For over a year, Railroad Bill eluded sheriffs, private detectives hired by the L&N line, and bounty hunters who traveled across the country to match guns with the legendary desperado. The African American outlaw was wanted on multiple charges of robbery and murder, and rumor had it that he stole from the rich to give to the poor. He terrorized busy train lines from east of Mobile to the Florida Panhandle, but as soon as the lawmen got close, he disappeared into the bayous and pine forests – until one day his luck ran out, and he was gunned down inside a general store in Atmore, Alabama.
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Little is known about Railroad Bill before his infamy – not his real name or his origins. His first recorded crime, carrying a repeating rifle without a license, led him into a gunfight with a deputy and made him a wanted man throughout Florida in 1894. His most celebrated escape – a five-day foot chase with scores of men and several bloodhounds – led to tales of Railroad's supernatural ability to transmogrify into an animal or inanimate object at will. As his crimes progressed from robbing boxcars to wounding trainmen to murdering sheriffs, more and more reward money was offered for his capture – dead or alive.
Today, Railroad Bill is the subject of many folk songs popularized by singers such as Paul McCartney, Taj Mahal, Gillian Welch, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. But who was he? Where did he come from? What events led to his murderous spree? And why did some view him as a hero?
In Railroad Bill, Larry Massey separates fact from myth and teases out elusive truths from tall tales to ultimately reveal the man behind the bandit's mask.