Category Archives: Law Enforcement History

Hoosier State Chronicles on YouTube: The Reno Gang

Hoosier State Chronicles is happy to announce our YouTube channel! This channel will be devoted to Indiana’s history and its relevance to everyday Hoosiers.

First up is our video essay on the Reno Gang. Often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” the Renos were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries.

While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all strove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices.

In this first video, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Visit our Blog: https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/ Search historic newspaper pages at  Hoosier State Chronicles  and Chronicling America to read more first drafts of history.

Please comment, like, and subscribe!

Outlaws, Pinkertons, and Vigilantes: The Reno Gang and its Enemies

John Reno. Wikipedia.

Tales of the “Wild West” abound in our cultural imagination, especially when it comes to robberies. Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, and the Dalton Gang are just some of the famous examples from history. However, one of the “Wild West’s” earliest and most infamous robbery syndicates was not from Texas or Arizona— but from Jackson County, Indiana. The Reno Gang, often credited with the “first train robbery in America,” were a gang of outlaws that roamed the Indiana and Missouri countryside in the 1860s, stealing loot from banks and county treasuries. At their peak, the Renos and their copycats stole nearly half a million dollars within a span of two years. The gang’s core consisted of four brothers—John, Frank, Simeon, and William Reno—alongside a cadre of counterfeiters, ruffians, and petty thieves. While their crimes became legendary, the community’s response proved equally legendary. Local sheriffs, Allan Pinkerton’s men, Canadian detectives, and the Jackson County Vigilance Committee all stove to exact justice on the Renos and their accomplices. In this blog, we will uncover the trail of destruction left behind, not only by the Reno Gang, but by those who punished them.

Frank Reno. Wikipedia.

Our story begins with a sprawling family in a small Indiana town. Wilkinson Reno, the patriarch, arrived in Jackson County as an upland southerner from Kentucky. He and his family settled on a 1,200 acre farm in Rockford, a town slightly north of Seymour. “Wilkes,” as he was called, married Julia Ann Reno in 1835, “a woman sprung from the Pennsylvania Dutch.” They had six children; five boys (Frank, John, Simeon, Clint, and William) and one girl (Laura). Clint never involved himself in his brother’s criminal activities, which gave him the nickname “Honest” Reno. Laura proved more of a sympathizer than an accomplice and defended her brothers’ honor her entire life. Growing up, the boys caused trouble by “playing crooked card games to bilk travelers” and allegedly involving themselves in a series of town fires. During the Civil War, some of the Reno brothers gained a reputation for “bounty jumping,” joining the army for recruitment money, deserting the post, and pocketing the cash. While this seems bad enough, the Reno brothers were just getting started.

Frank Sparks. Wikipedia.

After the war, they returned to Rockford, formed a gang with other bounty jumpers, and carried out a series of petty robberies in the community. However, they took their thievery to the next level by “blowing a safe at Azalia, Bartholomew County, Indiana, by which they got $10,000.” This all culminated in the first major robbery of the Reno Gang’s Career: the Ohio and Mississippi express robbery.

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 8, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

On October 6, 1866, John Reno, Simeon Reno, and Frank Sparks robbed the Ohio and Mississippi Railway express car on its way out of Seymour. As the Indianapolis Daily Herald reported, “two men entered his [conductor’s] car from the front platform, . . . presented revolvers at either side of his head, took his key, opened the local safe, and rifled it of all moneys . . . .” They then “threw one of the safes out, pulled the bell chord, and escaped as they had entered.” They were arrested five days later, after a “vigorous search was immediately commenced by citizens and detectives . . . .” Eventually, Wilkes Reno also faced arrest for his involvement in the robbery, though his exact crime remained unclear in the newspapers. Simeon Reno and Frank Sparks posted bail (at $2,500 each) and Wilkes and Jack Reno also posted bail, for “$8,000 and $1,000 respectively.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, October 16, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within two days, the Gang committed another robbery, this time at the Hendricks County Treasurer’s office. They made away with a cool $900 that “belonged the County Agricultural Association.” Over the next few months, the Renos attempted a few more robberies of county treasuries and local banks. In Elkhart County, they blew the doors off of the treasurer’s safe, only to find it empty. County officials, growing wise to the gang’s antics, removed the money and deposited it in the local bank. They left the office with only a measly $50. However, their break-in at Muncie’s Exchange Bank on November 12 proved a massive success, making off with “$12,000 in greenbacks, and $6,000 in United States bonds” before escaping into the night. However, they ended 1866 in failure after a botched attempt at blowing open the safe of the White County treasury. The Indianapolis Daily Journal published a warning just days after the White County attempt, taking a swipe at the robbers: “Burglars are operating extensively in all parts of the State. County Treasuries seem to possess great attraction for them, though their success in realizing any large amount of greenbacks by such raids is anything but flattering.”

