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The Reno Gang: America's First Train Robbers

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Raised in a strictly religious farm family, the Reno brothers chose the path of crime rather than the drudgery of working the land. They terrorized the area surrounding Seymour, Indiana in the 1860s.

The Reno Family

J. Wilkison and Julia Reno owned a 1,200-acre farm in Rockford, Indiana, just outside Seymour. The couple had six children, five sons and a daughter, and they were all raised in the Methodist tradition, which involved hours of reading the Bible on Sundays.

The messages of virtue, righteousness, and goodness did not sink in for the brothers Frank, John, Simeon, and William, who started their lives of dishonesty early. The other brother, Clinton did not join his siblings in criminal activity and so earned for himself the nickname “Honest Clint.”

They began by cheating travellers in crooked card games and then graduated to horse stealing. Starting in 1851, a series of businesses around Rockford burst into flames; the Reno boys were suspected of being involved.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Reno brothers discovered a swindle to their liking and became “bounty jumpers.” Union recruiting officers paid bounties for men to join the ranks. The Reno boys would sign up, take the cash, and vanish; they repeated the scam in different recruiting offices. According to Legends of America, “when the draft began, they would make money from prosperous draftees who wanted to avoid the war. After taking the money from the man to be drafted, they would then appear as demanded, only to desert days later."

The Reno Gang Forms

After pulling these swindles in various communities, the four Reno brothers returned to Rockford together with a few other ne'er-do-wells they had picked up during their travels.

They started their real life of crime by robbing a post office and general store. An accomplice in the robbery, Grant Wilson, decided to testify against Frank Reno. However, before the trial could take place, Wilson was murdered and the case against Frank fell apart. Must have been a coincidence that poor old Grant got himself killed just before his moment of glory in the witness stand.

The gang set up its headquarters in a hotel in Seymour and began a crime spree across the Midwest. There were arrests but no convictions; officials were terrorized or bribed into dropping charges.

The local citizenry was getting pretty fed up with the lawlessness, a sentiment that was expressed in The Seymour Times, which, in August 1865, gave its opinion that “Nothing but Lynch law will save the reputation of this place and its citizens.” A statement that proved to be prophetic although, for a while, the mayhem continued unabated.

This is thought to be a photo of members of the Reno Gang; weapons are prominent.

This is thought to be a photo of members of the Reno Gang; weapons are prominent.

The First Train Robbery

At some point in 1866, the gang dreamed up a new crime that was to catch on among the crooks of America—train robbery.

Railways were being built all over the country and express companies saw them as a great way to rapidly ship currency, gold, and other valuables. The Reno Gang took note of this.

An eastbound Ohio & Mississippi train pulled into the Seymour depot. It was nighttime on October 6, 1866. Simeon Reno, John Reno, and Frank Parks boarded the train and made their way to the car where Elam Miller was guarding Adams Express Co. safes. The guns pointed at him persuaded Miller to open the smaller strong box, but he said he was unable to open the bigger one so the gang shoved it to the door of the express car.

Then, they pulled the rope that signalled the engineer to stop the train, pushed the vault out, and followed it, disappearing into the night. They met up with other Reno Gang members and found the bigger safe, which resisted all their efforts to open it. However, the haul they made was quite spectacular for the times—$10,000 or about $165,000 in today's value.

A witness, George Kinney, informed officers that he recognized two of the robbers as Reno Gang members. Pinkerton agents arrested the three men who had boarded the train.

But then, Kinney suffered the same fate as Grant Wilson who had informed on the gang. He opened the door of his house to a late-night knock and died in a hail of bullets. Again, no witness, no case.

The following year, two bandits, Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran, pulled off a copycat train robbery near Seymour. The Reno Gang was having none of that. They caught Hammond and Colleran, gave them a thorough beating and handed them over to the sheriff, although the money they took seemed to have disappeared. The Renos wanted it known that train robbery was their exclusive gig.

