Mudcat Café message #1385373 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #21456   Message #1385373
Posted By: Q (Frank Staplin)
22-Jan-05 - 02:48 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Railroad Bill
Subject: RE: Help: Railroad Bill
According to W. B. Dinwiddie, who moved into Escambia County in 1893, Slater was a victim rather than a killer. Contrary opinions of this kind also could have contributed to the development of the legend (the following extracted from Cohen, "Long Steel Rail," p. 125, Dinwiddie letter). Slater was a turpentine worker, so fast in his job that he earned the nickname "Railroad Time." Railroad detectives looking for boxcar thieves vowed to get a suspect, R. R. "Bill," and mixed up identities. Slater heard of their boast to take him dead or alive, got his Winchester and .45 revolver and took to the swamps. A month later a store was broken into and a few items taken. The detectives let it be known that 'Railroad Bill' was the culprit. Slater wandered up and down the L & N tracks for a couple of years and never was known to bother anyone who did not start 'the ball rolling first.' Slater was "eventually killed in Tidmore and Ward's general Store at Williams Station (Atmore) by a shot in the back from a cowardly bystander." (Shades of Jesse James!).

E. C. Perrow collected "Railroad Bill" fragments from Alabama and Mississippi blacks in 1909, some 12 years after the events.
Perrow commented, "There is a considerable amount of shooting going on in the country all the time, although formerly there was more than there is now."
Some of these verses are given above, but it may be of interest to see these first printed verses together.


A. Mrs. C. Brown, 1909, AL
Railroad Bill cut a mighty big dash,
Killed McMillan like a lightnin' flash.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

Railroad Bill ride on de train,
Tryin t'ac big like Cuba en Spain.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

Get up, ole woman, you sleepin' too late!
Ef' Railroad Bill come knockin' at yo gate,
He'll lay yo po body daown.

Talk about yo bill, yo ten-dollah bill,
But you never seen a bill like Railroad Bill.
En he'll lay yo po body daown.

B. MS of R. J. Slay, 1909, MS
Railroad Bill said before he died,
He'd fit all the trains so the rounders could ride.
Oh, ain't he bad, oh, railroad man!

Railroad Bill cut a mighty big dash;
He killed Bill Johnson with a lightning-flash.
Oh, ain't he bad, oh, railroad man!

C. J. R. Anderson, 1909, MS
Railroad Bill is a mighty bad man,
Come skipping and dodging through this land.

E. C. Perrow, 1912, Songs and Rhymes from the South, Part 1, JAFL XXV, p. 155.

Howard W. Odum published Railroad Bill verses in 1911. The story was taking off and 'Bill' became known in the west, the story probably carried there by black railroaders and cowboys.