Indianapolis Daily Herald, November 13, 1866. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite the warnings, country treasuries felt the wrath of the Reno Gang into the spring of 1867. Ripley County’s treasury lost $500 in a break in, but fortunately, the inner safe kept and saved $30,000 from being lost. DeKalb and Jackson counties proved more successful for the Renos, where their treasury break-ins resulted in $70,000 worth of stolen assets. The Journal published another warning to country treasuries, pithily commenting that “the funds on hand would be as secure if thrown into an empty box or barrel in the treasurer’s office, as they are in what are facetiously termed fire-proof and burglar-proof safes.” The Renos and their accomplices caused much trouble, but their copycats proved to be the beginning of the gang’s unraveling.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, March 16, 1867. Newspaper Archive.

On September 28, 1867, copycats Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran robbed the Adams Express on the Ohio and Mississippi railroad, almost a year after the Renos’ attempt, and made off with $10,000. Hammond and Colleran, while successful in their robbery, were not successful in their escape. The Renos knew their plans and watched the hold-up from afar, and as the copycats attempted their getaway, the gang cut them off and “relieved the robbers of their plunder.” In an even brasher move, the Renos left Hammond and Colleran to the authorities, where they served time while the gang got away with their cash. This appeared to be the last straw for the community and for the Adams Express Company. As a response to constant terror, Adams Express employed Allan Pinkerton, the famous private detective, and his agents to hunt down the Renos. Jackson County locals also formed their own vigilance committee, hoping to exact their own brand of justice on their community’s most notorious criminals.

Allan Pinkerton. Wikipedia.

Some of the gang began to feel the heat. John Reno and Frank Sparks fled to Missouri, where they carried out another series of robberies in Daviess County. Upon returning to Indiana, Pinkerton and his men surrounded Reno’s train in Indianapolis and arrested him. Sparks was also arrested near Seymour. Authorities sent John Reno back to Daviess County where he faced charges of safe robbing and summarily sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. His days with the Reno Gang were over.

The Holt County Sentinel, December 13, 1867. Chronicling America.

The gang continued, under the leadership of Frank Reno, well into the summer of 1868. On May 22, the gang successfully robbed the Adams Express on the Jeffersonville line in Marshfield, 17 miles south of Seymour. The Renos pocketed approximately $96,000 from cracking three safes. The Indiana Daily Sentinel provided great detail on how the Renos pulled it off:

While the train was thus watering on Friday night, six men approached it suddenly, and at once commanded an assault on the engineer and fireman, with a view to the capture of the engine. . . .One of them struck him [the messenger] a terrible blow with one of the crowbars over the right side of the head, crushing in the skull and inflicting a terrible wound transversely from near the top of the head to the temple. . . .This done, the robbers at once commenced their work. All the safes were either broken open and robbed, or thrown overboard at designated places to be robbed by confederates of the six on the train. They were most likely robbed, however, before they were thrown off the car.

An artist rendition of the Reno Gang. Legends of America.

This attempt proved to be the Renos last successful train robbery. They tried it again on the Ohio and Mississippi line on July 10, 1868, but were met “with a volley from the pistols of the guard inside. The robbers were driven off, leaving one of their number very badly wounded, who was brought to this city this morning.”

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 13, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Terre Haute Daily Express reported that “A party of men who were hunting the thieves . . . chased the gang into a thicket near Rockford, Indiana, and succeeded in capturing one, named Charles Roseberry.” It is likely that the “party of men” described in the piece were Pinkertons, because they brought Roseberry into town for medical treatment and questioning. Gang members John Moore, Henry Jerrell, and Frank Sparks also suffered intense injuries.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel, July 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The citizens of Seymour had had enough. The Express also reported that the “citizens of Seymour met last night and formed a vigilance committee.” They fervently believed that “Frank Reno was at the head of the late robbery” and that his accomplices were “petty thieves” whose amateur mistakes resulted in injured citizens and plundered treasure. The Daily Sentinel minced no words when it declared that “the best thing that could be done for Seymour would be to hang the leading scoundrels and drive the others away, which, we are glad to see, the citizens are now likely to do.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 22, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Sentinel’s prophecy occurred far faster than anyone could have predicted. On the night of July 20, 1868, just 10 days after the Reno’s last train robbery, the Jackson County Vigilance Committee lynched Reno gang members Thomas Volney Elliot, Charles Roseberry, and Frelinghuysen Clifton near Seymour. “When the train reached a point two miles west of Seymour,” the Terre Haute Weekly Express noted,” it was stopped by a mob of about two hundred men from Seymour and vicinity, the guard [was] overpowered and the prisoners [were] taken out and hanged.” As he faced his inevitable fate, Clifton “wept like a child, swore that he was innocent of all crime, and implored them to spare his life.” As for the others, Roseberry “said not a word” and Elliot railed against his captors, saying “Confess h—l; I’ll tell you nothing; you’ve got me here, a thousand of you, now do your worst.” They were strung up to a beech tree, “struggled greatly, and died hard.”

