The "Burrow Gang": Alabama Outlaws

Rube Burrow

Reuben H. “Rube” Burrow was the leader of a small gang of outlaws who operated in the Midwest during the late 1880s. He was born in Lamar County, Alabama in 1854 or 55 and was sometimes referred to as the "Alabama Robin Hood.” Supposedly he got the nickname because he never robbed the poor, but that’s debatable.

The Burrow gang included his younger brother Jim and later three others named Henderson Bromley, Nep Thornton, William Brock and Rube’s cousin, Rube Smith . In addition to numerous train robberies they also targeted the U.S. Postal Service. As far as killing, it is known Rube shot and killed at least one man.

As was common for youths of the time the Burrow brothers were enthralled by dime novels and tales of the daring exploits of famed outlaws such as the James Gang. So much so, it was said at the age of 15 Rube covered his face with a bandana in the fashion of his heroes and robbed a neighbor at gunpoint. However, his father learned of the crime and forced him to return his ill gotten gain.

The Burrow Brothers

Rube’s Uncle, Joel Burrow, owned a ranch in Stephenville, Texas and in 1872 he was offered a job working as a ranch hand, so he went. Three years later, he became enamored of a young lady named Virginia Alvison, the daughter of a well known Wise County rancher. Their marriage produced two children. His brother Jim joined him in 1876.

Reuben H. “Rube” Burrow was the leader of a small gang of outlaws who operated in the Midwest during the late 1880s. He was born in Lamar County, Alabama in 1854 or 55 and was sometimes referred to as the "Alabama Robin Hood.” Supposedly he got the nickname because he never robbed the poor, but that’s debatable.

The Burrow gang included his younger brother Jim and later three others named Henderson Bromley, Nep Thornton, William Brock and Rube’s cousin, Rube Smith . In addition to numerous train robberies they also targeted the U.S. Postal Service. As far as killing, it is known Rube shot and killed at least one man.

As was common for youths of the time the Burrow brothers were enthralled by dime novels and tales of the daring exploits of famed outlaws such as the James Gang. So much so, it was said at the age of 15 Rube covered his face with a bandana in the fashion of his heroes and robbed a neighbor at gunpoint. However, his father learned of the crime and forced him to return his ill gotten gain.

Rube’s Uncle, Joel Burrow, owned a ranch in Stephenville, Texas and in 1872 he was offered a job working as a ranch hand, so he went. Three years later, he became enamored of a young lady named Virginia Alvison, the daughter of a well known Wise County rancher. Their marriage produced two children. His brother Jim joined him in 1876.

Soon after his marriage Rube bought some land and began farming and ranching. Sadly, Virginia succumbed to yellow fever in 1880 and he briefly returned to Alabama to leave his children in the care of his mother. For the next several years he legitimately ran his farm and ranch, then in 1884 he married Adeline Hoover of Erath County.

Rube actually wasn’t too keen on the prospect of remaining a farmer and rancher for the rest of his life. The tales he had read as a boy still inspired him. When his farm and marriage both failed he decided to form an outlaw gang consisting of his brother and two of his cow hands, Thornton, and Bromley. He felt confident since working as a rancher had made him an excellent horseman and skilled gunman.

After leaving Texas, the Burrow Gang headed towards Oklahoma Territory but initially did poorly at robbing trains. When they robbed the Fort Worth & Denver line at Bellevue, Texas, in December of 1886 they only netted about $300. However, during their next job, robbing a train on the Texas & Pacific line at Gordon, Texas, in January 1887, they made off several thousand dollars.

However Rube, perhaps feeling they were pushing their luck, advised his gang they should return to their former profession for a while until things cooled off. So, in March, 1887 the Burrow brothers bought land in Erath County and did just that.

When the heat from their last two heists had died down about early May Rube resurrected his former gang along with newcomer, William Brock and planned to hit the train at Gordon again. But, they were forced to make other plans due to high waters in the Brazos River. In June, they robbed a train at Benbrook, (formerly Ben Brook) Texas, of over $2,000. Again the gang returned to their farms and laid low for a spell. In September, they hit the same train again making off with more than $2,500.

Rube thought it would be best to take a brief respite from robbing trains, at least in that area, for a while so he and his brother went back to Lamar County and visit with family.

In December, Brock showed up while the brothers were still in Alabama. So naturally, the only prudent course of action was to rob a train. This time they targeted the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad line in Genoa, Arkansas. This particular train happened to be carrying the Illinois lottery money which, of course they took…so much for staying off of the skyline. This immediately attracted the attention of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. After tangling with a sheriff’s posse outside Texarkana, Arkansas, the brothers returned to Lamar County and Brock made tracks back to Texas.

However, they now had the famed Pinkerton Agency on their tail. On New Year’s Eve of 1887, Pinkerton agents captured Brock outside of Dublin, Texas. After an intensive interrogation, Brock finally crumbled and gave up the Burrow brother’s location.

