During the years after the Civil War, much of the nation suffered a period of unemployment and lawlessness, spawning a number of notorious desperadoes and outlaw gangs. It was during this time that the Reno Gang from Indiana began to terrorize the Midwest.
One of the first outlaw 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.
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 Reno Gang.
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 Reno’s were suspected of arson.
When the 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 the 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.
The next year, two more post offices were robbed in Dudleytown and Seymour, as well as several retail burglaries.
In the 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.
Next, the Reno Gang 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.
Various 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 silence.
By July 27, 1865, things had become so bad in the Seymour area that the Seymour Times 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 that condemned the lawlessness and called for vigilantes to restore order, stating: “Nothing but Lynch law will save the reputation of this place and its citizens.”
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 Jackson County 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. Afterward, 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 peacetime 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 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.
The next major hold-up of the gang was when John Reno traveled to Missouri, along with gang member, Val Elliott. There they robbed the Daviess County Courthouse in Gallatin on November 17, 1867, making off with more than $23,000 in cash and bonds. John, who had been recognized, was soon hotly pursued by the Pinkertons, who finally caught up with him in Seymour on December 4, 1867, and returned him to Missouri for trial. As a lynch mob formed outside the courthouse, John Reno pled guilty on January 18, 1868, and was sentenced to 25 years hard labor at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
In the meantime, Frank stayed back in Indiana, where a number of Indiana treasuries were burglarized. Though he was arrested for the Clinton County robbery, he was found not guilty. Obviously, brother John’s doing hard time was no deterrent to the rest of the gang.
On February 18, 1868, the gang robbed the Harrison County treasury in Magnolia, Iowa, netting some $14,000. The very next week, the gang robbed the Louisa and Mills County, Iowa treasuries for about $18,000, soon followed by another robbery of the Howard County treasury in late March.
Hiding out at the home of Michael Rogers in Council Bluffs, gang members Frank Reno, Albert Perkins, and Miles Ogle were tracked down by the Pinkertons. William Pinkerton led a raid on the house where they arrested the trio and recovered about $14,000. However, not long after the bandits had been jailed, they were able to break a hole in the cell wall and escaped on April 1, 1868, leaving a note on the wall stating: “April Fools.”
Heading back to their “home base” in Seymour, Frank and the gang planned their next big heist. On May 22, 1868, they struck another train in Marshfield, Indiana, some 17 miles south of Seymour. After forcing their way into the Express car, they threw the messenger from the train and robbed it of some $96,000 in cash and government bonds. After the loot was divided, the gang went into hiding with Frank Reno, Charlie Anderson, Albert Perkins, Michael Rogers and Miles Ogle heading for Windsor, Canada, just across the border from Detroit. Sim and William Reno hid out in Indianapolis, where they liked to gamble. Frank Sparks, Volney Elliott, John Moore, Charles Roseberry, Henry Jerrell, and Theodore Clifton returned to Jackson County, Indiana, where they immediately began to plan yet another train robbery. But, the Pinkertons were quickly on the trail of every member of the gang.