Terre Haute Weekly Express, July 29, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Frank Reno, by contrast, made his way to Windsor, Canada and started a new life. The Adams express company offered a reward to anyone who brought him back, either dead or alive. Gang members Frank Sparks, John Moore and Henry Jerrell also fled the state but were captured by authorities in Coles County, Illinois on July 24. They then were transferred to Brownstown and kept under surveillance at the Adams Express wagon office until their transfer to Seymour. However, like the first three, they did not make it. As the Express recounted:

[On July 25], . . . seventy-five men noiselessly surrounded the wagon, overpowered the night guards, and in turn placed them under surveillance; the wagon was driven back under the fated beech, and in less time than it takes to tell it, upon the same three limbs [as the others], Frank Sparks, Henry Jerrell, and John Moore ended their lives of crime.

Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1868. Newspaper Archive.

Within days of the second lynching by the vigilance committee, Simeon and William Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, subsequently jailed in New Albany, and transferred to the Lexington jail in Scott County. Authorities rightly believed they would be safer there than in Jackson County. The criminal career of the Reno gang crept closer to a conclusion.

Terre Haute Daily Express, July 30, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While many viewed the actions of the vigilance committee as honorable, the Grand Jury of Jackson County thought otherwise. The New York Times reported that the Grand Jury would “make the most rigorous examination in regard to acts of the Seymour mob, and indict those whom it can be ascertained were engaged in the recent hangings, for murder in the first degree.” As for specific charges elsewhere, “a number of the persons engaged in this outrage have been indicted for murder by the Grand Jury of Johnson County, and are now under $10,000 bail each to answer to the Circuit Court.” The courts continued to emphasize that despite the Reno Gang’s crimes, the murderous acts of the vigilance committee could not be justified. The Indianapolis Daily Journal used it as an opportunity to be brazenly partisan. “To put it concisely,” wrote the Journal, “three more great outlaws have received their deserts – by an illegal process – and the Republican Party thereby incidentally derives a net gain of six.”

New York Times, August 12, 1868. Newspapers.com.

Meanwhile, Windsor Constable Sam Port and his team finally arrested Frank Reno and associate Charles Anderson for the robbery of the Adams Express and the attempted murder of its messenger, Thomas Hawkins. Upon arraignment, the courts dropped the initial charge of attempted murder against Hawkins, mainly from a lack of evidence. However, they were re-arraigned on another charge: the assault and attempted murder of Americus Holden, the conductor of the Adams Express. Chief Justice William Henry Draper, upon reviewing the evidence and arguments for this new charge, ruled in favor of the state and ordered Reno and Anderson to be extradited to the United States and tried there. The two criminals, possibly weary of what awaited them back home, attempted to break out of jail. Unluckily for them, Detective Pinkerton and his men prepared for the thieves’ antics, endured two failed assassination attempts, and successfully carried out their charge by the US Government to bring them back to the states.

New York Times, October 16, 1868. Newspapers.com.

As Pinkerton and his men brought the two fugitives back to Indiana, the Jackson County vigilance committee sought to continue their own brand of justice. In mid-September of 1868, the vigilance committee caught word that Simeon and William Reno were jailed in Lexington. A cadre of “eighty-five men” traveled from Seymour to Vienna, made the eight mile trek to Lexington on foot, and barnstormed the local jail. However, the Renos were not there. That did not stop them from trying. A messenger altered the mob that the brothers might be traveling by train. Some of the mob stayed in Lexington while the others stayed in Vienna. “When the train arrived, consequently, about six o’clock A.M.,” the Daily Sentinel noted, “the platform of the depot was crowded with strange men, whose faces were unfamiliar to the citizens of the village and passengers on the cars.” They searched the train and found that the Renos were not on board; sensing a problem, local law enforcement returned the prisoners to New Albany. Discouraged, the members of vigilance committee in Vienna took another train home to Jackson County. The Renos escaped their clutches, one last time.

Indiana Daily State Sentinel. December 14, 1868. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By December, Frank Reno, Simeon Reno, William Reno, and Charles Anderson all faced trial for their crimes. Prosecutors tried them in New Albany in an attempt to stave off the vigilance committee. Despite all the precautions and stop-gap measures the local authorities took to stop the bloodshed, the vigilance committee got exactly what they wanted. On the night of December 12, “sixty to seventy Seymour Regulators, masked and heavily armed” walked out of the New Albany station of the Jeffersonville railroad and proceeded toward the jail house. They barged in, demanded the keys from the sheriff, and completely surrounded the premises. Frank Reno “fought the regulators, knocking three of them down,” but was beaten to a pulp. William and Simeon also tried to fight them off but to no avail. Anderson, sensing the end, asked if he could say a prayer but was denied. The mob hung all four men within an hour,  commandeered a train, and left by four in the morning.

“Lynch Law in Indiana.” Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869. Internet Archive. This lithograph depicts members of the vigilance committee surrounding the New Albany jail.

