Railroad Bill’s conclusive identity was never definitively discovered. L&N detectives believed he was a man named Morris Slater, but others thought he was a man named Bill McCoy. Slater, also known as Railroad Time for his rapid work pace, was a convict-lease worker who had escaped from a turpentine camp in Bluff Springs, Florida. McCoy would eventually be shot by Brewton law enforcement. Yet, the identity of Railroad Bill managed to remain a mystery.
In July 1895, Railroad Bill found his way into Florida where he had another brush with law enforcement. Florida sheriff E. S. McMillan tracked Railroad Bill to a house in Bluff Springs but was fatally wounded by the fugitive. Railroad Bill fled the scene which sparked a joint effort between Florida and Alabama police to find the outlaw. He continued to evade capture, instead robbing trains and reportedly selling those goods to low-income families for cheaper prices.
Railroad Bill became a legend among the African American community, despite a majority of Black citizens condemning his actions. His actions showed courage, and the longer he evaded law enforcement, stories about him became more myth than fact. People began to claim that he had supernatural powers and shapeshifting abilities that helped him escape capture.
L&N Railroad, the state of Alabama, the state of Florida, the town of Brewton, and Escambia County joined efforts in raising a $1,250 reward for the capture of Railroad Bill. The reward created a frenzy among the public with bounty hunters coming from across the region, creating a “small army.” Many innocent Black people were identified as potential suspects, suffering from beatings, or even being murdered. The Pine Belt News in Brewton even ran a story entitled “The Wrong Man Shot.”
In March of 1896, a man was gunned down at Tidmore and Ward’s General Store in Atmore. It was believed to be Railroad Bill. How his final moments happened are largely up for debate—some say he was simply sitting on a barrel eating and was surprised by authorities, while others say he started a shoot-out in front of the store. And then some like to believe Railroad Bill walked into a trap at the store.
Railroad Bill’s body—or at least the body of the man believed to be Railroad Bill—was put on display for the public in Brewton before being shown in Montgomery and Pensacola, Florida. Crowds traveled far and wide to pay 25 cents for admission to see the body. No one could definitively identify the man and his final resting place is unknown.