From its violent origins in the lawless Old West, the train robbery has grown to become a somewhat romanticized footnote in our history books, as well as a staple in Western-themed movies, literature and folklore.
In 1873, notorious outlaw Jesse James and his James-Younger Gang stole $3,000 dollars from a Rock Island Railroad train after derailing it in Iowa. A common misconception is that this was the first successful peacetime robbery of a moving train in American history. It wasn’t.
A dark milestone in Indiana crime history, the actual first train robbery occurred almost ten years earlier, just after the civil war, right here in the Hoosier State.
On October 6th, 1866, John Reno, Simeon Reno and Frank Sparkes boarded an Ohio & Mississippi train in Jackson, County, just as it left Seymour. The daring, Indiana-based bandits managed to break into a safe and push a second safe off the train, netting about $13,000 (roughly $200,000 in 2018 dollars).
The Reno Gang had started out their criminal career during the Civil War as Union Army bounty jumpers and then, post-war, became violent bandits terrorizing travelers and merchants in the Midwest. Eventually they set their sights on robbing a train.
Previous train robberies had occurred at train yards or stations, which resulted in a lot of unnecessary attention. The Reno brothers realized that, by staging the robbery in sparsely populated, rural settings, they could greatly improve efficiency. This method could be utilized in broad daylight, and would eventually lay the groundwork for future heists further west.
Innovative as they were, there is a reason why we still know the names Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and Wild Bill Carlisle, while the Reno brothers remain an obscure trivia fact: the gang got caught.
They had been identified during the robbery, but had murdered a witness, and escaped without punishment. However, the safe looted during the train robbery was insured by the Adams Express Company, who hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down the bandits and bring them to justice.
Following the robbery, the Reno brothers resumed their criminal ways. On November 17th, 1867, detectives caught and arrested John Reno for a courthouse robbery in Missouri. He was ultimately sentenced to 25 years and wound up serving ten. His brothers and fellow travelers wouldn’t be so lucky.
After local Seymour residents formed a vigilante mob, the gang briefly relocated to Iowa in 1868. Following a string of robberies, Frank Reno, Albert Perkins and Miles Ogle were caught by Pinkerton Agents. They broke out of jail and again took to robbing trains in Indiana, with their exploits gracing the pages of national papers.
Eventually, Pinkerton detectives arrested three members of the gang in Rockport. Gang leader Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson managed to make it as far as Canada before getting caught, but within a few months, most of the gang had been captured and jailed in New Albany.
On December 11th, about 65 men traveled to the jail house, beat the sheriff, stole his key and delivered their own brand of Indiana justice. All told, three Reno brothers and seven associates were lynched (to be detailed in a future article). The take away?
Crime pays…but not for long.
Want to Know More?
Check out the Pinkerton Detective Agency’s “official” account of the Reno Gang’s exploits, “The Destruction of the Reno Gang: Stories from the Archives of the Pinkerton Detective Agency,” published in McClure, 1895
Visit the graves of the Reno Gang (if you’re morbidly inclined). Here’s the entry in Atlas Obscura, complete with directions.