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David Fisk (Lens of
Gang & the 1st Big Train Robbery
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During the years after
Civil War, much of the nation suffered a period of unemployment and
lawlessness, spawning a number of notorious desperadoes and
gangs. It was during this time that the
Reno Gang from Indiana began to terrorize the Midwest.
One of the first
brotherhoods in the United States, the
Reno Gang was primarily made up of four brothers -- Frank, John, Simeon and
William Reno who all came from the small rural community of Rockford two
miles north of Seymour, Indiana.
The Reno family, comprised of five sons and one daughter, was headed
up by J. Wilkison and Julia Ann Reno
who owned a 1,200 acre farm. Frank was the first son born in
1837, followed by John in 1838, Simeon ("Sim") in 1843, Clinton
in 1847, William in 1848, and Laura, in 1851.
A mock train robbery, courtesy
Shadows of the Past.
Strictly religious, the children were required to study the bible for
hours on Sundays, attend school, and work on the farm. Perhaps
resenting their stringent religious upbringing, all but Clinton, who
was called "Honest Clint,” rebelled and found trouble at an early age.
Even the daughter, Laura, was known to have been as wild as her four
brothers who would later form the
The older boys began to play crooked card games along the farm road
when they were still very young, bilking travelers as they passed by.
The trouble increased with a number of small burglaries and a rash of
horse thefts. But by 1851, the bunch had become out-right criminals
when several retailers’ businesses were set ablaze and the Renos were
suspected of arson.
Civil War began, Frank and John became "bounty jumpers.” At
this time, federal recruiting officers paid a cash bounty to any man
who signed up for military service, so the Reno's joined, pocketed the
cash and deserted. Later, they would turn up in another area and go
through the whole process again. When the draft began, they
would make money from prosperous draftees who wanted to avoid the war. After taking the money from the man to be drafted, they would then
appear as demanded, only to desert days later.
In 1864, the pair
returned to Rockford, followed by a number of other "bounty jumpers”
and lawless types the pair had met during their travels. Forming a
gang, Frank, John, Sim, and William, along with the other miscreants,
headquartered in the burned out buildings of Rockford.
Late in 1864,
Frank, along with two other gang members by the names of Grant Wilson
and Dixon robbed
post office and Gilbert's Store in nearby Jonesville,
Indiana. Before long, they were captured by
U.S. Marshals, but were able to post bond and released with a
trial date pending.
next year, two more post offices were robbed in Dudleytown and
Seymour, as well as several retail burglaries.
meantime, Grant Wilson, who had been involved in the Jonesville
robbery turned state’s evidence, agreeing to testify against Frank
Reno. However, before the trial was scheduled, Wilson
was murdered and without his testimony, Frank was acquitted.
Historic Seymour, Indiana postcard.
made their headquarters in a Seymour Hotel called the Radar House, where
unfortunate travelers who stayed there often left penniless. From here,
they also orchestrated a number of robberies across the Midwest, as well
as operating a counterfeit ring.
members of the gang were arrested a number of times, but they were always
released. The brothers bragged that they had "political clout,” but the
real story was that they were bribing or terrorizing officials into
July 27, 1865, things had become so bad in the
area that the
issued a warning stating: "be wary of thieves and assassins that infest
the place." A week later, on August 3, the paper ran an editorial which
condemned the lawlessness and called for vigilantes to restore order,
stating: "Nothing but Lynch law will save the reputation of this place and
Despite the feelings
of area citizens, the crime spree continued. In early 1866, a Radar House
guest’s beheaded body was found floating in the White River and the
Courtland post office was robbed on January 11th. More murders
occurred in February and July, 1866 and the ruthless gang of cut-throats
continued to rob travelers who passed through
as well as branching out to neighboring communities, where they raided
numerous merchants and county treasuries.
By this time, they
were so well organized that no law official dared to arrest them and
witnesses kept silent, in fear of their lives.
Soon, the gang
conceived of a new idea -- to rob a train, opening the door to a "new”
form of outlawry for years to come. On the night of October 6, 1866, John
and Simeon Reno, along with a man named Frank Sparks, boarded the
east-bound Ohio & Mississippi train at the Seymour depot. Once on board,
the three masked men made their way to the express car, held a gun on the
messenger and stole some $12,000. Afterwards, they pulled the bell rope to
signal the engineer to stop the train and jumped off into the darkness
when the train slowed. The first recorded peace time train robbery had
occurred in just a matter of minutes.
On September 28, 1867 a
"copycat” holdup occurred at Seymour when another train was robbed.
Authorities at first immediately suspected the Reno brothers, but later it
was found that the train was robbed by Walker Hammond and Michael Colleran. Pulled off in the same manner as the Reno hold-up the previous year, the
pair heisted about $8,000. Though Hammond and Colleran were
"associates” of the Renos, John Reno tracked them down, beat them up, and
turned them in, without the money, of course.
"Jackson County contains more cutthroats
to the square inch than Botany Bay."
- Indiana newspaper account
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