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All Aboard the Crime Express: The Burrow Brothers' Notorious Train Heists

All Aboard the Crime Express: The Burrow Brothers' Notorious Train Heists
photo: Legends of America / Public domain/Rube and Jim Burrow
04 / 01 / 2024

From the smoke-filled cabs of steam locomotives to the sleek carriages of modern trains, the railway has always been more than just a form of transport; it was the stage for some of history's most cunning villains and their incredible deeds and life paths. We invite our readers to an exciting expedition through the dark tracks of history through the prism of the series of articles "All Aboard the Crime Express", dedicated to legendary escapades on the rails. The first anti-heroes of our story will be the notorious outlaws of the 19th century, the Burrow brothers, who occupy a dubious but honorable place among the American folklore of the Wild West.

Early Years and Gang Formation

Born in the 1850s in Alabama, USA, Reuben "Rube" and Jim Burrow were forced witnesses to the social unrest and economic hardship that befell the era after the grueling Civil War. While Jim turned out to be a historical figure about whom little is known, there is no doubt that both he and his older brother Reuben were greatly influenced by economic trials and the allure of the idea of quick money. In particular, Reuben is "credited" with introducing Jim to criminal life, which is quite ironic considering that from the beginning Reuben was saving money to buy a farm to run it.

Reuben “Rube” Burrow / Smithsonian / Public domain

In 1876, Reuben married Miss Virginia Alvison, who bore him two children, but tragically died in 1880 as a result of Yellow Fever, an epidemic that broke out in the peacetime after the Civil War. As the new era revived the development of a trade suspended until then thanks to improved railway connections, it unfortunately, allowed not only people and goods but also diseases to travel. Reuben remarried four years after Virginia's death to Adeline Hoover and moved to Texas, where his penchant for criminal excitement manifested itself in minimally harmful antics such as marking unbranded cattle as his own while grazing.

Notable Heists

Reuben turned to crime in December 1886, when, returning from an excursion in Indian Territory, he suggested to his party, which consisted of himself, his younger brother Jim, and a few close associates - Nep Thornton and Henderson Bromley - to rob a train heading towards Bellevue. While Thornton distracted and detained the driver, the rest robbed the passengers. Their "gain" was approximately three hundred dollars in cash and more than a dozen watches.

Interestingly, during this heist, there were American soldiers on the train, from whom the gang took revolvers that Rube would later use throughout his criminal career. These revolvers played a significant role during The Great Southern Train Robbery in 1887, marking them as serious players in the world of train robbers. By threatening the driver with the stolen Colts, Rube and Henderson Bromley convinced him to stop the train five hundred yards east of the destination station. There, they were joined by the rest of the gang, along with a new recruit named Harrison Askew, who eventually couldn't handle the tension and fled the scene. The Pacific Express messenger's refusal to open the doors of the express to the robbers, even at the risk to the driver, led to a shootout, but the robbery was still successful for the gang as they stole more than $2,200.

Various historical data and periodicals from that time indicate that the use of weapons was not limited to threats alone. For example, during The Duck Hill robbery, one of the passengers ended up shot to death.

The Downfall

In January 1888, while traveling on the Louisville & Nashville train in southern Alabama, the brothers were recognized by the conductor. When the train arrived in Nashville, it was surrounded by the police. While Rube managed to escape, Jim was arrested and imprisoned, where he later died of tuberculosis in October of the same year.

Drawing of James Burrow / Smithsonian / Public domain

Rube Burrow, in turn, became less cautious and more reckless in his crimes. Despite being one of the most wanted criminals of his time, he continued to rob trains, and innocent people increasingly became victims of his cold-bloodedness and thirst for money gain. He was caught in October 1890, but his life ended just a few months later, in December, when he misled guards at a prison in Linden, Alabama, and escaped, only to be later shot dead by law enforcement officers.

The Impact

The post-Civil War era was characterized by the development of railroads and new technological solutions that improved service and facilitated faster transit. However, it also created a favorable environment for large-scale robberies, with the Burrow brothers becoming one of the key figures in this era. Although the primary danger of the Burrow robberies was stolen money and sometimes lost lives, for railway companies, these incidents represented considerable reputational damage.

Constitution once wrote that it was "as easy to hold up a train as it is to rob a hen's nest." This statement placed the responsibility for the robberies not only on the robbers but also on the railway companies and employees, whom it described as untrained and cowardly. The publication also criticized The Westinghouse Air Brake and their air brake technology, invented in 1868. This technology replaced manual braking on trains with a system using compressed air to transmit signals and simultaneously brake each car of the train. According to Constitution, automation led to reduced demand for labor and smaller train crews, inadvertently making it easier for robbers to execute their plans.