Within a span of six months, the vigilance committee lynched 10 men of the Reno Gang, including three of the four brothers. After the carnage, the brothers’ bodies were returned to Seymour and buried in City Cemetery. Wilkes, Laura, John, and Clint Reno were all that was left of the one of Seymour’s most notorious families. As for Anderson, his remains were buried in New Albany. Newspapers decried the mob violence wracked upon the Renos. “This high handed and murderous deed deeply concerns every citizen of Indiana. It is a reproach upon the State, which it will take years to efface,” wrote the Evansville Journal. The vigilance committee felt little remorse for their actions, going so far as to publish a warning to criminals in the Cincinnati Times (later reprinted in the New York Times). “We deeply deplore the necessity which called our organization into existence; but the laws of our State are so defective that, as they now stand on the statute books, they all favor criminals going unwhipt of justice.” Despite their initial moralizing, a more ominous intention appeared towards the end. “Do not trifle with us,” declared the committee, “for if you do we will follow you to the bitter end and give you a ‘short shrift and hempen collar.’ As to this, our actions in the past will be a guarantee of our conduct in the future.”

New York Times, December 26, 1868. Newspapers.com.

John Reno, the last surviving brother of the gang, finished his prison sentence in February of 1878, after receiving a commutation by Missouri Governor Benjamin Gratz Brown. After his release, Reno spoke to the Indianapolis News about his future. “I’m a rattling good stonecutter . . . and have put up a shed in Seymour, where I intend to go to work,” he said. Unfortunately, stone cutting was not the only work he was doing. Reno went back to prison in 1885 for “passing counterfeit money in Indianapolis” and served another three years. Little is known of what happened after his second release from prison. He died in 1895. With his death, the Reno Gang finally gave way to legend.

Half Sheet poster for Love Me Tender, 1956. Elvis Worldwide Movie Memorabilia. In his first feature film, Elvis Presley played Clint Reno.

The Reno brothers and their gang perpetuated a crime wave in Jackson County the likes of which had never been seen. Their infamous status served as an inspiration for the pioneering short film, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It also directly inspired two feature films: Rage at Dawn (1955), starring Hoosier Forrest Tucker as Frank Reno, and Love Me Tender (1956), with Elvis Presley as Clint Reno. However, in a historical sense, the Reno Gang’s story is more than just the films it inspired. At its heart, these men were some of the first modern criminals in American history, using technology and organization to steal great fortunes with skill and ease. Law enforcement appeared wildly unprepared to handle them. As a result, a vigilance committee took justice into its own hands, committing horrible violence against the gang and leaving order up for grabs. In their eyes, the law couldn’t contain men like the Renos, so they had to do it themselves.

The graves of Frank, Simeon, and William Reno, Cemetery Park, Seymour, Indiana. Atlas Obscura.

The acts of the vigilance committee tell us as much about the period as the Renos do. In an era of vast economic, social, and political change, criminals took advantage of an antiquated system of law enforcement that was never designed to suppress them. When the system did not evolve, the citizens forced it, through vigilantism and lynching. Indiana would continue to have a problem with vigilante groups and lynching throughout the early years of the twentieth century. While no one would ever deem the Renos innocent, their gruesome deaths parallel the very crimes they were killed for. In that sense, the crimes of the Reno Gang and the violence they instigated belong in the legendary mythos of the “Wild West.”

The Indianapolis Times: A Short History

Indianapolis Times, October 11, 1965. Indiana State Library.

The Indianapolis Times began publication as the Sun in 1888, described by the Ayer’s newspaper directory as the “only one-cent paper in Indiana.” Fred L. Purdy served as its first editor and owned a minority stake in its publishing; J. S. Sweeney owned the majority stake. It ran daily under this title until 1899 and its circulation grew to 12,823 by 1898. In 1899, it was renamed the Indianapolis Sun  and continued its daily publication. During this time, it also maintained a professional partnership with the Scripps-McRae wire service out of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Indianapolis Sun, July 3, 1888. Newspaper Archive.
The Indianapolis Sun building at 123-125 East Ohio street. Google Books.

In 1910, Rudolph G. Leeds, Indiana newspaper magnate  and editor of the the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, purchased the Sun. From 1913-1914, George H. Larke and William D. Boyce owned the paper, and altered the title slightly to the Evening Sun. Its daily circulation grew to 34,453 at this time. On July 20, 1914, Boyce and new co-owner John W. Banbury renamed as the Indiana Daily Times. By 1915, its circulation increased to 46,384.

Indiana Daily Times, July 20, 1914. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.

In 1922, Scripps-Howard publishing purchased the Times and it was renamed the Indianapolis Times, the title it kept until it ceased publication in 1965. Roy W. Howard served as the president of Scripps-Howard publishing from 1922-1964, overseeing not only the Times but the United Press International worldwide wire service. Alongside in-house journalism by Times staff, many articles published during this period came from the Scripps-Howard wire service, Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Roy W. Howard, president of Scripps-Howard publishing from 1922-1964. IU Media School.
Indianapolis Times, November 1, 1924. This front page editorial explains the Times’ dedication to exposing the Ku Klux Klan and its influence on state politics. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.
The Indianapolis Times building on 200 West Maryland Street. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.

