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 second of five installments on this blog. Each week the story will be continued for your enjoyment!
The Biggest Robbery Ever in the US and the Slow Demise of the Reno Gang
On their return to the Hoosier state, the Renos planned the biggest robbery of their career. This was the famous Marshfield Train Robbery that was to bring nationwide attention to the Reno gang.
On the night of May 22, 1868, a train on the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad (now the Penn Central) pulled out of the Jeffersonville depot and headed northward for Seymour. At 11:00 PM the train stopped at Marshfield, a small station 14 miles south of Seymour and located between the cities of Scottsburg and Austin, Indiana, to take on wood and water.
Suddenly 12 men moved out of the darkness and in a few minutes overpowered the engineer and uncoupled all the cars except the express car. Before the startled passengers knew what had happened the locomotive and the express car disappeared at full speed towards Seymour. Four of the brothers broke into the express car and after pistol whipping the express manager, Thomas Harkins, threw his body off the train. Hawkins was found fatally injured the next morning.
The stolen train finally halted in the Mascatatuck River bottoms about six miles south of Seymour. There the gang broke open the Adams Company safe and made away with over $96,000 in bonds, cash and currency notes. The Adams Company again rushed the Pinkerton detectives in full pursuit of the outlaws, but the gang had scattered to all parts of the Midwest.
Soon, some of the gang members returned to Jackson County and they immediately began to plot a train robbery without the help of the famous brothers. On July 9, 1868, six of the Reno gang, Frank Sparks, Volney Elliott, John Moore, Charles Roseberry, Henry Jerrell and Theodore Clifton, attempted to rob the O & M train at the Shields watering station near Brownstown, Indiana, just west of Seymour. However, the engineer, James Flanders, had gained knowledge of the plan and 10 Pinkerton detectives were hidden in the express car.
When the outlaws attempted to enter the express car, they were met with a fusillade of gunfire. Jerrell, Elliott and Moore were wounded, but all the outlaws were able to escape except Elliott. He informed on the other five members of the gang and Clifton and Roseberry were arrested near Rockford. The three prisoners were taken to the Seymour jail for confinement.
On the night of July 20, the three criminals were placed on an O & M train about three miles west of Seymour. The train was stopped by a large mob of hooded men who called themselves the Jackson County Vigilance Committee. The hooded group forced the law officials to turn over the three terrified prisoners, who were immediately taken to a large nearby beech tree where the three outlaws were lynched.
Meanwhile, Sparks, Moore, and Jarrell had fled to Coles County, Illinois, where they hid out at the farm of a friend. Through the interception of a letter from Jerrell, the authorities found out their hiding place and they were seized the day after the lynching of their comrades. The remaining three criminals were brought to Seymour by train and then placed under escort in a wagon for the trip to the Brownstown jail. Again, on the night of July 25, the wagon was stopped at the same large beech tree by the same hooded vigilantes and the remaining outlaws were lynched from the same limb as the others.
The site of the hanging of the six victims is still know as Hangman’s Crossing, although the old beech tree is gone, the story is told that it was supposedly burned to the ground by relatives of the lynched outlaws.
Jailed in Scott County
That same month the authorities began to catch up with the Reno Brothers who so far had eluded the law. Simeon and William Reno were captured by Pinkerton men in Indianapolis and taken to Lexington, the county seat for Scott County. Upon the arrest of the two Reno boys the scarlet masked riders openly announced they would raid the jailhouse and hang the outlaw brothers. It is important to note, the jail house in Lexington was a very unsubstantial one story brick structure built in 1847. At the same time the scarlet riders announced their intentions, members of the Reno gang sent warnings to the railroads “that all trains would be derailed, bridges burned and the tracks torn up if our friends, the Renos, are lynched by the vigilantes.”
The sheriff of Scott County, William Wilson, strengthened the jail and pleaded for assistance from the citizens of Lexington to fight off any raid attempts by the vigilantes. Governor Conrad Baker announced a state of insurrection and issued marching orders to the state militia. On July 27, he sent from Indianapolis to Lexington 200 stands of arms and instructed the Sheriff to summon the Posse Comitatus, meaning the power of the county. By the common law the sheriff may summon every male inhabitant of the county who is above the age of fifteen years of age and not infirm to use them for the protection of the prisoners.
When the Renos in the jail were told of the recent lynchings of their six fellow outlaws in Jackson County, William Reno “shook the bars of his cell, cursed and shouted defiance to the Sheriff’s men,” while Simeon lay on his straw bunk “and shook with fear and apprehension.”
Laura Ellen Reno, sister of the Reno Brothers, offered to pay the county all expenses of transferring her brothers to the sturdier New Albany jail, was readily accepted by the Scott County officials. Ex-sheriff, William Daily, assisted by Sheriff Deputy, William Amos, and a heavy guard, secretly removed the Renos from the jail and traveled all night on horseback through the rain, a distance of thirty miles, in a despite gamble to escape the threatened attack by vigilantes. They arrived in a very bedraggled condition at the New Albany jail at about 7:00 AM on July 29. They turned the prisoners over to Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove of Floyd County.
A preliminary hearing was set for July 30th, so it became necessary to return them to Lexington almost immediately. The Seymour Vigilantes Committee promptly declared that the Reno Brothers would never reach Lexington alive. The brothers were whisked out of the jail at New Albany taken to Louisville, Kentucky and hustled on board a steamer General Buell which departed for Cincinnati at 3:00 PM. At 6:00 PM, the steamboat landed the officers and prisoners at the Madison Wharf, fifty miles up the river. They were met by a large posse of Scott Countians, armed to the teeth with pistols and rifles. To afford maximum protection from the lynchers the officers decided to travel after dark, so they left Madison at 8:00 PM to avoid detection. Thus, the desperadoes were escorted back to Lexington, a distance of about twenty miles over country roads arriving there just before dawn.
That morning the State Militia, composed of about fifty local recruited Civil War veterans under General Mansfield, marched into Lexington. The ordinarily peaceful little town was soon turned into an armed camp with soldiers strung in double lines about the courthouse and jail. Lynching threats had been received and the newspaper predicted “that an army of hangmen is expected hourly.”