Their robberies continued, but, in December 1867, their luck began to run out.

Frank Reno was the leader of the gang.

Frank Reno was the leader of the gang.

Vigilantes Take Control

The Pinkerton men were not about to give up. John Reno was recognized in a robbery and, before the gang had the chance to bump off the witness, the Pinkertons arrested John.

When a lynch mod approached the place he was being held, John Reno entered a guilty plea, for which he received the mixed blessing of protection from the lynchers along 25 years of hard labour in the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Undeterred, the gang carried on pulling off hold-ups. In one July 1868 train robbery, they broke into the express car only to find it stuffed with Pinkerton agents. The lawmen let fly with a volley of gunshots but five of the six bandits got away. Only Volney Elliott was taken into custody. Soon, his partners, Charles Roseberry and Theodore Clifton, were found and arrested.

A few days later, the three would-be robbers were being moved when a group of masked men stopped the train carrying them. They called themselves the Jackson County Vigilance Committee, or the Scarlet Mask Society because of the red bandanas they wore to conceal their identity.

They forced officials to hand over the prisoners. Within minutes, Elliott, Roseberry, and Clifton were dead, dangling from a tree. The other gang members were found and they suffered the same fate at the same tree.

The Pinkertons were on the trail of of William and Simeon Reno and caught the pair in Indianapolis. The vigilantes were desperate to get their hands on the Reno brothers, so they were taken to the New Albany jail, where they join Frank Reno already behind bars. The jail was thought to be a place where prisoners could be safe from angry mobs. It was not.

In the wee small hours of December 12, 1868 the Scarlet Mask Society struck. Between 50 and 100 men made a well-organized attack on the New Albany jail. They cut the jail's telegraph wires and burst into the home of Sheriff Thomas J. Fullenlove.

They demanded the keys to the Reno Gang's cells but Fullenlove refused to hand them over; this earned him a beating and a bullet wound in his arm. The sheriff's wife gave the men the keys and soon Frank, William, and Simeon Reno were wearing what the vigilantes called “hemp collars.” John Reno's incarceration meant that he escaped the noose.

The remnants of the Reno Gang promised vengeance, but they realized they were vastly outnumbered by the Scarlet Mask Society whose members were comfortable with extreme violence. No one was ever identified as being involved in the lynchings.

Vigilantism

Bonus Factoids

  • “Honest Clint” Reno turned out to not really deserve his flattering moniker. He built up quite a rap sheet in his time what with assault and battery and keeping a gambling house.
  • The claim that the Reno Gang carried out America's first train robbery can be challenged. During the Civil War train robberies occurred but they were military operations. However, shortly after the war, May 5, 1865 to be precise, a gang held up a train west of Cincinnati. It is suspected the robbers were defiant Confederate soldiers who refused to accept the South had lost the war.
  • Just west of Seymour, Indiana is a place known as Hangman Crossing. It's where six members of the Reno Gang came to a grisly end. There's a housing development there now that is called simply “The Crossing.” One suspects that real estate agents thought it wise to drop the “Hangman” part of the name.
  • While passenger train robberies don't happen anymore, freight is frequently stolen. The FBI calls this a “multi-billion-dollar criminal industry and a growing threat to the economy and national security of the United States.”

Sources

  • “Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery.” Kathy Weiser-Alexander, legendsofamerica.com, June 2021.
  • “Reno Gang’s Reign Of Terror.” William Bell, historynet.com, February 2004.
  • “Vigilantes Yank Train Robbers from Jail and Hang Them.” history.com, November 13, 2009.
  • “Graves of The Reno Gang.” Mark Casey, Atlas Obscura, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 16, 2021:

Interesting article, Rupert. The Reno brothers were pioneers of crime who would make worldwide headlines and set the stage for other soon-to-be known bandits. They were unstoppable until vigilantes decided to stop them in their tracks. No pun intended!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 15, 2021:

Rupert, thanks.

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