reason we haven't heard much of Rube Burrow, one of the most notorious
train robbers of his day, might be because no dime novelist ever
made him into a daring bandit of the Robin Hood variety, though
some newspaper writers of the day tried.
Others who came before Burrow, like Jesse James, and others like
Butch Cassidy who came later, made their way into the country's
collective memory and culture. Not Burrow. Born in Alabama and buried
there, Rube lived in Texas long enough
to go from laboring as a respectable man of the sod to a robber
of banks and an occasional killer of men to obscurity.
Burrow first came to Texas in either 1872 or 1874, settling for
a time in Wise County
and later near Stephenville
in Erath County.
His first wife, Virginia Alverson, whom he married in 1875 or 1876,
died in 1881 of yellow fever. Most accounts put his second marriage,
to Adeline A. Hoover, in 1884, but historian Rick Miller, Burrow's
most reliable and least sentimental biographer, places the marriage
in 1886, the same year Rube took to the outlaw trail.
That second marriage didn't last long, either. Adeline, oddly, didn't
want to live with a criminal. And by the time she married Rube,
that's what he was.
late 1886, Rube, his brother Jim and two other men allegedly rode
into Oklahoma Territory to rob a rich woman, but one newspaper account
had it that the woman fought them off and the men returned to Texas
On their way back from Indian Territory, Rube and his gang pulled
off their first train robbery at Bellevue
Falls on Dec. 11, 1886. We don't know whether they planned it
all along, or if they just saw the train stopped at a watering tank
and thought, "Hey, let's go rob that thing!"
If they did plan it in advance, they didn't plan very well. They
lost the element of surprise, giving the passengers plenty of time
to stash their cash while the gang flashed pistols and talked tough
outside the train. Rube and his gang walked away with maybe a couple
hundred dollars but left behind thousands more.
By now, Rube and his gang were experienced enough to know what they
were doing wrong and at least one of them was smart enough to know
how to fix it.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1887, as a Texas and Pacific
train bound for Fort
Worth from Wichita
Falls, slowed to pick up a load of coal at Gordon,
Rube and his cronies hopped aboard, produced six shooters and told
the engineer and fireman to keep the train moving until it got to
the bridge over Mary's Creek and stop.
Passengers and crew, of course, had no way to get off the train,
and, more importantly, lawmen had no way to get on it. Reports vary,
but the gang probably made away with about $4,000 1880s dollars,
having learned that the big bucks were in the express car and not
with the passengers. Fourteen weeks later they robbed the same train
with the same crew at the same place and copped another $1,300 or
so. Passengers cheered their safety - or maybe the outlaws themselves
- as they made their getaway.
festive train robbers are again on the rampage," the Austin American
Other newspapers noted the same thing, in various ways. But fame
does a criminal no professional favors. Rube and his ever-evolving
gang left Texas, robbing trains in
Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi on their way home to Alabama.
The Southern Express Company called in the Pinkerton Detective Agency,
which caught one of the gang, William Brock, who gave the detectives
what they desperately needed - names. Who were these guys?
Now that Rube and his gang were famous the effects were immediate.
A conductor on a Louisville and Nashville Railway train in Alabama
who became suspicious of Rube and Jim alerted police. Rube shot
his way out of that one, but the cops wounded and captured Jim Burrow,
who died in jail of tuberculosis in 1888.
Rube, who the press and public had tended to view as a "merry bandit"
in the Sam Bass and Robin Hood mode, first sullied his own reputation
when he killed an Illinois Central passenger in 1888. In 1889 he
shot Alabama postmaster Moses Graves when Graves asked him to sign
for a package containing a wig and false beard that Rube had ordered
as a disguise so he wouldn't look so much like the guy on the wanted
Graves was well-liked and widely respected, and his murder by Burrow
took a lot of the shine off his image as a friend to the common
man. Hundreds of Pinkertons along with state and local officers
hunted Burrow, who hid out in the swamps and woods for the better
part of a year.
It ended for Rube Burrow the same way it ended for nearly all the
old desperados - in a shootout. Burrow, after some good Samaritans
turned him in, escaped from a jail in Linden, Alabama, then went
looking for deputy sheriff Jefferson Davis "Dixie" Carter. The two
men exchanged gunfire and each shot the other, but Carter lived
until 1920. Rube Burrow died in the street within minutes.
Back in Texas, where the legend began,
the Oct. 9, 1890 Dallas Morning News noted Burrow's passing with
this headline: "Rube Burrow, the Notorious Outlaw, Gone Glimmering."
He glimmers still, in history's secluded shadow.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 3, 2017 column