Category Archives: Crime History

Injustice’s Lariat | Lynching in Indiana

Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. When searching through Indiana newspapers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.

To learn more about Flossie Bailey, check out Nicole Poletika’s article from the Indiana History Blog.

Learn about other stories of lynching at Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/) and Hoosier State Chronicles (www.hoosierstatechronicles.org).

Learn more Indiana History from the Indiana Historical Bureau: http://www.in.gov/history/

Visit our Blog: https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/

Learn more about the history relevance campaign at https://www.historyrelevance.com/.

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Credits:

Written and produced by Justin Clark.

Footage from CNN, PBS Newshour, the Guardian, Dryerbuzz, and the Equal Justice Initiative

Photo by Citizensheep on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo by Fraser Mummery on Foter.com / CC BY

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

Music: “Ether” by Silent Partner, “Dramatic, Sad Ambient Song” by MovieMusic, and “Slow, Dramatic, Acoustic Song” by MovieMusic.

Full Text of Video

The United States, regardless of its successes, has a dark past that we still grapple with today. A new and powerful reminder to the injustice of the American past is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, located in Montgomery, Alabama. On the six-acre memorial stand “800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.” Additional, blank monuments have been added to include yet-undiscovered lynching.

The monument was the brainchild of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” In its 2017 report, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Terror,” the EJI “uncovered more than 4,400 victims from 1877 to 1950, including 800 previously unknown cases.”

While the vast majority of lynching occurred in the south, a sizable portion occurred in the Midwest. Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. One way historians have uncovered these horrific crimes is with newspapers. When searching through Indiana papers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.

One of the earliest lynchings in Indiana newspapers was chronicled by the Marshall County Republican on November 23, 1871. Three African-Americans, whose names were only given as “Johnson, Davis, and Taylor,” were accused of the murder of the Park family in Henryville, Clark County. Matthew Clegg, “a shystering lawyer” from Henryville, had a dispute with the Parks and when he likely had them murdered, he pushed the blame to the three local African-American men. When the grand jury couldn’t find enough evidence to indict them, the local vigilance committee took matters into their own hands. They broke through the jail, grabbed the three men, placed nooses around their neck, and dragged them through the street. They were then strung up next to each other on a tree. The Republican described their bodies in painful detail; Taylor’s description was the most gruesome: “His form was nude, save the slight remnants of a white shirt that was stretched across his lower limbs, while the hangman’s knot under his chin threw his head back in, a gasping movement, and his white teeth and distended lips grinned with a fiend-like scowl . . . .” It is unclear from the newspaper account if anyone was tried for the lynching.

In 1886, the Indiana State Sentinel reported the lynching of Holly Epps, who had been accused of the murder of a local farmer in Greene County. Around 12:50 on the morning of January 18, a “crowd of masked men” brandishing “sledgehammers and various other implements” descended on the Knox County jail. After failing to cajole the sheriff to open the door, the horde broke in, smashed through the jail cell, and dragged Epps out into the cold of night. Using the closest tree they could find, the mob strung Epps up and “for fully fifteen minutes he struggled for life, when death came to his relief.” The mob left his hanging remains on the courthouse grounds to be found by the county prosecutor. The sentiment of the citizens of the county, as recorded by the Sentinel, was one of satisfaction. “Citizens of all classes justify the lynching, and the moral sentiment is that the Greene County vigilants did a justifiable act in summarily removing the fiend from the face of the earth,” the Sentinel commented. The lynch mob were never prosecuted for their actions.

