“While the train was taking wood and water at Marshfield, twenty miles below Seymour, a party of robbers seized upon the engine, and disconnecting the express car from the train, started off in the direction of Seymour While in motion they broke into the express car, disabled the messenger and threw him out of the car. … It had been ascertained that the men … opened two safes and made a clean sweep of both.”
This was how the New York Times reported the “Great Train Robbery” of 1868, which took place on today’s date, May 22 in 1868. The “party of robbers” to which the Times referred turned out to be the infamous “Reno Gang” so named for its leader, Frank Reno (above, 1837-1868). The gang, which was comprised primarily of the Reno brothers had a fairly short life as such gangs go, but it is “credited” with pulling off the first peace time robberies of trains in U.S. history. And this particular robbery was called the “Great Train Robbery” because it netted the gang nearly $100,000.00 — an unheard of sum for the time. But this great take would also prove to be the gang’s last. The coming months would see the gang decimated by angry lynch mobs one of which nearly caused an international incident. And in the end, the Renos were almost brought redemption from the King.
“…More cutthroats per square inch than Botany Bay!!”
J. Wilkison Reno married Julia Ann Freyhafer in 1835. The couple settled in Rockford, Jackson County, Indiana where they owned a 1200 acre farm. They had a large family together, five sons and a daughter. Frank was born in 1837 followed by John in 1838, Simeon (“Sim”) in 1843, Clinton and William in ’47 and ’48 and the daughter, Laura in 1851. Mrs. Reno raised her boys to strict religious standards, requiring them to read the Bible all day on Sundays. Religion worked with Clint and Laura, but the other boys all went bad early, bilking travelers in crooked card games, and
possibly setting a series of fires in the area. The locals hated his sons so J. Wilkison moved them to live near St. Louis for two years. They returned in 1860 hoping to redeem themselves by enlisting in the Army during the Civil War. But they were criminal there too, becoming Bounty jumpers… taking the money to enlist in a man’s place before deserting to do the same thing in another unit. Frank, John, Sim and William returned in 1864 and formed a gang with several other Bounty jumpers. This made the area around Seymour, Indiana (above, circa 1907) wherein they set up, a kind of criminal den of iniquity robbing stores and post offices and murdering or threatening potential witnesses into silence. “Jackson County contains more cutthroats to the square inch than Botany Bay!”* complained one Indiana newspaper.
The “Great Train Robbery” of 1868
Around 1866, the notorious and nasty Reno Gang, who by now were the scourge of the local citizenry, came up with a new and different way to steal cash: robbing trains! And they are widely seen as the first ones to do it. On October 6, 1866, John and Sim, along with gang member Frank Sparks (below) donned masks, boarded the Ohio& Mississippi Train at the Seymour depot, went to the Express Car, and held a gun on the messenger while relieving him of some $12,000.00. The gang was pursued by local groups of vigilantes, as well as members of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and was frequently identified and caught, but always managed to escape. Further robberies occurred along with two more train heists in December of 1867 and July of 1868.
But it was on today’s date of May 22 in 1868 that the Reno gang pulled off it’s biggest train robbery, and also their last. On that day, twelve members of the Reno Gang boarded the Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis train when it stopped at the train depot at Marshfield, in Scott County, Indiana. As the train pulled out of the depot. the gang overpowered the engineer and then uncoupled the passenger cars, thus allowing the engine and the rest of the train to race ahead. They then went to the Express car, broke into it and threw the Express Messenger, one Thomas Harkins from the now speeding train causing fatal injury to him. They then were able to quickly break into the Adams Express Co. safes which were merely oblong iron shells, 4 ft. long with doors that could be pried off .
The gang made off with the sum of $96,000.00 – a huge sum for the time. News of this princely take was flashed all over the country, including to the New York Times:
“One (of the safes) contained a large amount of money consigned to New York, and the other was consigned to Indianapolis. It is not known how much money was taken, but it is supposed the robbers secured not less than $40,000. The robbers abandoned the train a short distance south of Seymour, Indiana, and made their escape. So far no arrests have been made, nor has any clue been had of the robbers.”
The Reno Gang Comes to the End of A Rope!!
The gang attempted another train robbery on July 9, but this time the Pinkertons knew about it in advance and were on the train waiting for them. The robbery was foiled and three members of the gang were captured. But this gang was not seen as local folk heroes as was the James Gang who would shortly take to the rails and other types of crime. In the case of the Reno Gang, the local vigilantes groups were only too willing to take the law into their own hands and did just that in the case of these three on July 20, and another group which included Frank Sparks on July 25, when a group of masked men calling itself the Jackson County
Vigilance Committee grabbed the malefactors and hanged them all from the same tree, at what is now called Hangman Crossing, Indiana. William and Sim Reno were taken in Indianapolis, and Frank Reno, the gang’s leader was tracked down to Windsor, Canada from whence he was extradited to New Albany under the terms of the Webster Ashburton Treaty of 1842. 65 masked men once again broke the prisoners from the authorities and lynched them from a tree. The fact that this lynching was a pretty flagrant violation of the Extradition Treaty created a major diplomatic uproar which required the intervention of Secretary of State William Seward to smooth over. But he eventually was able to do so by writing a formal letter of apology to the Canadian government.
John Reno was imprisoned separately, and was released in 1878, and died at home in Seymour, Indiana in 1895. There was a half-hearted attempt at finding the vigilantes who had hung the rest of the Reno Gang, but nobody was ever charged with the crime. None of the money from the train robberies was ever recovered. The“Great Train Robbery” inspired a rash of similar crimes for some years after. The story of the robbery was used loosely as the basis for the 1903 Thomas Edison Silent film “The Great Train Robbery”. And the story of the Reno Gang was used VERY loosely as the basis for the Elvis Presley film “Love Me Tender” with the King playing “Honest” Clint Reno. But not even the shimmering voice of Elvis could overcome the sour verdict of history and the hangmen.
* = “Botany Bay” was a penal colony established by the British in Australia in the 19’th Century.