Ask Rufus: Rube Burrows: 'King of the Outlaws,' the most feared train robber

August 15, 2010 3:21:00 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Rube Burrows was called by some publications, "The King of the Outlaws." Though his exploits were limited to Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, his fame or notoriety was nationwide. He became the most feared train robber of the late 1880s. 


Burrows was born in 1855 near the small Lamar County, Ala., community of Jewel. There his father was a farmer and on occasion 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 the murder of the postmaster in Jewel, Ala. 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. 


In October 1890, members of a posse that had been chasing Burrows were told of his location and he was captured near Linden, Ala. 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. 


Although little-known now, Burrows'' exploits were legendary around the turn of the century. Several books about his life appeared and among those interested in the history of Western outlaws, 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, "King of the Outlaws," once walked the streets of Vernon, Sulligent, Columbus, Carrollton and other area towns. One of his hideouts was even said to have been The Dismals, which is now a popular nature area in northwest Alabama.

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