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.
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.
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 Journalpublished 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.
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.
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.”
[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.
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.”
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.”
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.”