The 1889 lynching of Peter Willis in northern Kosciusko County received weird and contradictory coverage in the Indianapolis Journal. In its July 22, 1889 issue, the Journal ran a nondescript blurb about Willis’s lynching at the hands of a mob after he was charged with assaulting a little girl. The South Bend Tribune and the Indiana State Sentinel also ran stories with the same details. Then six days later, completely disregarding its previous coverage, the Journal published an editorial claiming “the assault and lynching episode referred to by the Sentinel [as well as the Tribune] never occurred, and is wholly an imaginary tragedy . . . .” The editorial further noted that “the only truth contained in the item is the superfluous information concerning the geographical location of Kosciusko county, which it says ‘is not in Mississippi or South Carolina,’ . . . and the further assertion that ‘it is the banner Republican county of Indiana.’” There’s nothing named Kosciusko in South Carolina and only a town named that in Mississippi; it was the Sentinel’s and Tribune’s way of saying it was in Indiana and highlighting that this can happen in the north. If the Journal thought they could drive a wedge of doubt through their phrasing, they were wrong. Furthermore, the fact that a county has Republican leanings says nothing about whether a lynching can occur there. This editorial was likely a political device to stave off criticism against a northern, Republican-leaning Indiana county. Sadly, it was misleading people about the unlawful execution of a person who had not yet been proven guilty in a court of law.

The beginning of the new century brought with it the same kinds of lawlessness that led to lynching, despite the Indiana General Assembly passing anti-lynching laws in 1899 and 1901. George Moore, an African American accused of assaulting two women and fleeing law enforcement, was lynched on the evening of November 20, 1902. He was “hanged to a telephone pole” in Sullivan County after a mob of roughly 40 men fought against the sheriff’s department. Moore had been a fugitive, attempting an escape to Illinois when he was captured by authorities in Lawrenceville, Illinois. The mob “beat him over the head with their weapons” before they hanged him. Governor Winfield T. Durbin was troubled by the situation and tried to stop it, but the requisite military and law enforcement officers couldn’t get there in time. It was another instance of mob violence instead of real justice, and the Indianapolis Journal said as much two days later in an editorial. “It is no excuse for mob law to say that the legal penalty in such cases is inadequate,” the Journal declared, “That is not for any mob or any community to say. If the penalty is not severe enough let the law be changed in a regular way, but while the law stands it should be observed.”

Over the next thirty years, lynching began to decline in Indiana; it had become a national issue with near-passage of a federal anti-lynching law. Indiana’s last-known racially-motivated lynching was in 1930, in Marion, when Abe Smith and Thomas Shipp were hanged by a mob. The crime was so horrific that the Indiana General Assembly, urged by Indiana NAACP President Katherine “Flossie” Bailey and others, passed another anti-lynching law in 1931. This law required that any sheriff serving in a county were a lynching occurred be suspended or dismissed as well as repealed many past statutes that limited the victims or their families legal recourse. It was a partial solution to a definite problem, one Indiana contended with for decades.

It is a common notion that lynching, much like racism, was a southern phenomenon in the United States. These select stories from Indiana newspapers illustrate just how wrong that notion is. The prejudice that people felt motivated them to take the law into their own hands, with disastrous consequences. Justice should be applied by democratic institutions, not by mob rule. That’s how we ensure the principle of equality under the law. But animus against African Americans was stronger than the virtue of justice. As a group of preachers declared in a 1910 article for the Indianapolis Recorder:

. . . so long as wild men will be permitted to roam at will with ropes, shot and torch, so long will a cloud of national shame hang over the government. It is known that almost all of the lynched are members of the colored race, and in many instances the color of their skin is their only crime. It is also known that in the section of the country where almost all this barbarous and un-Christian practice is loved and cherished the colored people have no voice at the courts of mercy.

In knowing these stories, we can begin the process of healing. It will neither be swift, nor easy, but it is vital for our democracy. We owe it to the names engraved on each corten steel beam in Montgomery, Alabama, of at least 18 are from the Hoosier state.

Thanks for watching. Please click “like” in you enjoyed this video and make sure to subscribe to keep updated on all new videos. To learn more about Flossie Bailey, check out Nicole Poletika’s article from the Indiana History Blog. Learn about other stories of lynching at Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles. The links are in the description. Finally, have you visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice? Were you aware of lynchings in Indiana before? What do you think we can do today to advance peace and justice? Leave your answers in the comments below. We want to hear from YOU.

