A Real Southern Men Profile
His legend hasn’t lived on like that of Jesse James or Billy the Kid. In fact, if not for a beloved (and now sadly defunct) eatery on Birmingham’s Southside, it’s likely most Southerners wouldn’t even know his name. He was Rube Burrow, the “King of the Outlaws.”
Born Reuben Houston Burrow in 1854 in Lamar County, Alabama, Rube seemed destined for the simple life of a farmer. He moved to Texas as a young man, finding work on an uncle’s cattle ranch. Before long, he had saved enough money to buy his own little plot of land. His plan was to try his hand at farming for a time and eventually become a rancher in his own right. With his boyish looks and humble aspirations, no one would’ve predicted Rube would become one of the most hunted outlaws in the country. But tragedy has a way of hardening men and setting them on paths otherwise unfathomable to their kinder natures … or awakening the darker ones which their upbringing only served to foment.
Rube was one of ten children born to Allen and Martha Terry Burrow. Allen served for a time in the Civil War, but made his name as a moonshiner after the war’s end. His battles with the federal government led him to flee the country for a few years. Martha, better known “Dame” Burrow, was something of a local witch, supposedly curing cancers by simple incantation. In Rube Burrow, King of the Outlaws, George W. Agee describes a scene in which the “witch’s cauldron ‘boils and bubbles’ on the hearthstone of the Burrow home.” Agee says that Burrow and his siblings were reared “amid the environments of ignorance and superstition.”
In 1880, Rube’s first wife died of yellow fever. By 1886, he had remarried, moved to yet another farm and built a name for himself as an expert cowboy, renowned for his horsemanship and keen eye behind a rifle. Rube’s crops failed. He grew restless and yearned for the fame and fortune of highwaymen like Sam Bass, then terrorizing the Texas rails. Together with brother Jim, Rube put together a band of cattlemen-turned-criminals and robbed their first train on December 1, 1886.
This first train job in Bellevue, Texas yielded a meager $300 and a cache of U.S. Army pistols, taken from a troop of black soldiers who would all later be dishonorably discharged for cowardice. Rube, dissatisfied with the haul, soon became the clear leader of the group. He devised better plans for robbing the trains, like having the engineer stop with the passenger cars atop a bridge, so that the desperation of the passengers would breed compliance. The returns grew considerably.
Rube simply replied, “Same place.” Rube Burrow was becoming a legend.
However, ill fate would again cast a shadow over Rube’s life. In January of 1888, after narrowly escaping Pinkertons back home in Lamar County, Rube and Jim were arrested by undercover officers in Montgomery. Rube managed to free himself from their grasp and escape. Jim was not so lucky. Though he initially gave a false identity, he finally confessed, saying, “I am Jim Burrow, and the other man is my brother Rube, and if you give us two pistols apiece, we are not afraid of any two men living.”
Jim would die of tuberculosis in jail later that year. After Jim’s death, Rube would become reckless, first killing a young passenger in a firefight at Duck Hill, Mississippi and later murdering in cold blood postmaster Mose Graves of Lamar County. This change in Rube’s character affected a change in his perception: from daring outlaw to public enemy. With the people of his home county turned against him, Rube fled again.
After a number of additional train jobs, Rube finally had his comeuppance in, of all places, a general store. Stopping in for supplies at the Linden, Alabama store of J.D. “Dixie” Carter. Carter recognized the outlaw and had him arrested, only for Rube to escape a short time later. The reckless Rube again emerged and, rather than fleeing town, he went to confront Carter. A gunfight erupted between the two men. Though he took a shot in the arm, Carter chased Burrow from a feed store and, with the aid of John McDuffie, gunned him down in the street.
The journey of Rube’s lifeless body from Demopolis to Lamar County brought out no fewer than five thousand curious onlookers, mostly in Birmingham. The mere presence of his guns and belt drew throngs of onlookers in Memphis.
Evidence of his notoriety throughout the country, the New York Times reported his death, noting:
“Indeed, he often said contemptuously, ‘It’s as easy to hold up and go through a train as it is to rob a hen’s nest.'”
Rube Burrow, King of the Outlaws, was laid to rest in a small Lamar County church cemetery.