The Reno Brothers:
First U.S. Train Robbers
Have you ever wondered who was the first gang or who was the first person to rob a bank or train in the mid to late 1800s? Where was the first robbery? Was it in the Wild West or in the East? What exactly was the Wild Wild West? Is it really like the picture Hollywood portrays?
Well, some of these questions are going to be answered today. I mean, not that they already have been answered, but you know what I mean. First off, the first people or gang, whatever you want to call it, to rob a train and ‘bank’ was the notorious Reno Brothers Gang. This Gang consisted of over 100 people. Eventually at least. The first train robbery was in …1866. It took place in the Mid-east. Actually, to be more specific, right here in Indiana. And I’m jumping ahead of myself. Lets start off nice and easy. Who were the Reno Brothers?
Who were the Reno Brothers?
The Reno family was from the Salt River area of Kentucky. They moved to Jackson County, Indiana in 1813. The Reno’s settled on a farm near Rockford, just North of present-day Seymour. The first Reno was James Reno and his son, Wilkinson. Wilkinson married in 1838. He and his wife, Julia Ann, moved to a 1,200-acre property to raise family. In 1837 his first son, Frank, was born, followed by John in 1838, Simeon (’Sim’) in 1843, Clinton in 1847, William in 1848 and finally a daughter, Laura, in 1851.Only four grew up to start the Reno Gang. The four are Simon, William, John, and Frank. It is unsure if William was involved in the train or other out of state robberies. If this is true then he was not a true member of the Reno Gang.
The Reno Brothers disliked school and resented their religious upbringing. John and Frank Reno started their criminal career by playing crooked card games to defraud travelers passing on the road by the farm. At age 11. John stole a horse and left home. He came back a year later only to embezzle money from his parents and left the farm again for a short time.
In the year of 1851, a series of mysterious fires began to break out in Rockford. Businesses and homes were set ablaze at night and some times in broad daylight. During the course of seven years, the almost whole town was burnt to the ground. There was a rumor that the Reno’s were responsible for the fires.
In the year 1858, Wilkinson and Julia separated. John Reno would later blame the separation as to the reason for his criminal behavior. Julia stayed on the farm with Simeon and Laura, while Wilkinson Reno moved into Seymour. Ten years later, in early September, Julia died, leaving her estate to Clinton and Laura. Wilkinson died in 1877.
Okay, now that you know who the Reno Brothers are and how they started their criminal career lets move on to other topics in their life.
The Civil War has just started, and the Reno’s decide to enlist in the Army. Let’s look more into the Reno Brothers enlisting and see if they stayed in the Army.
In June 1861, shortly after the Civil War started, John Reno enlisted for the Indianapolis Grays, but left before the enlistment was complete. Frank and John (and perhaps Simeon) discovered that there was money to be made in a scheme called ‘bounty jumping.’
Frank and John Reno returned to Rockford in 1864. Clinton, who was known as “Honest” Clint, and Laura didn’t become involved in their brothers criminal activities. But, that doesn’t mean a thing. Clinton Reno was charged for keeping “a gaming house” for gambling but there are no court records left.
Ah yes, good ol ‘Honest’ Clint. There’s one in every family, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t, well, ask the person sitting beside you. And if they don’t know, well, to bad!
Any way, back to the Renos. Wow, they are all quite the characters.
They didn’t even stay in the Army. Just got the money and left! Now to the fun stuff! Lets learn about the first train robbery in the history of the United States.
The first train robbery took place at 6:30 p.m. on October 6, 1866. An Ohio & Mississippi train left the depot at Seymour. It slowly traveled east out of town. Three Reno Gang members — most likely John and Sim Reno, along with Frank Sparks — had boarded the train at the station. Once the train was a few miles out of town, the trio of men made their way from the coach, across the platform to the Adams Express Co. car. They forced their way inside. Messenger Elam Miller gave up his keys at gunpoint. The masked robbers opened the small local depot safe, which contained the packages picked up at the various stations en route. They obtained, according to Jackson County Court records, ‘one safe the value of Thirty Dollars, Three Canvas Bags of the value of One Dollar Each, Ten Thousand Dollars in Gold Coin and Thirty Three Dollars in Bank Notes.(1)’ They attempted to open the larger safe, containing valuables shipped from St. Louis, but failed. When the terrified Elam Miller told the outlaws that he was unable to open it, the robbers slugged him and then rolled the large safe to the door of the express car. One of the gang members pulled the bell rope to signal the engineer to stop the train. When the train had slowed down, they pushed the larger safe out the door. A little while later, the robbers jumped off. One of the gang members yelled, “All right!” and the train picked up speed. They backtracked to where they pushed the safe out of the train. Waiting there was Frank Reno, William Reno, and some other member of the gang with the getaway horses. Try as they might, they couldn’t pry open the safe. Some sources say that the safe had $35,000 in gold.