Over the next forty years, the Indianapolis Times earned a reputation for its “crusading” journalism. In 1927, under the editorship of Boyd Gurley,  the Times published numerous articles exposing the collusion and corruption between the Indiana state government, Governor Ed Jackson, and the Ku Klux Klan. In particular, it exposed the direct corruption between Jackson and Klan leader D. C. Stephenson. The Times earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for “exposing political corruption in Indiana, prosecuting the guilty and bringing about a more wholesome state of affairs in civil government.”

Indianapolis Times, May 8, 1928. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.
A page from the May 14, 1928 issues of the Indianapolis Star commending the Times for its Pulitzer Prize. Newspapers.com.

During the 1930s, the Times advocated for children’s needs, raising money for charities that supplied coats and other clothing items to children hit hard by the Great Depression. In the recession of 1961-62, the Times helped 4,000 Indiana residents find jobs through its publishing of free employment ads. Alongside its Klan coverage, the Times also covered multiple scandals, from corruption in the state’s highway fund and voter fraud in congressional districts to exposing falsely reported Indianapolis crime statistics. It even published coverage during the 1960s that advocated for better lunches in public schools, through the use of the federal school surplus program.

Indianapolis Times, December 2, 1930. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.
Indianapolis Times, April 8, 1961. Indiana Historical Bureau Historical Marker File.

Despite its successful journalism and philanthropy, the Times lacked the resources and circulation to compete with Indianapolis’s rival dailies, the News and the Star. On October 11, 1965, the Indianapolis Times ran its final issue and suspended publication. Its final daily circulation totaled 89,374, with a Sunday circulation of 101,000.

The front page of the last issue of the Indianapolis Times, October 11, 1965. Indiana State Library.

While the Indianapolis Times ceased publication over 50 years ago, it maintains a legacy of good journalism and civic integrity. Due to its immense impact on the community, the Indiana Historical Bureau shared the newspaper’s history with future generations of Hoosiers via a historical marker originally placed in 1979, and replaced in 2013.

The Indiana Historical Bureau marker for the Indianapolis times. Indiana Historical Bureau.

Wheels of Corruption: Bicycles, Billy Blodgett, and the Allen Manufacturing Company

An "outing bicycle." Indiana Historical Society.
Hay & Willit’s Outing Bicycle, 1896, Indiana Historical Society.

Previously at Hoosier State Chronicles, we have written about the investigative journalist William H. “Billy” Blodgett. From his articles on Crawfordsville folklore to Hoosier ghost stories, Blodgett exhibited a penchant for the macabre. However, he mainly turned his investigative eye to politics and business, exposing local corruption and unlawful business practices. One not entirely aboveboard business in particular caught his attention in the 1890s.

"Bicycling Etiquette," Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Bicycling Etiquette,” Indianapolis News, August 18, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

During the Gilded Age, bicycles became a national phenomenon. With ever-changing designs and the lowering of costs, bicycles spurred social clubs, faced religious blow back, and even influenced clothing trends. As such, the need for bicycles exploded, with hundreds of different companies competing for their share of the marketplace. There were dozens of companies in Indiana alone.

Of these companies, the Allen Manufacturing Company garnered moderate success but attracted controversy. Founded in 1894 and later incorporated in 1895 by David F. Allen, David A. Coulter, James Murdock, and William B. Hutchinson, Allen Manufacturing maintained a peculiar corporate structure and political affiliation with the Democratic party. In some respects, you could have called the company a “Government-Sponsored Enterprise,” wherein the products made were sold in the marketplace but the labor and capital costs were funneled through government institutions. This is especially true of its labor force, comprised exclusively of prisoners from the State prison north in Michigan City. As reported by the Indianapolis News, “the convicts who work in the factory are to be paid 42 cents a day. Mr. French [the prison’s warden] says that 150 men will be employed in the factory.”

James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.
James Murdock, one of the founders of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Tippecanoe County, Indiana, Google Books.

Before Blodgett’s investigative reporting on the company, the Indianapolis Journal published a pointed critique of Allen Manufacturing’s labor force. The piece referred to the venture as a “blow to honest labor” and argued that the lack of skilled bicycle makers will “glut the market with cheap wheels.” The article emphasized this point in a further passage:

At the price paid [for labor] the company will have a great advantage over the manufacturers of Indiana, and their employees will, of course, share in the loss by reason, if not through cheapened wages, then of less opportunity for work. The new venture is not likely to decrease their hostility to the prison labor system and the Democratic party of Indiana.

Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, October 29, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another piece in the Indianapolis News, possibly written by Blodgett, also criticized the company’s deep ties to political operatives, and in particular, founder David F. Allen. Allen was serving on the State Board of Tax Commissioners when the company was founded (but not incorporated), and if he didn’t leave the Board, he would be violating section 2,049 of the Indiana legal code. In other words, Allen and his business partners kept the public existence of the company private for nearly a year, incorporating on March 14, 1895, so as to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Public record of Allen Manufacturing's labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.
Public record of Allen Manufacturing’s labor agreement with Indiana prison north, Google Books.

