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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Rube Burrow,
Notorious Train Robber

by Clay Coppedge

The 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.

In 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 empty-handed.

On their way back from Indian Territory, Rube and his gang pulled off their first train robbery at Bellevue near Wichita 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.

"The festive train robbers are again on the rampage," the Austin American noted.

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 posters.

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

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