December 29, 1866 ended with the robbery, rape, and murder of Marian Cutlor.
The Jackson County residents were in an up roar.
Okay then. The Reno Brothers were not involved in that but some people believed that they were.
Now lets go to the first ‘bank’ robbery.
The Reno Gang decided that it would be best if their next heist was out of state, so they traveled to Missouri. On November 17, 1864, the gang robbed the treasurer’s office at the Daviess County Courthouse, in Gallatin, Mo. They made off with about $23,618 in cash and bonds. John Reno was identified as one of the robbers.
Little did the Reno’s know, Pinkerton was hot on their trail. On December 4 John Reno was arrested when he walked into the Seymour train station. He was sent to Gallatin. John Reno was sentenced to 25 years at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
John Reno had been the leader and the brains of the Gang, so when he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Frank became the leader of the gang. He thought it would be safer to strike out of town. The Gang headed to Iowa, where on February 18, 1868, Frank and the gang robbed the Harrison County treasury office in Magnolia of at least $14,000. During the week, the gang robbed the Louisa County and the Mills County treasury safes for a total of close to $18,000. They got another $18,000 in late March robbing the Howard County treasury office. After the success of the robbery of the Howard County treasury’s office, Frank and gang members Albert Perkins and Miles Ogle hid out in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the home of a former outlaw, Michael Rogers. The Pinkerton’s traced the gang member there. Allen Pinkerton’s brother, William led a raid on the house. When they got there, they found $14,000, (which the gang members were trying to burn in a stove), and arrested the group. (2)
They were sent to the Sidney County jail. On April 1, 1868, Frank and the gang broke the wall and wrote in chalk, “April’s Fool.” (2) A short while later, Frank was back in Seymour. Only this time, he was planning something big.
On May 22, 1868, the gang robbed another train. (2) Only this time, the messenger was ready.
The train stopped to refuel at 11:00 am. The engineer and the fireman were checking out the locomotive, twelve men approached them. The railroad men were quickly overpowered and the engine and Adams Express car uncoupled from the rest of the train and taken at full steam toward Seymour. Four of the robbers broke into the express car and were fired upon by the messenger. His shots were ineffective and he was badly beaten with pistols and crowbars, and then thrown from the door of the car. He was found the next morning on the rail embankment barely alive. (2)
The Reno Gang took their time opening the safes and were rewarded with an estimated $96,000 in government bonds, cash and currency notes. They ordered the train to be halted about six miles south of Seymour, where the rest of the gang waited with the get-away horses to make good their escape. After the loot was divided, the gang went into hiding. Frank Reno, Charlie Anderson, Albert Perkins, Michael Rogers and Miles Ogle headed for Windsor, Canada (located just across the border from Detroit). Sim Reno and William Reno hid out in Indianapolis.
The Reno Gang is having a lot of fun. Little did they know, Pinkerton, a sheriff with a very good reputation, was hot on their trail.
Pinkerton arrested all the gang members when he found them. They were set up in the Floyd County Jail. The jail was stronger then the last jail. Pinkerton had them set up under the protection to the state so that they wouldn’t be hung or lynched. He also had extra guards at the jail. He thought that would he enough to keep the Reno brothers safe, but he was wrong.
On December 12th, a group called the Jackson County Vigilance Committee, aka the Scarlet Mask Committee for the scarlet ‘masks’ they wore, took a train to Floyd County Jail. They threatened Sheriff Fullenlove and the guards for the keys (which had been hidden in the drawer of a washstand (1)). They then went upstairs and hung the Reno’s.
Frank Reno was first to be hung, then William, the youngest of the Renos, was next and he was hung beside Frank. When they went to hang Simon, well, lets just say he didn’t go without a fight. He finally gave up and the men dragged him out of the cell. They strung him up and watched until they were sure he was dead. About one minute after the men left, Simon was revived. He struggled to get the rope around his neck loose. As he struggled, the prisoners around him started to call for help. Strangely, no one showed up. My guess is that they were all unconciness from the attack. He was unable to unloosen the roped because he was used all his strength in the struggle. It took him a half hour to die. About a half hour after Simon died, the Sheriff and the officers go up stairs.
The bodies were given to Laura and Frank’s widow, Sarah. They were buried in Seymour, IN.
As far as any of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee members being identified, only one member was. His name was Travis Carter. He was identified as a vigilance leader. If he was Number One (Leader of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee) is unknown. (5)
So, I guess Hollywood did a pretty good job of depicting what the Wild ‘West’ was like. Also, if you really want to see the hanging of the Reno Brothers, then watch ‘Rage at Dawn’. Some of their facts are mixed up, but it’s a good movie any way.
Also, another movie about the Reno Brothers is ‘Love Me Tender’ featuring Elvis Presley. The difference between this movie and ‘Rage at Dawn’ is that this movie is about ‘Honest’ Clint’s life.(6)