While Allen Manufacturing was still an unincorporated entity, it struck a deal with the Indiana prison north in October 1894 to employ 150 prisoners at forty cents a day (lower than forty-two cents, as mentioned in the papers) for the next five years. The agreement was then amended in 1896 to remove twenty-five workers from the contract for another project. Again, this is a private consortium of well-connected political operatives setting up a business to take advantage of the state’s prison labor system .

At least the prisoners made a quality product. While I couldn’t find photographs of the bicycles, they were apparently made well enough to appear in a state-wide bicycle exhibition on January 28, 1896 at the Indianapolis Y.M.C.A. According to the Indianapolis Journal, the Allen Manufacturing Company displayed its bicycles with 14 other firms and the show also displayed artwork by T.C. Steele, among others. Allen Manufacturing also acquired the Meteor Bicycle Company, a nationally recognized firm located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and began manufacturing bikes under the name from 1896 to 1898. While the public face of their company seemed bright, its internal workings quickly began to unravel.

Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, January 25, 1894, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1897, Allen Manufacturing’s financial problems began bubbling to the surface. After the release of twenty-five prisoners from their contract at Indiana state prison north, its labor force wasn’t big enough to keep up with an order for 2,000 bicycles wheels. From there, the company ran up debts that were nearly impossible to reverse, taking out a mortgage to offset their losses. As reported by the Indianapolis News:

Edward Hawkins, of this city [Indianapolis], who has been appointed trustee under the mortgage, returned to-day from a meeting of the officers and directors of the company at Michigan City. The company, he says, found itself unable to pay its paper due, and executed a mortgage on the plant for the benefit of the banks that hold the paper.

Even though it paid off $6,500 owed to the state in October of 1897, Allen’s troubles continued. Hawkins was removed as mortgage trustee, more and more creditors were filing claims, and two court-appointed receivers stepped in to try to clean up the mess.

Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 9, 1897, Hoosier State Chronicles.

This is where Billy Blodgett’s articles began to shed light on the corruption. In January of 1898, Blodgett began a series of hard-hitting exposes in the Indianapolis News against Allen Manufacturing, writing of alleged abuses of state power, graft, and fraud. His first article, published on January 13, 1898, alleged that whole train-cars of bicycles were purchased by individual owners of the company, such as D. F. Allen and D. A. Coulter, and then shuffled around the assets for accounting purposes. Specifically, Allen purchased “$4,000 worth of bicycles,” transferred ownership to his son, and then “applied [the amount] on notes given to the Merchants’ National Bank of Lafayette.” The article also reaffirmed what many had suggested since the company’s founding. Namely, its public incorporation was made after key leaders removed themselves from conflicts of interest yet acted as an incorporated entity when it negotiated its labor contract with the prison.

The headline from Billy Blodgett's first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
The headline from Billy Blodgett’s first major piece on the company in the Indianapolis News, January 13, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, Blodgett published the next installment, writing of the company’s alleged fraud in connection to its stocks. The Chicago firm Morgan & Wright, who purchased the company’s manufacturing plant during its initial financial woes, alleged that Allen Manufacturing had used backdoor loans from the Merchant’s National Bank of Lafayette in order to inflate its asset value. “In other words,” Blodgett wrote, “Morgan & Wright will try to show [in court] that the total amount of money paid for the stock was $300,” rather than the $4,000 or $5,000 the company claimed.

Judge William Biddle, History of LaPorte County, Google Books.
Judge William Biddle, A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of LaPorte County, Indiana, Google Books.

Blodgett also reported another fascinating case of company misdirection. On October 15, 1897, LaPorte County Judge William B. Biddle ordered the company to stop selling any products and hand the reins over to receiver Alonzo Nichols. This order was ignored by Henry Schwager, another receiver appointed to the company in Michigan City. Biddle retaliated on November 23, issuing an order against the company at large and reaffirmed his previous decision. What came next is shocking:

. . . Sheriff McCormick went to Michigan City to take possession of the property. When he got there, he found the building of the Allen Manufacturing Company locked up, and he could not get in to make the levy, without using force. He was warned not to do this, so the sheriff and his deputies stood around on the outside of the prison, and as the carloads of property came out they seized them. He found the property at different points, and turned it all over to Nichols as receiver.

In other words, Sheriff N. D. McCormick and his deputies had to wait until the company didn’t think the authorities were looking before they could seize the goods. Even in the face of court orders, the Allen Manufacturing Company still tried to do things its own way, to disastrous results.

Headline for Blodgett's third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Headline for Blodgett’s third and final major piece on Allen Manufacturing, January 15, 1898, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Billy Blodgett’s final big piece on Allen Manufacturing appeared in the Indianapolis News on January 15, 1898. In it, Blodgett tries to track down and interview company big-wigs David Coulter and David Allen. Blodgett wrote of Coulter that, “He is pleasant and affable, courteous and polite, but I might as well have talked to the Sphynx in Egypt, so far as getting any information from him.” Over the course of a short, frosty conversation between Blodgett and Coulter, the businessman declined to speak about any of the charges leveled against him and maintained his innocence. When Blodgett pressed him on some of the specific charges of defrauding investors, his “demeanor demonstrated that the interview was at an end. . . .”

