An unnamed gang of unidentified outlaws robbed a train two counties west of Fort Worth in the pre-dawn darkness of Jan. 23, 1887. “Two masked men got into the cab at Gordon and presented their revolvers at the engineer and commanded him to ‘pull out,’” the Dallas Weekly Herald reported five days later. “They ran the train about a mile from Gordon and ... commanded the engineer to stop the train on a bridge with high trestlework, which prevented any communication from the passenger coaches to the mail and express cars.”
Plainly impressed by the bandits’ expertise, the newspaper noted, “They had chosen an admirable place for their work, and had carried their plan into perfect execution.” The chronicler might have been even more impressed had he known that the hold-up was carried out by two brothers, who until the previous month had led crime-free lives. Rube Burrow and his younger brother Jim were born three years apart in the 1850’s on a farm in Alabama. Their father barely eked out a living on the stingy land for his family of 11 – ten children and a wife with a reputation as a “healer” and “witch.” After turning 18 in 1873, Rube decided to give his hard-pressed parents one less mouth to feed. The teenager came to Texas and went to work on an uncle’s cattle ranch near Stephenville. Rube kept his nose clean and to the grindstone saving a portion of his pay for the down payment on his own piece of land.
By 1877 he had a wife, the daughter of a prominent Wise County rancher, a small farm and a helping hand, his brother Jim. Not long after giving birth to their second child in 1880, Rube’s wife died in a yellow epidemic. The young widower took the kids to his mother in Alabama to raise and returned to Texas to continue farming. Rube remarried in 1884, but his second spouse did not have the long-suffering gene and walked out two years later when her husband lost another crop. Facing the fact that his future was not in farming, the unsuccessful sodbuster brooded over his career choices. How and why he settled on the hazardous occupation of train robber is anybody’s guess. The one thing he knew for certain was that his brother would follow him to the gates of hell no questions asked. From a circle of friends, Rube recruited four risk-takers -- the Brock brothers, Nep Thornton and Henderson Brumley – who were up for anything.
On the night of Dec. 11, 1886, the half dozen amateurs boarded the Denver & Fort Worth Express at the Bellevue station in Clay County near the Red River. Pulling their pistols in full view of the passengers, they gave their intended victims time to hide most of their valuables which limited the take to a hundred dollars in cash and ten or 15 watches. Better planning, including masks to conceal their faces, resulted in a bigger haul the next month in Palo Pinto County. The repeat robberies of the Texas & Pacific Express at Benbrook in June 1887 and again that December yielded much more, an estimated $30,000 in the curtain call. With the money burning holes in their pockets, gang members scattered to the four winds. Rube and Jim took a roundabout route to Alabama, where they shared their newfound wealth with grateful relatives. On the way home, the Burrow boys met up with William Brock for the stick-up of an express train at Genoa, Arkansas. The trio was well-compensated for their trouble but did not learn until days later that particular heist would prove to be their undoing. Until their first train robbery outside of Texas, the Burrow Gang was a complete mystery to law enforcement. No one had a clue as to their identities. That quickly changed after the Pinkerton Detective Agency entered the picture following the Arkansas caper.
In less than a week, the Pinkertons traced a raincoat left at the scene of the crime to the store in Dublin, Texas where it had been purchased. The clerk identified the buyer as William Brock leading to his apprehension on New Year’s Eve 1887. Brock named names and revealed the likely whereabouts of his accomplices. Lawmen were waiting for the Burrow brothers at the Montgomery, Alabama depot, thanks to a telegraphed tip from a conductor. A gunbattle ended with the capture of Jim but the miraculous escape of Rube in a hail of bullets. Jim died behind bars, presumably of tuberculosis, before his March 1889 trial date. Rube remained on the run, alone and without the aid and comfort of friends and neighbors after the senseless shooting of the local postmaster. Rube kept on robbing trains and giving the slip to an army of pursuers for the next year and a half. His eventual captors were two black men, who found the fugitive asleep in a cabin and carted him to the nearest town to claim the reward. But Rube Burrow never spent a day behind bars. He managed one last escape only to perish in an exchange of gunfire with the white farmer who had confiscated his arsenal and traveling money. Bartee’s four books “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes,” “Murder Most Texan,” “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” and “Unforgettable Texans” available for purchase at barteehaile.com or by mail at P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.
The Cameron Herald
The Cameron Herald
P.O. Box 1230
Cameron, Texas 76520