Articles from Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles

Marshall County Republican, November 23, 1871, Chronicling America.
Indiana State Sentinel, July 1, 1875, Chronicling America.
Marshall County Republican, October 17, 1878, Chronicling America.
Indiana State Sentinel, January 20, 1886, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis News, August 24, 1886, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, July 22, 1889, Chronicling America.
Indiana State Sentinel, July 24, 1889, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis Journal, July 28, 1889, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis Journal, February 9, 1890, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis News, December 18, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, December 18, 1900, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, February 26, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, March 1, 1901, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis News, March 1, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 21, 1902, Chronicling America.
Los Angeles Herald – November 21, 1902, California Digital Newspaper Collection.
Indianapolis Journal, November 22, 1901, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis News, November 24, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Greencastle Herald, August 3, 1911, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Lake County Times, April 23, 1920, Chronicling America.
Indianapolis Recorder, August 29, 1931, Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, March 14, 1931, Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Foully Shot Dead”: The Mysterious Death of John Seay and the Murder Trial of William Fodrea

It turns out that James P. Hornaday’s coverage of the Martinique and St. Vincent earthquakes was not the only big story in the Indianapolis News in the summer of 1902. A heavily-covered murder trial also graced the front pages during those months. William Fodrea, a young man with a penchant for engineering, stood accused of the murder of John Seay, an employee of the Noblesville Mining Company. Seay’s mysterious death and Fodrea’s equally mysterious alibi opened up a tale of unrequited love, obsession, and murder that captivated readers of both the News and the Indianapolis Journal. The resulting trial took many twists and turns before the jury’s surprising, unexpected decision. In the end, many walked away from the trial with more questions than answers and the details of that fateful night still remain obscured.

Indianapolis News, December 23, 1901, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The murder of John Seay occurred on a cold, snowy night in 1901, just three days before Christmas. “About 1 o’clock yesterday morning,” the Indianapolis News reported, “while John E. Seay, in the employ of the Noblesville Milling Company, was resting on a stairway, a load of buckshot, fired by an assassin through a nearby window, entered his neck and head and he fell dead.” Within hours of the murder, attention turned to likely culprit William Fodrea, the twenty-five-year-old son of a former county prosecutor and aspiring engineer. Fodrea’s name rose to the top of officials’ list because he was reportedly obsessed with Seay’s girlfriend, nineteen-year-old Carrie Phillips. “Fodrea was infatuated with the girl and insanely jealous, and, it is said, made threats against Seay,” the News wrote. When Phillips rejected his advances, Fodrea increasingly fixated on her, “lingered” in her neighborhood, and was even “found hiding under the veranda” of her home. When she chose Seay instead, he was said to have lost all composure, resulting in the other suitor’s murder.

Indianapolis News, June 9, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fodrea, “perfectly calm and collected when arrested,” claimed total innocence. Even so, local authorities used a “‘sweat box’ examination,” but it “failed to compel the accused to implicate himself.” For context, a “sweat box” was an often-used torture device in US prisons that isolated the incarcerated in a small room with a tin roof. Due to a lack of ventilation, these small rooms greatly increased in temperature during the day and made prisoners “roast in the grueling heat, enough in some cases to cause death, or little better, madness.”  It apparently did neither to Fodrea and he stayed locked up in the Hamilton Country jail while authorities began to sort out the crime.

Indianapolis News, January 16, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

From the initial investigations and throughout the trial,  only circumstantial evidence linked Fodrea to the crime. Fodrea claimed to have never known Seay, and when asked to identify him in a photo, said that, “So far as that man is concerned, I never saw him before.” Despite his claims of innocence, other clues began to trickle in. The first piece of evidence found was a gun barrel, discovered by “school boys under a brush pile on the outskirts of the city.” As for testimonial evidence, Carrie Phillips and her mother both claimed that Fodrea’s obsession bubbled into a frenzy, with him finally declaring that “if he could not go with the young woman no one else could.” Phillip Karr, night manager of the Model Mill, said he saw Fodrea “loafing about the place late one night about a week before the shooting.” While these developments seemed damning on the surface, authorities noted that “these incidents will fall far short of being sufficient to convict him, if there are no new developments in the case.”

