America’s First Train Robbers – The Reno Gang
Jackson County, Indiana
Before Seymour and Jackson County became known as the home of John Cougar Mellencamp and the fastest growing epidemic of HIV positive individuals in Indiana, the southern Indiana town and county was home to the Reno Brothers, believed to be the first peace-time train robbers in the US.
In the early to mid 1800’s, the south-central town of Seymour, Indiana was situated at the junction of two great railways, connecting four of the largest cities in the Midwest, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Louisville and Indianapolis. Following the Civil War, these railroads transported many tired and weary soldiers trying to make it home to their families, as well as goods being traded between the cities. The trains also transported money, gold and government bonds. This made it a great attraction for thieves, con men and counterfeiters who sought to take advantage of these solders and steal the goods being transported. Among those who sought to take advantage of the situation were three brothers from the local Reno family.
In 1813, J. Wilkison Reno moved to Rockford, a small town near what would become the town of Seymour, where he met and married Julia Ann Freyhafer in 1835. The couple established a 1,200 acre farm and started having a family. They were blessed with five sons, Franklin “Frank” in 1837, followed by John in 1838, Simeon “Sim” in 1843, Clinton “Clint” in 1847 and William in 1848. In 1851, the family was joined by their only daughter and sister, Laura. The family was a strictly religious family, being active members of the town Methodist church, and participating in Bible studies and attending Sunday School and church.
As the older boys entered their teen years, they began to get into legal troubles. They would lure travelers to their farm and host crooked card games, bilking the unsuspecting travelers of money and possessions. They were also suspected of stealing horses from neighbors and were considered suspects in several unsolved arson fires in town. As the Civil War began, Frank and John became “bounty jumpers”. They would sign up to join the army, collect the bounty, and then go AWOL, only to appear in another town and start the process all over again. When the Federal government instituted the draft, the brothers would agree to take the place of draftees, collect the fee and then desert days later.
The brothers returned to Rockford, a city outside of Seymour, in 1864. They brought with them other “bounty jumpers”, criminals and confidence men and formed a gang. Joined by younger siblings, Sim and Clint, the brothers and their gang hid out in the burned out buildings (in all likelihood, burned by the brothers themselves) of Rockford. Late in 1864, Frank and two gang members, Grant Wilson and Dixon, robbed the post office and Gilberts Store in Jonesville. They were captured by marshals but able to post bond. The following year, two more post offices were robbed, along with several retail burglaries, in Dudleyville and Seymour. Wilson later turned state’s witness against Frank. Before he could appear in court, he was murdered and without his testimony, the case against Frank was dropped.
Over the next several years, the Reno Brothers and their associates took up residence in the Radar House, a hotel in Seymour. From there, they launched a crime spree that included robbing hotel guests, murders and post office robberies. They were suspected in the murder of guest of the Radar House when a headless corpse was found in a local river. They also began traveling to nearby states to rob and burglarize state and federal treasuries. Despite public fear and support, local authorities refused to arrest any of the gang members. It is believed that the Reno brothers were bribing and terrorizing local officials and that is why nothing was done to stop their crimes.
In 1866, the gang turned their attention to train robberies. The trains coming into Seymour carried more than travelers and goods. They were also often carrying gold, money and bonds. On October 6, 1866, John and Sims, along with gang member Frank Sparks, boarded the Ohio and Mississippi train in Seymour. Once on board, they covered their faces and stole approximately $12,000. This was the first recorded peace time train robbery.
John and gang member, Val Elliott, traveled to Missouri in November, 1867, where they robbed the Daviess County Courthouse. John was recognized, arrested, tried and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In February, 1868, the gang robbed the Harrison Couny treasury in Magnolia, Iowa and the following week, robbed the Louisa and Mills Iowa county treasuries. They netted about $35,000 in the two robberies. While hiding out in Iowa, the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency arrested gang members, Frank, Albert Perkins and Miles Ogle, but the three were able to break a hole in the cell wall and escape.
On May 22, 1868, the gang robbed another train in Marshfield, Indiana. In this heist, the gang actually uncoupled several train cars and stole a section of the train, making off with $96,000 in gold and government bonds. Following this robbery, public sentiment finally turned law enforcement against the gang, forcing them into hiding. The famous (or infamous) Pinkerton Agency was brought in to track down the gang members. Frank, Charlie Anderson, Albert Perkins, Michael Rogers and Miles Ogle headed to Windsor, Canada. Sim and William hid out in Indianapolis.
Remaining gang members, Frank Sparks, Volley Elliot, John Moore, Charles Roseberry, Henry Jerrell and Theodore Clifton hid out in Jackson County. With the Reno brothers in hiding, John Moore took over the gang and attempted to rob an O & M train at the Shields Watering Station, near Brownstown, Indiana. This time, the authorities were alerted and the ten Pinkerton agents were waiting for the gang to attack. Clifton, Roseberry and Elliot were arrested, and while traveling via train to the Jackson County jail in Brownstown, were dragged from the train by an angry mob and hung from a tree near the railroad. Moore, Sparks and Jerrell escaped to Illinois, but were caught and brought back to Seymour for trial. On July 20, 1868, Moore and the two gang members were traveling with the Pinkertons to Brownstown. They were accosted by a group of masked men, demanding that the gang members be handed over. Outnumbered, the Pinkertons let the mob have the men, who were then hung.
The Pinkertons were determined to bring the rest of the gang to justice. In the fall of 1868, William and Sim were captured in Indianapolis and brought to a jail in New Albany, Indiana. Authorities sought extradition of Frank and Charlie Anderson from Canada, who refused because Canadian authorities were concerned about the vigilante justice seen after the last train robbery. Frank, in an attempt to avoid extradition, paid an assassin to kill Allan Pinkerton. The failed assassination convinced Canadian officials to extradite Frank and Charlie Anderson, and in early winter 1868, Frank and Anderson joined the rest of the Reno brothers in New Albany.
In the early hours of December 12, 1868, a group of masked men forced their way into the New Albany jail. One by one, the members of the Reno Gang were strung up and hung. An inquiry was made into the lynching, but no charges were ever filed.
John, who was in prison in Missouri, served 10 years and was pardoned by the governor of Missouri. He returned to Jackson County and was immediately arrested for crimes committed prior to his imprisonment. He paid bail and was released. He settled on a farm and for five years was a honest man. In 1885, he was arrested on charges of passing counterfeit money and sentenced to three years in a northern Indiana prison. He returned to Seymour upon his release and died January 31, 1895.
Although, Clint, the fifth brother, was not involved in any of the gang activities , he was not innocent of any crimes. He had a history of criminal activities, including assault and battery and operating an illegal gambling house. He died in Topeka, KS in an insane asylum.
Sister, Laura, who supposedly helped to hide her brothers, eventually married and became a respectable citizen.
References and Further Reading
Garbers, Alan. The Legend of the Reno Gang, (n.d.). Retrieved from http://genealogytrails.com/ind/jackson/reno-gang.htm Accessed April 9, 2018.
Legends of America: Reno Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery, (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-renogang/ Accessed on August 8, 2018.
Reno Gang. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reno_Gang Accessed on August 8, 2018.