As for Allen, he was unable to interview the man directly but spoke to one of his colleagues. Blodgett chronicled the exchange:

A few weeks ago Mr. Allen met this friend and said to him:

“You remember the evening you asked me to dinner with you in Chicago?”

“Yes, I remember.it distinctly.”

“Well, that failure to take dinner with you has cost me $5,000, and may cost me more.”

The friend understood from this that if Allen had not gone to the meeting at which the company was formed he would have been money ahead. This friend gives it as his opinion that every member of the Allen Manufacturing Company lost from $3,000 to $5,000 each.

In one corner, you have Coulter trying to hold things together and denying changes against him and Allen in the other allegedly remarking on how he and many others lost money. This inconsistency in the press didn’t help to make the public or the company’s shareholders feel any better about the situation.

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, July 12, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1898, the company was defunct in all but name. Bicycles manufactured under the “Meteor” brand ceased and the company’s remains were being settled in numerous court cases. In 1900, a Louisville, Kentucky court ruled that Allen Manufacturing had in fact defrauded Morgan & Wright out of at least one payment for a shipment of product. Another lawsuit, clearing Sherriff Nathan McCormick of any wrongdoing against court-appointed receivers, was settled in 1901 in U.S. Court and upheld in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1902.

Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, September 14, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Blodgett did write a follow up article in 1901, noting that Indiana state prison north Warden Shideler resigned over allegations that he was a stockholder in the company at the time he was serving as Warden. It also indicated that labor contract developed by Allen, Coulter and others in 1894 was binding until 1904, with other companies stepping in to fill the void left by the demise of the Allen Manufacturing Company. Newspaper evidence suggests that Allen, Coulter, and many of the other big players never faced serious charges and that the company’s multiple lawsuits distracted from the other allegations leveled against them. Allen himself would eventually pursue other political offices, including Indiana Secretary of State, as well as serve in the Spanish-American War. He died in 1911, with the failure of his company firmly behind him.

Memorial plaque at David F. Allen's grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.
Memorial plaque at David F. Allen’s grave, Frankfort, Indiana, FindAGrave.com.

So what do we make of the Allen Manufacturing Company? In some ways, you can look at it as a quasi-private, quasi-public boondoggle, destined to fail. In other ways, you can look at it as a company created to enrich its leadership by taking advantage of sub-contracted labor. However, these may be the symptoms of a larger malady. The major take-away from this episode was that a rapidly changing industrial economy and a national fad in bicycles spurred a slapdash attempt to create a company that benefited from public connections. Furthermore, the episode highlights how determined and detailed journalism helps to keep the public and private sectors of society accountable, both to citizens and shareholders. While some of the key players never faced accountability, Blodgett’s success in investigating Allen Manufacturing’s corruption nevertheless exemplified how an individual citizen, and a free press, can check some of our more abject motivations.

Tonight, there’s going to be a (Rotary) Jail Break!

A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.
A birds-eye view of the rotary jail from its original patent. Courtesy of Google Books.

In a previous post (“When Jails Were Shaped like Pies”), we explored the interesting history of one of the nineteenth century’s most idiosyncratic inventions: the rotary jail. Inspired by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, rotary jails were circular enclosures that allowed guards a 360 degree view of inmates through moving cells via a crank.  There was only one access point, making escape more difficult. This type of jail was invented in Indiana by architect William H. Brown and iron industrialist Benjamin F. Haugh.  These Indianapolis-based inventors filed their patent patent in 1881.The design became  popular, largely because it decreased interaction between guard and prisoner. In fact, the prisoner did not even have to be removed from his cell to dispose of waste.

The first blog post explained its Indiana origins and general history; this post serves to expand our knowledge of these jails through more newspaper accounts from throughout the United States.

A search for "rotary jail" in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.
A search for “rotary jail” in US News Map. Courtesy of US News Map.

But how do we start? One great tool for looking for subjects and their relevance to newspapers is usnewsmap.com. A joint venture of the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the University of Georgia, US News Map provides visitors with an easy search tool that show where subjects show up on the map. When I typed in “rotary jail,” I got eleven hits; some were as far east as Vermont and as far west as Utah.

Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city's rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.
Main street in Burlignton, Vermont, 1893. On this street resided the city’s rotary jail. Courtesy of Google Books.

In Burlington, Vermont, a rotary jail was built as early as the late 1880s, with city planners waxing enthusiastic about the invention after their visit to the flagship rotary jail in Crawfordsville, Indiana. “They were most favorably impressed with the new rotary jail at Crawfordsville, Ind., and the probability is that they will decide to erect a similar one in this city,” wrote the Burlington Free Press on March 25, 1887. In Picturesque Burlington, a short history written in 1893 by Joseph Auld, describes the rotary jail in detail:

This “cage” is closely surrounded by a barred iron railing with only one opening. When a prisoner is to be placed in his cell the “cage” is revolved till the proper cell fronts the door; then the prisoner is put in, the cage is turned, and he is secure. The number of prisoners is small and the offences venial, largely violations of the prohibitory law.