Ralph Kane, the lead prosecutor in the Fodrea murder trial. Indianapolis News, June 12 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ralph Kane, a veteran prosecutor, replaced J. Frank Beals after he withdrew from the case, citing his wife’s familial relationship to Fodrea. Judge William Neal began the process of establishing a grand jury to investigate the murder in more detail. The Hamilton County Council also convened, “acting on a petition signed by fifty business men,” to appropriate funds towards “a reward for the arrest and conviction of the assassin of John E. Seay.” One indication that the prosecution might have a case against Fodrea was that Seay did not appear to have any enemies in his former home of Richmond, Virginia. The grand jury first met on February 18, 1902. The Journal noted that, “Judge Neal, in his instructions to the jury, said no indictment could be returned against Fodrea unless there was a probability of guilt.” The case still hinged on circumstantial evidence. As such, Judge Neal further “instructed the jury to devote all of its time to the inquiry.”

By March of 1902, the investigators were still continuing their search, but were confident that they had “unearthed much new evidence against him.” In the meantime, the Hamilton County Council “appropriated $600 for the defense of William Fodrea” and “$1,000 for the prosecution of the same cause.” By April, Hamilton County’s Circuit Court teased a trial date, likely sometime in the summer term.

Indianapolis Journal, January 7, 1902 , Hoosier State Chronicles.

The trial for the murder of John E. Seay began on June 9, 1902, at the Hamilton County Circuit Court. Billy Blodgett, a titan of turn-of-the-century investigative journalism, covered the proceedings for the Indianapolis News. The prosecution argued that William Fodrea shot Seay at close range while he was resting on a step. The alleged round from Fodrea’s shotgun “struck Seay in the neck and head, tearing a ghastly wound in his throat, and several of the grains of shot penetrating his brain.” Despite the cursory investigations indicated “no trace of the murderer,” a police officer had heard that Fodrea made threats against Seay. Fodrea, maintaining his innocence, “said he had gone downtown between 7 and 8 o’clock that evening, and visited different places, returning home about 10 o’clock. Being unable to sleep, he went back down-town an hour later, and for some time sat on the steps on the north and west sides of the court house.” He returned home around 2am. Due to the immense cold that wracked Noblesville that December night, the police were not sold on Fodrea’s story, especially his lounging on the courthouse steps. He was arrested soon thereafter.

Indianapolis Journal, June 10, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The prosecution hung the success of their case on the testimony of Carrie Phillips. They again remarked of his odd behavior directed towards Miss Phillips—the passing her by home every day, hiding under her veranda, and his intense jealousy of Seay’s apparent courtship of Phillips. Her mother recalled that Fodrea called on the young woman shortly before the murder, asking for her whereabouts and the full name of her new suitor. Fodrea “said he would get even before long,” according to the State. These circumstantial accounts, while wholly based on the imperfect testimony of other people, painted a grim picture of the young man. The murder also highlighted a growing problem within Hamilton County. As Blodgett wrote in his first article for the News, “The killing of Seay was the third crime committed in Hamilton County within a short time, and consequently there was great indignation, not only at the murder, but because of what is termed ‘the epidemic of crime’.” The first day also focused on the selection of a jury, of which only two of twelve men would be over forty. This measure was taken to accommodate Fodrea, who was only 25 at the time and to ensure a fair trial. Leota Fodrea, William’s sister and a “prominent schoolteacher of the county,” showed “her devotion to her brother by her consistent presence by his side.”

Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The next day, the prosecution laid out its case in greater detail. Ralph Kane, lead prosecutor for the State, reiterated the problematic behavior of Fodrea and his supposed threats to Seay and Carrie Phillips. He argued that witnesses claimed to have seen Fodrea “lurking around the mill late at night and was seen standing at another time on the spot at the mill where the murderer stood” as well as “peering into the mill when Seay was there.” He also “caused a sensation when he declared that the State will show that the night of the murder, William Fodrea was seen within two squares of the mill with a shotgun in his hand.” These conclusions were based on the testimony of twenty-five witnesses, one of which was Frank Bond, a co-worker with Seay at the mill. He discovered the body as well as “12-gauge shotgun wads near it.” Bond then called Dr. Fred A. Tucker, another witness, who examined the body and concluded that Seay died instantly. Head miller Daniel H. McDougall also testified against Fodrea and claimed that he had applied for a job at the mill multiple times and even visited the grounds on three separate occasions.

