Friday, September 6, 2013

World's First Train Robbery & The Reno Gang ~ by Ramona K. Cecil

 

If someone were to ask you where the world’s first train robbery took place, you might guess a location west of the Mississippi River, or maybe even somewhere in Europe like London or Paris. But you’d be wrong.
 
The world’s first train robbery occurred in 1866, right outside my own hometown of Seymour, Indiana. That crime and the Reno gang that perpetrated it, are among our town’s claims to fame, or perhaps a better word would be “infamy.”
 
Four members of the Reno gang
The Reno Gang, also known as The Jackson Thieves, was the first “brotherhood of outlaws.” Though not generally as well known as the James (Jesse) or Dalton gangs of Missouri and Kansas, the Renos were every bit as ruthless if not more so.
 
In the years directly following the Civil War, siblings John, Frank, Simeon, and William Reno terrorized their native Jackson County, Indiana and the surrounding areas. At an early age, the brothers rejected their strict Methodist upbringing and began bilking travelers in crooked card games. As they matured, they graduated to more serious crimes like horse theft and other acts of out-right robbery. When the Civil War broke out, the Reno brothers took advantage of the bounty system (being paid to fight in another’s place) and enlisted in the Union Army to collect the bounty money. They each promptly deserted only to enlist again and collect another bounty payment, repeating the process multiple times. Only William remained in the army long enough to receive an honorable discharge.
 
In 1864, the four brothers came home to Rockford, Indiana, just north of Seymour. Recruiting a number of other criminally minded men, they put together a gang and began such a reign of terror that travelers aware of the threat would go out of their way to avoid Seymour. It is said that, during those years, any traveling salesman who stopped in Seymour had a hundred per cent chance of being robbed, or worse, by the Renos. On several occasions, headless bodies were found floating in the local White River.
 
Seymour was an important rail hub at the time, and on October 6th, 1866 John and Sim Reno with a gang member named Frank Sparks, boarded the Ohio and Mississippi Railway train as it chugged out of the Seymour depot. On the train, they restrained a guard, broke open a safe and stole $16,000. Then, from the moving train, they pushed off a larger safe for the rest of their waiting gang to collect. But unable to open it, the robbers were forced to leave the safe behind and flee the advancing posse hot on their trail. And so, the world’s first robbery aboard a moving train became part of history.
 
In 1903 the crime inspired an employee of Thomas Edison’s motion picture company to produce The Great Train Robbery. This short film (inset at right) became the first action flick and launched the motion picture business.

Local film makers and historians have produced a modern re-enactment of the robbery you can check out at  http://www.legendoftherenobrothers.com/  
 
As for the Reno Gang, they continued to terrorize Jackson County and a large chunk of the Midwest for two more years after that first brazen train robbery. They avoided justice by killing or burning the property of anyone who dared to testify against them. The term we would use today to describe the Reno Gang would be “domestic terrorists.” After robbing three more trains here, they fled to Iowa where they continued their crime spree sans John Reno, who was arrested and convicted of a Missouri courthouse robbery, and spent the next ten years in that state’s penitentiary. I found it interesting that during his stint in the Missouri prison, John became acquainted with Jesse James. After Jesse got out of prison, he, too, began robbing trains. Hmm. Wonder where he got the idea?  
 
By 1868, the people of Jackson County were fed up with the Renos and their gang evading justice and formed the Jackson County Vigilance Committee. Taking the law into their own hands, they captured and lynched six members of the gang (but none of the Reno brothers) on a tree near a railroad crossing just west of Seymour. The place is locally known as Hangman’s Crossing. Today, a housing development simply named The Crossing, sits near the spot. Sure glad they dropped the “Hangman” part from the name.
 
In the summer and fall of 1868, Pinkerton detective agents captured William and Simeon Reno in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Frank Reno and gang member Charlie Anderson in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. All four men were taken to New Albany, Indiana on the state’s southern border and incarcerated in the Floyd County jail, the strongest in the area, to await trial.
 


