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 fourth of five installments on this blog. Each week the story will be continued for your enjoyment!
On the night of September 6th mounted messenger pounded along the backroads of Jackson County. Men met in out-of-the-way farmhouses and in homes and business places in Seymour and wrote out their plans and orders by candlelight. Soon all was in the readiness. By midnight a hundred masked me had gathered at the J.M. & I. depot in Seymour. Each man wore a scarlet flannel mask covering his entire face, with holes cut out for eyes and had his coat turned inside out. Some had numbers chalked on their backs. Many were armed with rifles, army muskets, shotguns, and even clubs. Others had hunting knives and cap and ball pistols stuck in their belts. Several carried coils of manila rope.
There was no noise or disorder. A whispered command ran down the lines as s puffing, wood burning locomotive and two coaches backed into a siding along the main tracks. One by one the silent masked men noiselessly entered the unlighted cars. The train, begun its journey southward. At about 1:00 AM the train jerked to a halt beside the depot in Vienna, just eight miles south of Marshfield, where the Reno gang had committed their most successful holdup just four moths earlier. The cars were emptied in a few minutes then in rows of four, with military precision, the vigilantes marched up a slight rise to the main part of the sleeping little village. The leader called “Number One” by his men ordered small groups of men to visit certain houses that had been carefully selected days before.
Speed characterized all of their movements which were orderly and quietly carried out. Their plans had been well organized, and the procedure was always the same. The house was surrounded, and one man would knock at the door. When the door opened by the unsuspecting resident, several armed men would push their way inside. The astounded night shirt clad man of the house would be forced to put on his coat and boots and forced to accompany the vigilantes to his barn. There he was ordered to hitch up his team to the wagon. Then he was told, “go back into your house and go to bed. Keep quiet and no harm will come to you. Don’t worry, your property will be returned to you in good condition before the night is over.”
Within a half and hour, more than a dozen wagons were lined up in the street. Then at a signal from the leader the creaking, but otherwise silent, caravan made its way to Lexington, five miles to the east. About 2:00 AM the scarlet masked night riders entered Lexington and completely surrounded the little town. They “arrested” a few citizens found on the streets and detained them in the courthouse under guard. A group of vigilantes went to the home of William Wilson, the sheriff. A deputy, William Amos, was in charged there in the absence of the sheriff, who was in New Albany. The door was barred on the inside and he refused to open. The vigilantes broke down the door and entered the house with drawn weapons. They ordered him to get the keys and open up the jail.
When the deputy told the vigilantes that no one was in the jail they dragged him outside and beat him with clubs. Seeing that further resistance was useless, he consented to open the jail. Spluttering torches lighted the eerie scene as he inserted the large key and opened the heavy wooden door. Several of the vigilantes, their red masks flapping in the breeze, tossed ropes over the limbs of nearby trees, as their companions pushed their way into the jail behind Deputy Amos. A quick search reveled the absence of any one in the iron-barred cells.
As soon as he was released Amos hurried back to the jailer’s house and sent his son to the residence of Judge Jewett to ask him what he should do? The judge sent word back to the father “to keep cool and do not try to resist the mob.”
Meanwhile the leader of the army split his vigilantes into three groups. One block off the road which lead from Lexington to New Albany and to Madison on the supposition that the two Renos might yet arrive over these avenues. The second, and largest group, galloped out of town bound for Vienna to halt the 6:00 AM train for New Albany, which they assumed might possibly have the outlaw brothers on board. The third group remained at Lexington patrolling the streets and surrounding the public square wherein the courthouse and jail both sit. Couriers on fast horses provided lines of communication between all three groups.
When the J.M & I train from New Albany chugged into Vienna, on time, the scarlet-masked mob was waiting for it. The vigilantes carefully searched every car but again they were disappointed. The telegraph operator at the station had been surprised at his instrument before he could spread the alarm. He was quickly locked up in a storeroom and a man in a red mask took over his key and intercepting all incoming messages, but all were merely routine.
Finally, Number One, who was with the group in Vienna, gave the order for the mob to regroup at Vienna. Riders summoned the men on guard at the two roadblocks and at the square in Lexington. One climbed up a telegraph pole and cut the wires. Within the hour the vigilantes had reassembled and boarded the train cars which were still waiting on the siding for them. The leader gave an order to the engineer to return to Seymour. The big driving wheels turned slowly, and the train puffed away from Vienna depot headed back north. About two miles south of Seymour the train stopped, and the mob quietly scattered into the surrounding countryside.
The surprising thing about the invasion of Lexington was that few of the citizens heard of the affair until after the vigilantes had left. But, as one might have expected, the dramatic invasion created no end of excitement and conversation in the little town. Later that day Scott County officials disclosed to the world what had happened that saved the Renos from the hangman’s noose at the hands of the vigilantes. A telegram had been received from Allan Pinkerton, that Frank Reno and Charles Anderson had been arrested in Windsor, Canada and would be extradited to the United States for trail. Rather than have his client, the Adams Express Company, together with the state and county bear the expense of separate trails, he suggested postponing the trial of William and Simeon Reno and trying all four desperados together. The jittery county officials reluctantly accepted the suggestion, and the Sheriff of Floyd County, Thomas J. Fullenlove, was ordered by the Governor to keep the Reno brothers in New Albany.