrow once more showed a softer side when he gave back a ruby ring to a small boy who said it was a gift from his dead mother.
With a penchant for anger at the slightest provocation, Rube was oddly not afraid to show a tender side of his nature. Most people around Lamar County were not fearful of the brothers when they came back home. Actually, they admired the Burrow Brothers. They were seen as "Robin Hoods," robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. In fact, Rube bought new clothes for his relatives and lent them money when they needed it. He never robbed a poor man.
Although folks weren’t afraid of Rube, they still didn’t want to be robbed by him. A good bit of money was kept up at the Courthouse, and officials tried to figure out a safe place to keep it. Banks weren’t secure and neither was the courthouse. They finally found the answer. They took the money from the Courthouse and carried it to Rube’s father, Allen, who was known in the area as an honest man, despite the fact that two of his sons were notorious robbers. They figured that of all the places to keep the money safe, this was it because Rube would never rob from his own father.
Later, Rube and Jim decided that being back in Lamar County was too dangerous, so they packed their belongings and went their separate ways; Rube headed for Birmingham, and Jim went to Montgomery. Shortly, Rube went back to Texas, and went on a spree of train robberies.
By this time, his description was sent out to railroads everywhere and a small army of railroad and Pinkerton detectives set out to capture him. He was trailed to Santa Rosa County, Florida, where rumor had it that he was in Milton on Christmas Day, 1889.
It was also a day for an annual shooting contest for a hundred-dollar prize, and a large crowd began milling around where the shooting was taking place. One of the detectives pursuing Rube, T.V. Jackson, impulsively decided to be a contestant.
At a hundred paces, the half-dollar-sized bull’s eye must have been just a dot to the participants. The bull’s eye hadn’t been touched until Jackson placed three shots around its edge, close enough to win. Then a man stepped forward to shoot against Jackson. His shots not only pierced the center of the target, but the last two shots went in the same hole as the first! The man took the hundred dollar prize and walked off.
Jackson was humiliated when he later found out the man was Rube Burrow himself! He dashed about trying to find him, to no avail. Burrow was lost in the crowd.
Three weeks later, Burrow was seen near Castleberry, Alabama, and the detectives tracked him to the Alabama River. The posse crossed the river near Demopolis and planned to catch him as he traveled north toward Vernon.
T.V. Jackson and John Mc Duffie, a landowner in that section of Alabama, came across two men working in a cotton field. McDuffie called out to them and asked if they’d seen a strange man with a rifle pass by recently.
They said they had – that a man came along about dark the night before and spent the night in an empty cabin about two hundred yards across the field from where they now stood.
Jackson offered the men, Hildreth and Marshall, a hundred dollars each to help capture Burrow. Jackson said, "That man, since he knows you two from yesterday, will let you come into the cabin. You’ll have to have some excuse, like seeing if he wants some water." Jackson continued, "When you get in there, grab his gun, or he’ll kill you both."
The two did as they were instructed. Hildreth was a huge man and wrestled Burrows to the floor when Marshall jerked the gun from his hands. The group, Jackson, McDuffie, Burrow, and a man named Carter rode the seven miles into Linden, Alabama, to place Burrow behind bars. Marshall and Hildreth walked behind; they wanted to be sure they got their money.
Before good daylight the next morning, Burrow tricked Hildreth and Marshall into handing him his bag, where he had previously stashed a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. It was a gun Burrow had taken from an express messenger during a train robbery at Flomaton. Rube went next door where Carter was sleeping, to get his rifle back. When Carter came to the door carrying a lantern, he surprised Burrow by throwing it at him, and then he grabbed a gun just inside the door.
Carter’s first shot hit Burrow in the stomach and as he staggered and fell, he fired his pistol at Carter who narrowly avoided being fatally hit. Burrow died almost immediately.
Rube Burrow’s body was shipped by train back to Lamar County. It was reported that on a stop in Birmingham thousands viewed the corpse and people snatched buttons from his coat, cut hair from his head and even his boots were carried away by people.
When Rube’s father Allen met the train, the story goes that the train attendants threw the coffin at his feet. "He was a prized catch and they hauled him through town on the back of a wagon," said one observer. "He was photographed in his casket with his guns by his side."
Allen Burrow carried his son’s body back to his home community near Vernon. One can only imagine the sadness that filled the old man’s heart, knowing his son was reviled so.