The Life and Crimes of Railroad Bill

The Life and Crimes of Railroad Bill: Legendary African American Desperado (Massey, Larry L.)

The Life and Crimes of Railroad Bill: Legendary African American
Desperado. By Larry L. Massey. 2015. Gainesville, FL: University
Press of Florida. 192 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8130-6120-7 (hard cover),
$21.95 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Keagan LeJeune, McNeese State University
(clejeune@mcneese.edu).

[Word count: 924 words]

Some claim Railroad Bill to be the most famous badman of African
American lore, and the figure occupies an important position in
American folklore. In From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero
in Slavery and Freedom, John W. Roberts suggests that Railroad Bill
epitomizes African Americans “combining their conception of the
conjurer and trickster as folk heroes to create the badman,” which
confronts the “power of whites under the law that created conditions
threatening to the values of the black community” (215). The
popularity and power of the ballad recounting this figure’s deeds
have garnered substantial scholarship, but Larry Massey points out
that a “book-length history of the actual person and his criminal
career” does not exist (4). Massey seeks to rectify this by
presenting “a comprehensive history based primarily on [newspaper]
articles published” during the man’s life and soon after his death,
in order to construct “a factual history of the individual, the
legend, and the song known as ‘Railroad Bill'” (5). Unfortunately, I
suspect these very goals limit the usefulness folklorists will find
in Massey’s work. The book successfully reconstructs the man’s career
by combing through sources and presenting their information in a
readable narrative, but readers will not find substantial critical
analysis of the individual figure or of the folktype. As it stands,
the work is a serviceable exploration of the “true story” of Railroad
Bill.

As a whole, the book offers an understandable and page-turning
account of Railroad Bill’s “life and crimes.” The preface recounts
the Railroad Bill legend that Massey’s mother told him and its
historical inaccuracies, which prompted his work on the figure. The
introduction briefly describes the popularity of the Railroad Bill
folk ballad, including its influence on the Beatles, and provides a
three-page summary of the outlaw’s life. The remainder of Massey’s
book is divided into two parts. Without stating this, Massey seems to
be using the first part (chapters 1-5) to provide context for the
Railroad Bill legend. One chapter details the exploits of desperado
Wyatt Tate, a contemporary of Railroad Bill, to demonstrate that
Railroad Bill was not the only African American robbing trains in
Alabama. Another chapter describes the public’s opinion of the
railroad and the typical method of robbery by Railroad Bill’s gang.
Other chapters attempt to detail the many misconceptions and
speculations surrounding the figure. For example, in one, Massey
explains the somewhat ubiquitous nature of the nickname Railroad
Bill, and in another argues how some, including Carl Cramer in Stars
Fell on Alabama, wrongly attributes to Railroad Bill the murder of
Bluff Springs (FL) marshal David Douglass. This section also
addresses important characteristics of Railroad Bill — that he was
armed, agile, cunning, etc. — and ties them to factual details of
the man’s life. For instance, one chapter describes Railroad Bill’s
early career as a circus performer as a link to the outlaw’s
incredible physical feats. Yet these sections rarely rise beyond a
presentation of historical/biographical details and their literal
meanings.

The second part of the book (chapters 6-14) details the start of the
outlaw’s life of crime, his confrontations with the law, his daring
escapes, and his ultimate end. Again, without acknowledging this as
his intent, Massey outlines Railroad Bill’s life in a manner that
aligns with what various scholars of the outlaw have described as the
typical elements of the folktype. Chapter 6 describes the gunfight at
Hurricane Bayou, which led Railroad Bill down the outlaw trail.
Chapters 7 through 9 detail significant events comprising Railroad
Bill’s life, which include dogged lawmen, dangerous confrontations,
betrayal by compatriots, and victims (confirmed or supposed) that
enflamed the public. Chapters 10 and 11 describe Railroad Bill’s
incredible ability to outwit authorities and escape capture by
relying on his insider’s knowledge of the local environment, the
support he receives from locals, and — the book very briefly
mentions, then dismisses — his ability to shapeshift. Chapters 12
through 14 narrate the outlaw’s demise. Here, readers find the story
of the officer-led ambush of Railroad Bill and the display of the
outlaw’s body to a paying crowd. Chapter 12 offers an interesting,
though brief, discussion of unintended victims connected to Railroad
Bill and relates how several African American men were killed by
overzealous lawmen or citizens who believed they had found Railroad
Bill. The conclusion, titled “Endless Folklore” and running from
pages 152-161, provides the author’s assessment of the figure’s
importance to folklore, but for the most part this discussion simply
includes a handful of comments scholars have made about the figure,
and hurriedly tracks the progression of the Railroad Bill ballad.

As a tracing of the man’s life built upon factual information,
Massey’s book is successful. The author connects Railroad Bill’s
renowned defiance and cunning to portions of his early life, and he
engages the reader with researched narratives of the outlaw’s life of
crime, especially his legendary ability to avoid capture. The use of
information from newspapers is substantial, and the manner in which
he presents this as a narrative is artful. John Roberts in “‘Railroad
Bill’ and the American Outlaw Tradition,” which the author cites but
does not discuss, argues that this outlaw legend “illustrates the
need for close analysis” and “belongs to a tradition with universal
implications for understanding human responses to powerlessness and
oppression.” Unfortunately, the reader will not find that discussion
in this account of Railroad Bill.

Works Cited

John W. Roberts. 1989. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero
in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press.

—. 1981. “‘Railroad Bill’ and the American Outlaw Tradition.”
Western Folklore 40:315-328.

Railroad Bill (duet with Woody Guthrie) · Ramblin’ Jack Elliott  The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack

Cordley Coit on the Educational CyberPlayGround – Ramblin Jack Elliott was the Best Man at my Wedding. I married Lady Margaret Crowther in 63 on the Vineyard.

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