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 first of five installments on this blog. Each week the story will be continued for your enjoyment!
During the years immediately following the Civil War, Indiana and the rest of the Midwest were terrorized by a gang of outlaws composed entirely of Hoosiers who rode under the banner of The Reno Gang.
This gang was the first of the outlaw brotherhoods in the United States and was responsible for more than 100 robberies and a great many murders. Its biggest notoriety stemmed from the commission of the first train robbery in history, which occurred on October 6, 1866 in Seymour, Indiana.
The Reno Family and their Early Beginnings
The nucleus of the outlaw gang was four brothers, Frank, John, Simeon and William Renno. Later shortened to Reno. All came from the small rural community of Rockford, then two miles north of Seymour in Southern Indiana’s Jackson County.
The Reno family had moved to the community from Kentucky and farmed more than 400 acres. The site of the Reno farm today is just north of the Seymour Riverview Cemetery along highway 31A. The Reno’s had five sons and one daughter, Laura Ellen. IN addition to the four outlaw brothers, the other Reno son was Clinton or “Honest Clint” as he was known, since he was the only one of the sons not to ride with the gang. Laura Ellen was just as wild as her outlaw brothers; however, she eventually settled down, married and became a respectable citizen.
The Rockford community had experienced trouble with the Renos ever since they had moved in from Kentucky. At first it was horse-stealing and small burglaries but in the mid – 1850’s the community merchants were mysteriously burned out and the Reno’s were suspected for arson.
Wilkinson Reno, the father, and his four sons fled from Jackson County and settled near St. Louis, Missouri. However, by 1860 they reckoned that the heat had died down and the suspects returned to Indiana.
Off to War
The Civil War broke out soon after the return of the Renos and the four Reno brothers enlisted, primarily to stay away from the angry citizens of Rockford, who still accused the boys of starting the fires that burned out the town merchants.
The sons all ran into trouble in the Army. John served with Company A, the 13th Infantry, in the early months of the war, but deserted in July of 1863. Frank, the oldest son served with the 6th Indiana Infantry and both he and Simeon were charged with bounty jumping before they also deserted from the service. Bounty jumping was the widespread practice of enlisting, collecting the bonus, deserting, reenlisting, collecting another bonus, etc.—was an inherent defect in the military system of the time. William was the youngest son served with the 140th Indiana Regiment. Like his brothers he also got into trouble but was the only one to receive an honorable discharge.
The Civil War ended in 1865. By 1866 the Renos had all returned to Rockford and had begun to organize the most ruthless group of cut-throat killers that ever existed in this country. Their specialty was robbing and murdering the strangers and travelers who passed through Jackson County, but they also branched out to neighboring counties where they robbed and raided merchants of small communities. They became so well organized that no law officer dared to arrest them, and no witness dared to appear in court against them to press charges.
It Didn’t Take Much Convincing
It was Frank, the oldest son, who convinced his brothers of the idea of train robbery, the “sport” that was to eventually make the James, the Daltons and the young Reno brothers infamous. Surprisingly, it never brought to the Renos the worldwide notability the later outlaw brotherhoods gained. The Reno Brothers chose their first train robbery to be in Seymour, Indiana because it was an important rail center in south central Indiana with several trains with express cars passing through each day.
The First Trian Robbery in the United States
On the evening of October 6, 1866, three of the Reno gang boarded an Ohio & Mississippi Railway train (now the B & O) as it slowly chugged eastward out of Seymour depot. The outlaws John and Sim Reno and Frank Sparks broke into the express car and beat the lone guard. They broke open the “local safe” containing packages picked up at the station en route and obtained approximately $16,000. They threw the larger safe out of the car. It contained the packages shipped from St. Louis and was know as the “through safe.”
Waiting for the larger safe were Frank Reno and the rest of the gang. The outlaws attempted to break open the safe but were unsuccessful. The gang was eventually scared off by a posse that was aroused by Gordon Kinny, a witness of the robbery. It was noted that Gordon Kinny, was mysteriously murdered the following month.
The Adams Express Company, which was responsible for the robbery loss, soon had the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency on the trail of the robbers. The outlaws headed west to Missouri, where they robbed the Daviess County Treasurer at Gallatin for more than $22,000. John Reno was recognized by a witness to the robbery. When the Renos returned to Seymour, John was seized by local officials and turned over to the waiting sheriff of Daviess County, west of Seymour. John was rushed to by train to Missouri where he received an immediate trial and was sentenced to 25 years in the Missouri Penitentiary. John was the only one of his outlaw brothers to escape the hangman’s noose. He returned to Seymour in 1886 and was later convicted of counterfeiting and sentenced to three years in a northern Indiana prison.
In December of 1867, the second train robbery occurred at Seymour. Two of the Renos’ cohorts, Walter Hammond and Michael Colleran, decided to try the Reno game and robbed the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad near the same location as the first robbery. They escaped with $8,000 and immediately headed for Rockford, where they sought sanctuary with the Reno gang. However, the Renos took the loot away from the robbers and gave them a severe beating and hauled them to the Seymour and turned them over to the local law officials. The Renos then divided the stolen money amongst themselves.
In March of 1868, the Renos learned that Seymour citizens were organizing a vigilante group and so they headed west again, this time to Iowa. They soon gained attention in that state by robbing the Harrison and Mills County treasurers within a few days’ time and escaped with nearly $26,000. However, the Pinkerton men were soon on the trail of the outlaws. From an informer’s tip, the Pinkerton men received a tip that four members of the Reno gang were hiding at a farmhouse near Council Bluffs. The four robbers were apprehended and imprisoned in the Council Bluffs jail. On April 1, a few days later the remaining members of the gang broke into the jail and freed the prisoners and the desperadoes headed back to Indiana.