Editor’s note: Chino Chapa received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas Tech University where he minored in history, specializing in Texas history. He wrote this article after coming across a photo of Rube Burrow while doing academic research.
Many people may not have heard of Rube Burrow, but at one point in history, this Stephenville resident was one of America's best known men.
Burrow moved from Alabama to Texas in 1872 when he was 17 to farm with his uncle in Stephenville. Story goes this good looking, likable lad was intent on working hard and living right, which he did initially, saving enough money to secure some land, get married and have children.
He farmed in Stephenville until 1880, when his wife died of Yellow Fever, leaving him a widowed father of two at age 25.
He took his toddlers to Alabama to be raised by his mom and dad, then came back to Erath County to try and start a new life.
A popular gentleman with the local ladies, mainly because of his personality and powder blue eyes, Burrow remarried and moved to Alexander in 1884. But when his crops failed two years in a row during a drought and his second marriage ended when his wife left him after just two years, he became bitter and turned to crime.
At 30 Burrow took to robbing trains with his younger brother, Jim.
Their first robbery was a Fort Worth & Denver City train near Bellevue on Dec. 11, 1886. His next holdups were Texas & Pacific trains in Gordon and then Benbrook (twice) in 1887.
He escaped being a suspected train robber because he was affable and always seen working his farm land the morning after the late night thefts. He accomplished this by smartly planning ahead and leaving multiple, fresh horses along his escape routes.
A lean athletic man, he rode the horses hard, quickly changing mounts and riding all night in order to be back in Alexander before sunrise. He would go into town there or Stephenville early the next morning so he was seen in that area and not where the robberies occurred.
After getting away with four lucrative thefts, his life of crime escalated as he and his gang began robbing trains from Arkansas to Alabama.
Although a desperado, he was increasingly known as somewhat of a Texas Robin Hood because he would only take cash from the train company vaults on board or rob rich passengers and not the poor ones.
However, any goodwill he had with the public was lost on the powerful railroad companies when he killed a conductor. He was despised by the railroad lines and became the target of one of the most widespread manhunts in American history. The Pinkertons launched a national campaign to capture him.
Eluding authorities for almost five years, Burrow, who was mistakenly referred to as Burrows on "Wanted" posters distributed across the nation, was finally captured by two black men, Jesse Hildreth and Frank Marshall, on Oct. 7, 1890 in Myrtlewood, Alabama.
Former slaves, Hildreth and Marshall jumped Burrow from behind while he was cleaning his rifle outside of town. They enlisted the help of two white plantation owners, John McDuffie and Jeff "Dixie" Carter, to turn him in.
Burrow offered Hildreth $100 to let him go, but Hildreth declined telling him, "I couldn't use it then, 'cuz you'd kill me first."
All four captors took Burrow, known as a charmer, to jail in Linden, Alabama; Burrow entertaining them with jokes and funny stories the entire way.
While in jail the next morning of Oct. 8, 1890, Burrow complained of hunger and talked his jailers into handing him his bag, which he said had ginger snaps inside.
They'd already confiscated his rifle and a revolver, so they thought nothing of it. Little did they know his bag contained a third gun, another revolver, which Burrow whipped out and held at the head of one of the guards. Burrow thought he'd escaped, locking two guards in the cell he'd occupied, and taking another outside as a hostage to secure his getaway.
But Burrow wanted to get back the stolen money taken from him and didn't want to leave without his beloved Marlin rifle. Even though it was just a few extra minutes, by the time he found his rifle, got his loot and was ready to leave, a crowd of townspeople were outside, anxious to get a glimpse of the nationally-famous, captured criminal.
As soon as Burrow walked out, a gunfight erupted. Afterwards, Burrow lay dead in the middle of Main Street.
Burrow’s body was shipped by train back to Lamar County, Alabama where he grew up.
At a transfer connection stop in Birmingham, the attached photo of his propped up coffin was taken before a much publicized, scheduled public display, as was the custom then to prove the desperado was dead.
Thousands showed up to walk past and view the corpse, some snatching buttons from his coat, cutting locks of his hair and even stealing the boots off his feet. His pistols and cherished rifle, however, were removed and stored for safe keeping after the photo was taken before the event began.
Burrow's father Allen met the train at its final destination, Sulligent, Alabama, where train attendants threw the coffin at his feet. He took his son's body back to his nearby hometown of Vernon and buried him there in the church cemetery.
Moral of the story, kids: Don't grow up to be train robbers.