The agency then went after the brothers. A posse was formed in Lamar County headed by Pinkerton assistant superintendent John McGinn in early January to arrest them at their house. But due to confusion over which house was theirs they managed to elude their pursuers by boarding a south bound Louisville & Nashville train outside of Birmingham. However, that proved to be a mistake as the conductor recognized them from descriptions on police flyers which authorities had circulated. The station where the pair planned to disembark, Montgomery, was wired of the situation and lawmen were sent to meet the train when it stopped.

The plan was for the lawmen to disguise themselves as railroad employees. But the vigilant Rube easily saw through the amateurish ruse as they got off the train and a brief gunfight ensued. Rube’s excellent marksmanship quickly dispatched one officer and he managed to escape by stealing a horse, but his brother Jim was captured. Rube fled south until he lost the posse and then returned to Lamar County to hide out for a short while. There he learned his brother was imprisoned in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Rube Burrow, Dead

In March 1888, Burrow teamed up with Leonard. C. Brock, also known as Lewis Waldrip and some say related to former gang member William Brock. Leonard had also worked with Rube as a ranch hand in Texas. Rube suggested he should use the name of the infamous Texas train robber "Joe Jackson." He explained doing so would strike fear into the hearts of anyone considering pursuing them.

The pair set out from Lamar County and hid out at a logging camp in the in the backwoods of Baldwin County, Alabama. Several months later they headed back to Lamar County hoping their pursuers had given up the chase. Upon their arrival they learned Jim Burrow was being moved to Texarkana and they began scheming for a way to spring him. When they got to Texarkana they heard he had written home asking for money to pay a lawyer who was certain he could get him acquitted at his trial the following March. But, the trial never took place because Jim died in October of what most believed to be tuberculosis.

Since they no longer had a reason to stay in Texarkana they began the trek back to Lamar County and along the way robbed a train at Duck Hill, Mississippi. One passenger who decided to be a hero was shot and killed.

The media quickly jumped on the story. The rail companies began concentrating on passenger safety fearing a loss of bookings if people were afraid to travel by train.

The Pinkerton’s were still following the pair, but they caught a break because Rube’s description very closely resembled that of another notorious train robber, Eugene Bunch. As a result the Pinkerton’s wound up chasing Bunch rather than Burrow and the two thieves made it safely back to Lamar County. Rube had a lot of friends and relatives there who gave them supplies and protection from detectives and bounty hunters until the spring of 1889.

But things soured in early July when Rube shot the local postmaster for refusing to hand over an interesting looking package. They managed to stay at large until September, although several of Rube’s relatives were arrested for aiding the fugitives.

It was during the first week of September when Burrow and Brock were joined by Rube Smith. Smith began searching for a good place to pull their next train robbery. He found it at Buckatunna, Mississippi, where they robbed the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line of several thousand dollars. As was their habit following a heist, they returned to Lamar County.

By the time November rolled around the law and numerous bounty hunters were beginning to close in and Rube and Brock fled to Flomaton, Escambia County in Alabama, arriving there in Mid December. Several days later Rube’s cousin and another man were arrested at Amory, Mississippi, while trying to rob a train. Smith and his pal were sent to Aberdeen, Mississippi to be imprisoned.

Several months passed as the hunt for the two remaining outlaws continued in south Alabama where they were still thought to be. But in actuality the pair had split up. Rube had headed for Florida where he found work at a logging camp in Santa Rosa County. Brock was said to have remained around Lamar County. In early February, a detective got a tip on Rube’s whereabouts. But ever vigilant, he suspected an ambush while hauling a wagon load of grain and once again slipped through their fingers. In the meantime, Brock had been captured on a train in Lamar County. Brock was taken to Memphis, Tennessee and locked up to await trial.

Now alone, he pulled his next job singlehandedly…the L&N train at Flomaton. Apparently the authorities had expected something of the sort because in no time detectives were hot on his trail and set up a stakeout in Santa Rosa County at the home where he had been living previously. However, friends got word to him and he once again managed to avoid capture.

Up to this point Rube had managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, but his luck was about to run out. Rube was recognized by a man outside of Demopolis, Alabama. The man invited Rube to have dinner with him and a friend. The unsuspecting Rube was captured by the two and held until detectives arrived. Burrow was bound, mounted on a horse and taken to Linden, the Marengo County seat.

On the morning of October 9, 1890, Burrow attempted to escape by getting his jailers to untie his hands in order to eat. The jailers were unaware Burrow had somehow managed to obtain a pistol and hide it on his person. They were taken by surprise and Rube coerced his way to the front of the jail. However a local merchant, Jefferson Carter, happened to be there. When the two spotted each other a gunfight erupted. Rube emptied his gun, but only struck Carter once in the stomach. Carter managed to get off another shot which struck the outlaw in the chest. Rube died instantly.

As for William Brock, after being sentenced to life in prison, he leapt to his death from the top floor of the Penitentiary in Jackson, Tennessee.

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