Despite the reputation that rotary jails were nearly impossible to break through, escapes occurred periodically throughout the country.

Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.
Burlington Weekly Free Press, April 7, 1892. From Chronicling America.

For example, one particular story from the Burlington Free Press comes to mind. As reported on April 7, 1892, a man named John Arthur Simpson, whose aliases included “George Simpson” and “George A. Stillwell,” was accused of murder in Dover, New Hampshire. Simpson, whose past lives included “Baptist minister, later a burglar, horse thief, incendiary, farmer, bigamist, and finally a murderer,” apparently bared a remarkable resemblance to Julius McArthur, who “killed Deputy Sherriff Charles H. Hatch of New Hampshire May 6, 1891 while resisting arrest for stealing a horse and who escaped from the rotary jail of this city Jul 17, 1891.” According to the newspaper report, Simpson likely escaped from jail using a knife “as a wedge to open the cell door” and the authorities searched for a supposed accomplice who gave him said knife. Even though rotary jails garnered a reputation for being tough to escape, Simpson’s story shows they weren’t completely impenetrable.

Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.
Salt Lake Herald, February 2, 1907. From Chronicling America.

Another rotary jailbreak occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah. Charles Riis, convicted of larceny under the name “Charles Merritt,” reportedly “went through the bars of the supposedly impregnable steel rotary at the county jail as though they were made of putty,” wrote the Salt Lake Herald on February 2, 1907. Riis was said to have “crawled” through a cell “eight inches wide by fourteen inches and length” after sawing through a bar over a few days, slowly as to not alert the sheriff. He then used the sawed bar as leverage to scale down the side of the jail wall with a blanket. At the time of this article, his whereabouts were unknown. Riis’s clever maneuvering utilized the weaknesses of both the rotary jail as an invention and the law enforcement agency’s inability to anticipate his covert actions.

Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Carrie Nation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

However, these stories pale in comparison to what was reported in multiple newspapers in Kansas. Carrie Nation, noted prohibitionist and provocateur, instigated a spat with the Wichita Sheriff’s wife and placed in a rotary jail cell in 1901. From here, we get two different sides of the story. According to the May 3 1901 issue of the Kinsley Graphic, Nation was “placed in the rotary cell at the county jail. She abused the sheriff’s wife, calling her all kind of vile names, the ‘devil’s dam being one.” She also called another woman “two-faced” as she was sitting in the rotary cell. However, the Topeka State Journal quoted Nation directly, painting a contrasting narrative. Nation, quoted in the Journal, wrote:

I was put in this [rotary] cell because I told Mrs. Simmons, the jailor’s wife, that when I was here before she tried to have me adjudged insane. She said I was a woman who used low, obscene language to her husband. I told her she lied and all liars would go to burn in the lake of fire. Her husband told me this morning when he came to remove me that his wife wanted me to be put here. Poor, depraved wretch! What a shame to see a cruel, revengeful woman. John the Baptist lost his head from just such a one. I would rather die in this unwholesome place than be such. I wish she would let Jesus change the bitter to the sweet in her nature. What a miserable woman she is! My poor sisters in this Bastille are trusting in the Lord.

Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.
Topeka State Journal, April 27, 1901. From Chronicling America.

She then railed against the liquor trade in Wichita, advising all citizens to “avoid getting anything from this cursed Sodom,” and comparing her treatment in the rotary jail to the “cruelty and injustice” of the “Spanish inquisition.” Nation’s brush with rotary jails is one of many legendary stories of the gilded age crusader.

Finally, rotary jails not only dealt with prisoners getting out, but also unintentionally trapped in. The November 10, 1886 issue of the Fairfield News and Herald, out of Winnsboro, South Carolina, reported that the rotary jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa “became locked Monday morning by some disarrangement of the machinery, and no prisoners could be taken out nor any admitted.” The paper further noted that a “large force of men were at work all day on the machinery, but the trouble was not removed until Tuesday morning.” This story was also picked by the Laurens Advertiser, the Manning Times, and the Pickens Sentinel.

Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.
Fairfield News and Herald, November 10, 1886. From Chronicling America.

Between the escapes and the structural failures, you would think that rotary jails would have lost sway with the law enforcement community and the general public. As the previous post mentioned, efforts to stop the use of rotary jails began as early as 1917. By the mid-20th century, many rotary jails were discontinued or the cell blocks were immobilized.  Two former rotary jails served as county jails well into the 20th century, with the Council Bluffs jail closing in 1969 and the Crawfordsville jail in 1973.

Although the rotary jail is no longer used, the seminal Indiana invention left a profound mark on the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Its design really broke the mold, or as you could say, broke (out of) the cell.