Aug 9, 2019
(August 3, 2019) Shortly after the Civil War, a notorious crime spree unfolded across the Midwest that included the country's first robbery of a moving train. The perpetrators were bandits in a gang organized by brothers who grew up on a farm near Seymour, Ind., in Jackson County. The outlaws also pulled off what may have been the first peacetime train robbery in U.S. history.
The notorious Reno Brothers - whose history-making train robbery occurred on Oct. 6, 1866 - are the focus of this encore show originally broadcast April 14, 2018. The gang included brothers Frank, John, Simeon ("Sim") and William Reno, who had begun looting businesses before the Civil War.
Their most infamous crime occurred May 22, 1868 as the Jefferson, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad train was proceeding through Marshfield, Ind., about 17 miles south of Seymour. The Renos and their gang boarded the train, overpowered the engineer, threw one of his co-workers out a door, broke into an express car and eventually made off with about $96,000.
As train robberies and other crimes by the Reno gang persisted, Jackson County residents formed vigilante committees. Pinkerton detectives were hired to capture the gang.
To describe the Reno Brothers' crime spree, William "Bill" Bell, a retired law enforcement officer based in Indianapolis, is Nelson's studio guest. Bill, who writes for several magazines about the Old West, has researched and written about the Reno Brothers for Wild Westmagazine. In a 38-year career, Bill worked as a police officer, deputy sheriff, U.S. border patrolman and as a U.S. Customs worker. He is a member of the Scarlet Mask Vigilance Society, which is named after one of the vigilante organizations that, as Bill puts it, "finally put a stop to the depredations of the notorious Reno Brothers."
According to Bill's research, the Reno family came to Indiana in 1813, when the grandfather of the brothers arrived from Kentucky. Frank, John, Sim and William Reno grew up on a 1,200-acre farm. Another brother, Clinton, and a sister, Laura, "apparently never entered into the illicit activities of their siblings," Bill writes.
As an early headquarters, the Reno Brothers and their gang used a dilapidated building in the small Jackson County town of Rockford; later, their base was a hotel in Seymour. Before the historic train robberies, the Renos committed a series of post office robberies and murders.
According to Bill Bell's article, the Reno gang's robbery of an Ohio & Mississippi Railroad train as it left the Seymour depot in 1866 means that the brothers can be blamed for "opening the door to the train robbery era, which featured Jesse and Frank James, and, later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
The Reno Brothers were suspects in arson fires that swept through Rockford and in the slayings of residents who could have testified against them in court.
In 1868, several members of the Reno gang, including Frank, William and Sim Reno, were captured in separate apprehensions. They were taken to New Albany, the Ohio River town in Floyd County with a "big stone jail, considered the strongest in southern Indiana," according to Bill's article. (John Reno had been arrested previously and was imprisoned in Missouri, where members of the Reno Gang had robbed banks and a county treasurer's office.)
Determined to make the Reno Brothers pay for their crimes, nearly 100 members of a vigilante society in Jackson County took trains to New Albany one night in December. The vigilantes showed up at the Floyd County jail at about 3 a.m., masked and armed with revolvers and clubs. They overpowered the jailers, the Floyd County sheriff and Floyd County commissioners, and dragged Frank, William and Sim Reno one-by-one out of their cells and executed them by hanging. After the lynchings, the vigilantes returned by train by Seymour.
The bodies of the three Reno Brothers who had been lynched were turned over to their sister Laura and were buried side by side in Seymour City Cemetery. The fenced graves of the infamous bandits can be visited by going up a stone walkway from 9th St in Seymour.
To learn more about the Reno Brothers' lasting impact on American culture, listen to "The First Train Robbery," a bluegrass song written by Chris Stout and performed here by Larry Cordle.