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.
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 Rockland, 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.”