Indianapolis News , June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The second day also provided the jury with details about the lives of both Fodrea and Seay. Fodrea, in his mid-twenties, called Hamilton County his home for most of his life. As the News wrote, “he has always been modest and unassuming and did not have a large circle of friends.” His life had taken for the worse after his laundry business went belly up as a result of a bad business partner, which prompted the young man to say, “It seems as if everyone that has anything to do with me beats me.” Seay, much like his accused assailant, lived a quiet life and kept to himself, likely the result of a speech impediment. He had very few close friends and lived modestly, dying with only a few hundred dollars to his name. What linked these two seemingly innocuous men was their relationship to Carrie Phillips.

Linnaeus S. Baldwin, the lead defense attorney. Indianapolis News, June 11, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fodrea’s defense, led by Linnaeus S. Baldwin, sought to poke holes in the prosecution’s case by establishing doubts about the circumstantial evidence. This proved to be a difficult task; a gun barrel was found near the murder scene and further eyewitness testimony suggested that a “man wearing a long overcoat” had been spotted close to the mill. The defense leaned on character witnesses for Fodrea, specifically his family.

Fodrea’s mother and father corroborated that their son was at home during the times he described and spoke of his good character. In particular, his mother noted that he was “very fond of machinery and wanted a job at the mill,” which paints his intentions with the mill in a different light. Additionally, the court came to a near stand-still when Fodrea’s sister took the stand. “She told of the dolls he made her,” Billy Blodgett’s wrote in the News, “the mechanical toys he constructed and the engines he built. Everyone in the room realized that the delicate sister was pleading for her brother, and it had effect at the time.”  In all, the defense produced nearly 20 character witnesses for Fodrea, who all spoke positively of him and doubted the claims of the prosecution.

Indianapolis News, June 12 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Even though many people testified to the goodness of Fodrea’s character, the testimonies of Carrie Phillips and Myrtle Levi described a completely different man. “Miss Phillips said she had known Fodrea for four years, and that during that time she had frequently told Fodrea that she did not want him to come to see her any more, but that he persisted in making calls at different times,” wrote the Journal. Phillips’s mother corroborated her daughter’s impressions of Fodrea and further noted that he threatened her and Seay. The defense pounced on this, arguing that “the State could not prove that Phillips went with other company, unless it also proved that Fodrea knew of it and talked about it.” The court agreed, the testimony was challenged, and Phillips was asked “not to say when she began going with Seay.” Regardless, her testimony displayed a man obsessed and incapable of thinking clearly about his relationships. Conversely, Myrtle Levi’s testimony proved more compelling, because she was the only one who directly connected Fodrea to the crime. As written in the News, “She testified that she knew Fodrea, and that on the night of the murder he and a companion came to her house and tried to enter.” He was accused of holding a shotgun, which two other witnesses claimed they saw on his person when he appeared at Levi’s residence. The defendant, asked by his lawyers not to take the stand to defend himself, calmly watched the proceedings as they developed.

Indianapolis News, June 13, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On June 16, 1902, after six days of deliberation, the jury shockingly acquitted William Fodrea of all charges; a unanimous verdict was reached on the fourth ballot. The Journal described the atmosphere of the courtroom:

When the verdict, “We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty,” was read there was a sigh of relief from the crowd. Fodrea was as calm and undisturbed as any person in the room. His mother was the first to clasp his hand. Quietly he took the hand of each juror and thanked him while a smile played over his face. His relatives and friends then engaged in a love feast that lasted some time. His devoted sister Leota was not present when the verdict was returned, but after met and embraced him and escorted him to the home from which he had been absent for six months.

Some last-minute developments likely changed the direction of the jury. Thomas Levi, Myrtle Levi’s father, told the court that she did not originally identify Fodrea as one of the men who visited her home. While this important detail likely persuaded the jury, Levi’s personal life may have influenced them as well. As Hamilton County Historian David Heighway pointed out, Levi was a well-known prostitute in the community whose lifestyle might have weighed heavily on their verdict. Heighway’s evidence about her lifestyle comes from the Hamilton County Ledger.