Engraving of vigilantes surrounding Floyd County Jail
On the night of December 11th, 65 masked men stormed the jail, overpowered sheriff, seized the four members of the Reno gang and lynched them one at a time from the jail’s catwalk. Though no one was ever charged, named, or even investigated for these crimes, it was rumored that the vigilantes were members of the Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee, otherwise know as the Scarlet Mask Society. Having been extradited from Canada, Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson were technically in federal custody. It’s believed their deaths were the only incidents in U.S. history when a federal prisoner was lynched by a mob before trial. Secretary of State William H. Seward did write a formal letter of apology, but no one seemed especially concerned to discover the identity of the vigilantes. After the hangings, the Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee issued this proclamation; “Do not trifle with us, for if you do we will follow you to the bitter end and give you a short shrift and a hempen collar. As to this our action in the past will be a guarantee for our conduct in the future.” A local newspaper simply stated “‘Judge Lynch’ has spoken.”
 
John Reno
Reno brothers' grave marker
John Reno, who missed the lynching because of his incarceration in the Missouri penitentiary, returned to Seymour in 1886 only to serve three more years in prison for counterfeiting. Upon his release he returned again to his home town and wrote his memoirs before dying of natural causes in 1895 at the age of fifty-six.
 





I suspect every locale can lay claim to someone or some thing that is historically noteworthy. Though they evoke no sense of pride, ours—for good or ill—are the Reno gang and their perpetration of the world’s first train robbery. That, and being the hometown of singer, songwriter, John Mellencamp. But that’s another story.





Ramona Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories is her home state of Indiana.





Check out her latest releases at www.ramonakcecil.com



              
 
 
                                                                 

18 comments:

  1. Loved this post! How interesting! Thanks for sharing!
    tscmshupe [at] pemtel [dot] net

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  2. Are John Reno's memoirs published?

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    1. Yes. The book that contains them is in our public library. Locally there has been quite a bit written on the Renos, but I found John Reno's memoirs especially interesting since they are---as they say---from "the horse's mouth." :)

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  3. Ramona, what a great post! I love reading this history of the old West. I can't imagine the lives these outlaws had. Everything about it had to be hard and I think always looking over your shoulder would be exhausting! Thank you for this very interesting read!
    mauback55 at gmail dot com

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    1. Thanks, Melanie. Oddly, I actually think these guys relished the chase. It was like a game to them, as sick as that sounds. I'm sure a life on the run wouldn't have been easy, but evidently it wasn't uncomfortable enough to make them go straight. LOL

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  4. Ramona, you have such a great grasp of history. Thank you for sharing this story. People didn't mess around with criminals in those days!

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  5. Thanks, Louise. I grew up with the basic story, but researching this I learned a lot of details I didn't know before. Seymour, Indiana was pretty lawless during the reign of the Renos. I know vigilantism is lawless as well, but I really can't blame those who participated in it. I would have wanted the Reno gang gone, too. :) Thankfully, Seymour is much more boring these days. LOL

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  6. Hi, Ramona!

    Really interesting post! I live not too far away (Louisville)from you, & had never heard this story (nor did I know John Mellencamp was from there). I was there, just a few months ago. Thanks for the info.

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    1. Hi, Bonton! We're practically neighbors. :) Next time you're in Seymour you'll have to look me up. :) I think for many years Seymour people felt a little embarrassed about the Renos. The outlaw brothers seems to have been very famous (infamous)all over the country at the time. I always wondered why their celebrity died out while the James and Dalton gangs' lived on. And yes, John Mellencamp grew up in Seymour. He was a couple grades under me in school, but we didn't run in the same circles. As you might imagine, he was a bit wild. LOL

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  7. Thank you for sharing this fascinating piece of history!

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    1. You're welcome, Britney. Glad you liked it. :)

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  8. This was great to read. I like history about the James gang, so it was interesting to read about the Reno gang.

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    1. Thanks, Susan. I don't think the James Gang had anything on the Renos. They were a bunch of really baaaad dudes! :) I just learned recently that John Reno and Jesse James became acquainted in prison. I found that fascinating!

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  9. I knew nothing about this gang! Interesting research. sharon, CA

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    1. Thanks, Sharon. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I never understood why the Renos never became better known. From what I've learned, they were every bit as bad as any of the better known gangs.

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  10. I knew nothing about this gang! Interesting research. sharon, CA

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  11. I knew nothing about this gang! Interesting research. sharon, CA

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