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Pale Horse Revelations #61 - The Reno Gang: America's 1st Train Robbers

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

It' no secret that the western frontier was at times a dangerous and lawless place. Boom towns such as Abilene, Dodge, Tombstone, and Deadwood became notorious for violence and wild behavior. It was during this wild and lawless period in history that a new and daring type of crime was first carried out.

Train Robberies would become an iconic part of Old West history and legend. Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, Frank and Jesse James, and the Dalton Gang would become famous (or perhaps infamous) for their knack at pulling off this daring crime. While researching for this post I stumbled upon a list of the most notable train robbers. Interestingly enough, the men who pulled of the very first train robbery didn't make the list. In fact, it's highly probable that no one reading this has even heard of them. This week's edition of Pale Horse Revelations will remedy this by introducing you to the Reno Gang, America's first train robbers.

The Reno Gang was led by the four Reno brothers, Frank, John, Simeon, and William. A fifth brother, Clinton, was hardly a law-abiding citizen but he never joined the gang or participated in their crimes. The Reno brothers were born and raised in the small rural community of Rockford, located two miles north of Seymour, Indiana.

Despite, or perhaps because of, a stringent religious upbringing, the four brothers found themselves in trouble at an early age. They began with crooked card games along the farm road where they swindled unsuspecting travelers as they passed by. The boys soon escalated to small burglaries and a series of horse thefts. By 1851 they had become outright criminals blamed for arson when several retail businesses were set ablaze.

When the Civil War broke out the four brothers became bounty jumpers. Federal recruiters, desperate for recruits, offered cash bounties to any man that signed up for military service. The brothers would join, pocket the cash, and then desert. They would then travel to another area and repeat the whole process.

The brothers returned home to Rockford in 1864 followed by several of their fellow bounty jumpers. They soon formed a gang and established their headquarters in the burned-out buildings in Rockford. The first crime accredited to the gang was the 1864 robbery of the post office and Gilbert's Store in Jonesville, Indiana. Ironically, none of the four Reno brothers were involved in these crimes. They were carried out by two gang members, Grant Wilson and Dixon. The two were quickly tracked down and captured by U. S. Marshals but posted bond and were released with a pending trial date.

In 1865 the gang struck again, robbing the post offices in Dudleytown and Seymour. Several retail burglaries occurred around the same time and were accredited to the Reno Gang. Grant Wilson, the man arrested for the Jonesville robberies, decided to turn state's evidence and agreed to testify against Frank Reno. However, Wilson was murdered before the trail began and Frank was acquitted as a result.

Shortly thereafter the gang moved their headquarters to the Radar House, a hotel located in Seymour. From there, the gang orchestrated a series of robberies across the Midwest and launched a counterfeiting ring. A number of the gang members were arrested multiple times but were always released. While the brothers claimed to have political clout, the truth was that they were bribing or terrorizing officials into silence.

By July of that year the situation had become so deplorable that the local newspaper published an article calling for vigilante justice to restore order. Despite this, the crime spree continued unabated. In 1866 a Radar House guest's body was discovered, minus his head, floating in the White River. Another post office robbery occurred on January 11th, 1866. More murders were committed in February and July of 1866. They gang continued to rob travelers passing through and conducted raids on neighboring towns striking merchants and county treasuries. They gang had become so well organized by this point that no police officer would dare arrest them. Local citizens kept quiet out of fear for their lives.

It was at this point that the Reno brothers conceived of the idea to rob a train, something that had never before been attempted. On October 6th, 1866, John and Simeon Reno, along with another gang member boarded the east-bound Ohio & Mississippi train at the Seymour depot as passengers. Once aboard, the three men donned masks and made their way to the express car. There they held a gun on the messenger and stole approximately $12,000. With the loot secured they pulled the bell rope to signal the engineer to stop the train. As the train slowed the robbers jumped from the train and disappeared into the darkness. The first train robbery had been flawlessly executed in just a matter of a few minutes.

On September 28, 1867, a nearly identical robbery occurred aboard a train out of Seymour. Although the Reno gang was initially blamed for this robbery it was actually carried about by Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran, both associates of the Reno brothers. In a strange twist of fate, it was John Reno who tracked the two culprits down, beat them up, and turned them into the authorities. Of course, he kept the $8,000 the men stole during the robbery.