Indianapolis Journal, June 15, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

This explanation seems incomplete, in some respects. First, the changing nature of her testimony could have had a stronger impact on the jury’s decision. Second, some of the jury may not have taken her lifestyle into consideration or may have not even known about it. Third, her profession should not have had any bearing on whether her testimony was true or not. The last of these hypotheses is sadly anachronistic; at the turn of the century, Victorian values were still in full swing and it is less than likely that the jury, if they had known about Levi, would have ignored it. Biases are an inherent part of everyone’s experiences, so the jury may have been biased against her from the start. Heighway’s explanation only answers part of this puzzle.

Alongside the knowledge of Levi’s lifestyle and changing testimony, it should be noted that Fodrea was accused of stalking, intimidation, threats, and eventually murder. It is not absurd to suggest that he could have killed Seay as a tragic conclusion to a failed courtship. Yet, as his defense pointed out, Fodrea was only connected to this crime via the woman his alleged victim was interested in. A full murder weapon was never found, eyewitnesses only described a gentleman in an overcoat at the mill, and the only witness who directly connected him to the crime had changed her story before it came to trial. There was enough doubt to acquit Fodrea, but the newspaper accounts of the trial acknowledge that Fodrea’s acquittal came from a weak prosecution, not a strong defense.

Prototype of the “Beetle Flyer,” an automobile built by the Fodrea-Malott Manufacturing Company, Hamilton East Public Library.

William Fodrea eventually picked up the pieces of his life, but in the most surprising way imaginable. Between 1908 and 1909, he co-founded the Fodrea-Malott Manufacturing Company, where he used his improved transmission design to build a better type of automobile. They developed only one vehicle during their lifetime, the “Beetle Flyer,” which was built by a staff of 8 (including Fodrea). When his partner, Charles Malott, suffered an auto accident in 1909 that destroyed much-needed supplies, the company folded. Malott moved to California and Fodrea moved to Arkansas, “to work on mechanical devices.” To this day, Fodrea-Malott remains the only known automobile company from Hamilton County. Fodrea died around 1945, according to Social Security and Census records.

The death of John Seay and the murder trial of William Fodrea captivated the citizens of Hamilton County and both of Indianapolis’s major newspapers. It displayed all the classic elements of a pulp-crime novel: unrequited love, intrigue, obsession, and murder, hence its extensive coverage by the News and the Journal. Fodrea’s acquittal put to rest, at least for the newspapers, whether or not he actually committed the horrendous deed, but his subsequent move to Arkansas suggests that it continued to haunt him. We may never know what exactly happened on that brisk, December night, but its effects left a deep influence on the community for years after.

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.

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Tales of the Indiana “Wild Man”

When  searching Hoosier State Chronicles (HSC), you never know what you might stumble upon. One term that seemed interesting to delve into was “wild man.” This simple search term did not disappoint. From outdoor hermits and incensed criminals to unfortunate cases of mental illness, tales of the “wild man” abound in the pages of Indiana newspapers. Below you will find some of these stories; clicking the image takes you to its page in HSC to learn more.

You can search for additional “wild man” stories, as well as countless other subjects, in Hoosier State Chronicles.

Western Sun and General Advertiser, September 9, 1826. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Journal, June 12, 1862. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Daily Express, August 13, 1867. Hoosier State Chronicles. 
Indiana State Sentinel, September 17, 1869. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Daily Express, August 16, 1870. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Weekly Express, November 2, 1870. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, August 23, 1879. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, January 25, 1884. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, October 30, 1886. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jasper Weekly Courier, May 13, 1887. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, April 9, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, September 10, 1890. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, December 19, 1891. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, March 10, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, April 11, 1893. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Journal, July 17, 1896. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Crawfordsville Review, October 29, 1898. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, July 8, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, March 16, 1905. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jasper Weekly Courier, May 18, 1906. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 17, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, July 17, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, August 3, 1908. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, June 30, 1910. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, May 24, 1912. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, May 24, 1912. Hoosier State Chronicles.
South Bend News-Times, September 24, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Hammond Times, June 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.”