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Ask Rufus: Rube Burrows, Alabama's 'King of the Outlaws'

 

A gun fight between Rube Burrows and a sheriff's posse in Blount County, Alabama, as pictured on the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper for November 16, 1889. Newspapers called Burrows of Lamar County, Alabama,

A gun fight between Rube Burrows and a sheriff's posse in Blount County, Alabama, as pictured on the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper for November 16, 1889. Newspapers called Burrows of Lamar County, Alabama, "The King of the Outlaws." Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rube Burrows' favorite robbery target appears to have been Southern Express Company rail shipments. This Southern Express money bag was used on Mobile and Ohio Railroad shipments from Columbus and Artesia in the 1890s.

Rube Burrows' favorite robbery target appears to have been Southern Express Company rail shipments. This Southern Express money bag was used on Mobile and Ohio Railroad shipments from Columbus and Artesia in the 1890s.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Sometimes stories just fall together and need to be written. I recently bought an 1889 Wheeling, West Virginia newspaper with a front-page story about train robbers holding up a Mobile and Ohio Railroad train at Buckatunna. Not long after getting the newspaper, Karen and I were at Faulkner Antiques in Vernon, Alabama, and I got to talking to a lady there whose family had known that Buckatunna train robber, Rube Burrows. 

 

Burrows, a native of Lamar County, Alabama, was called by some publications, "The King of the Outlaws." Though his exploits were mostly limited to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, newspapers across the country carried front-page accounts of Burrows' daring robberies and narrow escapes. He became the most feared train robber of the 1880s.  

 

Burrows was born in 1855 near the small Lamar County community of Jewel. There his father was a farmer and occasionally a schoolteacher. Burrows lived there until he moved to Texas during the mid-1870s. In later years, when hotly pursued by law enforcement or railroad detectives, he would return to Lamar County to hide out.  

 

In Texas, he worked for his uncle, who had a ranch, and there he got married. His wife died in 1880 and Burrows seemed to change. He sent his children back to Alabama with his brother while he remained in Texas. Burrows became a successful cattleman, though he seemed to acquire many head of cattle under suspicious circumstances. He even remarried, but the relationship did not last.  

 

Restless and inspired by stories of Jesse James and Sam Bass, Burrows robbed his first train in Texas in 1886. There followed at least eight other train robberies in Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, and when confronted he would shoot to kill. In Mississippi, trains were robbed at Duck Hill in Montgomery County and Buckatunna in Jones County.  

 

Accounts of Burrows' robberies spread nationwide. The New York Country Gentleman reported in 1889: "Rube Burrows, a desperate outlaw, is terrorizing Blount County, Ala. Houses are locked and guarded, children kept at home, and even churches are closed." The New York Times reported that after Burrows' Buckatunna robbery, "a reward of $7,500 was then offered for his capture dead or alive."  

 

Burrows kept his gang small and the robberies were committed by only Burrows and one or two accomplices. By 1890, his small gang was beginning to break up. Joe Jackson, who had ridden with Burrows from the beginning, was captured by railroad detectives and Columbus police at the Southern Railway (C&G) passenger depot on Main Street in Columbus. Another gang member, Rube Smith, was captured at the Frisco depot in Amory.  

 

Railroad detectives learned in June 1890 that Burrows was hiding out in Lamar County. It was reported: "Burrows is living quietly in a little cabin, located in a secluded spot in the wildest part of Lamar County. He spends his time hunting, fishing and working at a moonshine still. He is surrounded by relatives and friends, who would fight for him at a moment's notice." A raid was made by railroad detectives with the assistance of local law enforcement officers. After raiding several wrong houses, the Burrows house was finally surrounded but Rube had escaped.  

 

In October 1890, members of a posse that had been chasing Burrows were told of his location and he was captured near Linden, Alabama. He was carried to Linden but managed to escape. He was then shot and killed by J.D. Carter, a member of the posse, during a gunfight in the street beside the courthouse in Linden. Several Alabama newspapers, however, reported that Burrows had not been killed in a shootout but captured by railroad detectives, beaten and then killed by them. 

 

At the turn of the century, Burrows' exploits were legendary. Several books about his life appeared and among those interested in the history of Western outlaws, and his story continued to be told. An Emmy-winning television series by Republic Pictures in 1954-55 featured accounts of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Black Bart, Doc Holliday and Rube Burrows. In 1966, Leaf issued bubble gum cards of the most famous "Bad Guys." Burrows was included.  

 

Burrows once walked the streets of Vernon, Sulligent, Carrollton, Columbus, Amory and other area towns. One of his hideouts was said to have been The Dismals, now a popular nature area in northwest Alabama. During his brief career, Burrows was looked upon by many in Lamar County as a Robin Hood figure. The Grenada Sentinel reported in 1889 it had heard "a gentleman remark ... that the only difference between Rube Burrows the notorious robber and the Southern Express Company is that Burrows robs the Express Company with nerve and daring, while the Express Company is licensed to rob the people, which it seems to do with perfection."  

 

Even after the break up of the Burrows' gang and the death of Rube, his robberies apparently did not end. In Aberdeen one Saturday night in April of 1891, Joe Williams, Bill Clopton and Shelby Johnson got drunk and forced their way into the house of Tennessee Buckingham. The Grenada Sentinel reported "Williams rushed in crying out that he was Rube Burrows" and shot and robbed Buckingham.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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