Story written and reshared by Mary Wilson and Sharon Y. Asher with excerpts taken from “Outdoor Indiana,” written by Arville L. Funk and reprinted from “The Scarlet Mask” written by Carl R. Bogardus, Sr., M.D., 1960.
This story is the third of five installments on this blog. Each week the story will be continued for your enjoyment!
A correspondent who signed himself VIENNA, is a dispatch to the Seymour Democrat said in part, “an amateur artillery company was organized. The brass cannon, which had done service in General Jackson’s defense of New Orleans but was disabled by Morgan on his Indiana raid in July 1863, was brought out of the courthouse and loaded with a very long chain and a quantity of broken pieces of iron. It was aimed straight down the Vienna Road.”
For a while it appeared as though the Vigilance Committee would ride into Lexington and openly attack the militia. To add to the utter confusion thousands of curious people streamed into town on foot, horseback, by wagon and train to observe the impending battle.
The hearing of the Renos was set for 10:00 AM, July 30th. Long before the doors of the little brick courthouse, built in 1821, were open there were a long line of spectators anxiously waiting to be admitted. When Judge Jewett took the bench, there was not a spare inch of space in the courtroom. Outside of the building a huge crowd milled about impatiently in the bright sunshine, hoping to get a glimpse of the famed outlaws. Never since its founding in 1805 had Lexington experienced such intense excitement as prevailed then. The brief sojourn of General Morgan and his 2,000 Confederate cavalrymen just five years previously seemed like a Sunday school picnic as compared to the roar of this occasion.
At 10:15 AM there was a stir in the courtroom, heads twisted about, and voices were raised in anticipation. Someone yelled, “Here they come!” as a squad of ten blue uniformed militiamen appeared, forcing their way through the tightly packed crowd and up the aisle, with the two Reno brothers packed in the center of the men. The outlaws were dressed in black suits, white shirts and broad black plantation hats. They stumbled along as fast as was possible with their manacles of leg irons. The appearance of the two train robbers in the courtroom was a signal for an outburst which bordered on pandemonium. Men shouted and pounded the floor and benches with their heavy boots, crying, “Hang them! Hang the train robbers!”
Judge Jewett pounded furiously with his gavel trying to obtain order enough to open his court. The militiamen moved closer about the prisoners, fingering the triggers of their rifles. The two brothers stood motionless staring at the judge. At least there was comparative quiet in the courtroom. Robert M. Weir, the prosecuting attorney, rose impressively with a sheaf of paper in his hand and read several affidavits stating that the two Renos and others had participated in the robbery at Marshfield on May 22, 1868.
The prisoners’ plea of not guilty, signaled another demonstration and shouts of disappointment and vexation filled the crowded room, as the spectators began leaving their benches and milling about the room. The deputies posted around the perimeter of the room moved forward cautiously.
Colonel Samuel S. Crowe, attorney for the defense, said that the Renos would waive preliminary examination and ask for bail. Judge Jewett stated that the bail would be $63,000 each. Colonel Crowe acknowledged that the brothers would have to default and be recommitted. General Mansfield wasted no time. He shouted an order. The militiamen flanking the Renos executed an about face and marched out of the courtroom with their prisoners amid the angry roar of hoots and hisses from the disappointed spectators. Then in a few moments they reappeared in the courtroom, pushing their way through to the bench, ignoring the angry growls of the audience. After the judge had again banged for order the prosecutor read a warrant signed by Major Allan Pinkerton charging the prisoners with conspiracy to commit a felony on May 22nd, and named Frank Reno, Charles Anderson, Albert Perkins and Charles Spencer as their accomplices.
When the prisoners again plead not guilty the disturbance that followed was sheer pandemonium. Men leaped over the benches, clawing and punching the militiamen, trying to get to the cowering outlaws. All the while the judge was vainly hammering with his gavel, attempting to obtain some assemblance of order and threatening to clear the courtroom. The crowd slowly sank back in their seats, but the noise and confusion continued unabated.
Using their bayonets and rifle butts the guardsmen were finally able to fight there was out of the courtroom with their prisoners. Windows were smashed and those inside shouted to the mob outside. Again, the militiamen found themselves surrounded. The crowd began kicking, pushing, fighting as their uniforms were torn and ripped, they made their way back to the jail battling the angry mob every step of the way. Luckily, both sides kept their heads after a fashion, and there was no shots and no casualties, but the turmoil didn’t end as it spilled out onto the courthouse square.
A Cincinnati Times reporter received permission to interview the brothers in their cells. As he was admitted to the jail, he observed Laura Ellen Reno talking to her brothers. He overheard her say in a low tone, “Be careful, boys; if all the world deserts you there is still one left who will stand by you at all hazards, your sister?” He described her as follows: “She is of rather medium size, finely molded form, as beautiful an eye as was ever in women’s head, hair quite dark and in short ringlets all over her head. She is in fact as handsome a girl of seventeen as I ever saw and has a look of the most intellectual character.”
As she left the jail “several unfeeling remarks were addressed to her by bystanders, “and she retorted, “Can you blame me, a sister, for standing by my brother?”
The reporter had a long conversation with the Renos. “They seemed quite anxious to know what the feelings of the mob were; and when informed that the danger had passed and that they would have a fair trial, each of the brothers gave a vent to their relief in words showing how great had been the suspense and fear.”
The following day, July 31st, the Pinkerton detectives, General Mansfield, Judge Jewett, Prosecutor Weir and Defense Attorney Crowe held a secret meeting and decided that the two outlaws should be returned to New Albany’s jail for security. So that night a large body of militiamen and detectives accompanied Sheriff Wilson and his deputies on the roundabout journey which, as before, was completed by horseback and wagon to Madison; then by steamboat Major Anderson to Louisville, and thereon to the apparent safety of the Floyd County jail.
The hot summer days slipped by without incident, but an uneasy calm seemed to hang over southern Indiana. The on August 5th, 1868, the New Albany Ledger, against the wishes of the authorities, “let the cat out of the bag” when it announced on its front page the news that the Reno trail had finally been set at Lexington on September 7th. This tidbit of information was just what the vigilantes had been waiting for… They immediately began laying plans for an attack on Lexington.