The gang's next big score was the robbery of the Daviess County Courthouse in Gallatin on November 17, 1867. The gang made off with over $23,000 in cash and bonds. However, John Reno had been recognized and Pinkerton agents were soon on his trail. They caught up with him in Seymour on December 4, 1867, and took him back to Missouri for trial. John pled guilty and was sentenced to twenty-five years hard labor at the Missouri State Penitentiary.

John's demise did not deter his brothers and fellow gang members who robbed several Indiana treasuries. Frank Reno was arrested and tried for a robbery in Clinton County but was found not guilty.

The gang soon escalated their crime spree pulling off three scores in a matter of weeks. First, they hit the Harrison County treasury in Magnolia, Iowa for $14,000.00. The following week they hit the treasuries in Louisa and Mills counties for a total of $18,000.00. This was followed by the robbery of the Howard County treasury just a short time later.

After this string of robberies Frank Reno and two gang members were tracked to their hideout by Pinkerton agents. William Pinkerton led a raid against the hideout and was able to arrest the three outlaws and recover $14,000 in stolen loot. The three criminals soon escaped by breaking a hole in the cell wall. The escape occurred on April 1st, 1868. The cocky criminals left a message scrawled on the wall that simply said, "April Fools."

The gang launched their next big heist on May 22nd, 1868, when they struck a train in Marshfield, Indiana. During the robbery they threw the messenger from the train and made off with a whopping $96,000 in cash and government bonds. They gang quickly divided the loot and split up. Frank Reno and four others set out to cross the border into Canada just north of Detroit. Sim and William Reno hid out in Indianapolis. Six of the gang members returned to Jackson County and immediately began planning their next heist. Little did the gang members suspect that the Pinkertons were hot on their trail.

The six gang members hiding out in Jackson County attempted to rob an Ohio & Mississippi train at a watering station west of Seymour on July 9th, 1868. This time they had an unpleasant surprise waiting for them. When the outlaws entered the express car, they were met by a hail of gunfire from the ten Pinkerton agents hiding inside. Three of the gang members were wounded but all but one was able to escape.

Just days later two of the fugitives were captured near Rockford and all three prisoners were taken to the Seymour jail. On July 20th, 1868, the three prisoners were loaded aboard a train for transportation. However, less than three miles out of town the train was stopped by a group of hooded men calling themselves the Jackson County Vigilance Committee. The men forced the officials to hand over the three prisoners who were quickly lynched from a nearby tree.

The other three gang members who escaped from the botched robbery were tracked down and captured the day after their comrades were lynched. Again, the prisoners were imprisoned in the Seymore jail. The authorities attempted to move them to the jail in Brownstown, this time by wagon, but the vigilantes struck again. The three men were hung from the same tree as the previous three.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton agents tracked William and Simeon Reno to Indianapolis and were able to take the two into custody. They were taken to the Scott County Jail in Lexington. When news of the arrest broke, the vigilantes announced that they would raid the jail and hang them as well. The Reno's sister offered to pay the expenses to transport the two to the more secure jail in New Albany and the pair were secretly transported in the middle of the night.

While this was going on Allan Pinkerton had tracked Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson to Canada and was working to have them extradited. Frank tried to thwart his efforts by killing Pinkerton. However, the stalwart detective managed to survive two separate attempts on his life. Frank Reno then resorted to bribery to avoid extradition, but this too failed. Pinkerton took custody of the two outlaws on October 6, 1868. They were soon imprisoned at the New Albany Jail with the other gang members.

Despite public boasts from the local sheriff that the prisoners would be kept safe, the Reno brothers would soon meet a fate similar to the previously lynched gang members. During the pre-dawn hours of December 12th, 1868, fifty hooded men crept into town and made their way to the jail. They cut the telegraph wires and seized the guard patrolling the outside of the building. They then forced their way inside. The building served as both the jail and home to the sheriff and his wife. The vigilantes seized the pair and demanded that he turn over the prisoners. When the sheriff refused the hooded men beat him and shot him in the arm. His wife caved to the vigilantes' demands and turned over the keys to the cell.

The vigilantes hung each of the four prisoners one by one from the iron stairway on the second story of the jail. Frank was hung first, followed by William, and then Simeon. Gang member Charlie Anderson was hung last. He had to be strung up twice because the rope broke during the first attempt to hang him. Thus ends the story of America's first train robbers.

And that brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

  As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

  Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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