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The Renos

courtesy Pinkertons, Inc.
Early potograph of Frank Reno, leader of the Reno gang of Indiana, the "inventors" of train robbery.

The only passengers waiting for the Jefferson, Madison & Indianapolis train at the wood and water stop of Northfield, Indiana, that Friday night of May 22, 1868, were seven armed outlaws, prepared to commit one of the most spectacular and lucrative train robberies in the history of the United States.

Two hid behind a pile of corded wood, two more blended into the shadows of a clump of trees, two were stationed on the opposite side of the tracks, and the seventh, Frank Reno, the leader, moved restlessly about the area, pausing from time to time to bend down and put his ear to the tracks.

Finally he jumped up and gave his orders; the train was coming. Several minutes later, the glow of the headlight could be seen through the trees. Then it appeared, the big wheels of the tiny locomotive gripping the rails as the engineer ordered down brakes, the diamond-shaped stack belching clouds of black smoke and showers of sparks.

As the train ground to a halt, Engineer George Fletcher swung down with his oilcan and was immediately surrounded and knocked unconscious. Two of the gang scrambled aboard the tender and overpowered David Hutchinson, the fireman. Another cut the telegraph wires. Conductor Americus Wheeler, who suspected something was wrong and had come to investigate, saw the bandits. He drew his revolver and fired. A volley hit him and he fell, badly wounded.

The bandit team, working with military precision, then uncoupled the engine, tender, and express car and opened the throttle. The passenger cars were soon left behind as the wood burner chugged through the night, its plume of smoke and sparks pulled back by the wind.

As the train clicked along the rails - "at a fearful rate," according to the Chicago Tribune - Frank Reno and two of the gang crawled across the roof of the express car, dropped to the platform, and jimmied open the car door. The messenger was quickly overpowered but refused to give up his keys to the safe.

Two of the outlaws picked him up and swung him while one shouted: "One " two - and to hell you go!" The messenger swung out into the darkness, tumbling heels over head down a steep embankment. Fortunately it was a sandy, marshy section and he lived to tell his story.

Reno and his men attacked the three old-fashioned safes, merely oblong iron boxes with lids that fitted into the tops; they were easily pried open with a crowbar. Inside they discovered a treasure of ninety-seven thousand dollars in gold and government bonds with part of the shipment designated for the United States Treasurer in Washington. The gang abandoned the train just south of Farmington, below Seymour, Indiana. There, horses were waiting and they fled in the darkness.

At Marshfield the wounded conductor found a handcar, located the engineer and fireman, and caught up with the locomotive and tender and the looted express car. They backed up the engine to recouple the passenger cars and finally chugged into the Union Station at Indianapolis six hours later to give the alarm.

The Marshfield robbery had been the third train robbery committed by the Reno gang, an outlaw brotherhood that had looted and sacked the Middle Border states, Indiana, and Kentucky, since the end of the Civil War. In October 1866 they had "invented" train robbery when they stopped and robbed an eastbound train of the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, a broad-gauge line that later became part of the Baltimore & Ohio system. The gang had taken thirteen thousand dollars in bills from one safe, and when the messenger insisted that he didn't have the keys to the second and larger safe, they stopped the train, removed the safe, then pulled the bell cord so the unsuspecting engineer continued down the track.

There were five brothers - John, Frank, Simeon, William, and Clinton, known as "Honest" Reno because he refused to join the others in their robberies - and a daughter, Laura. In his rare autobiography John Reno pictures his mother, Julia Ann Reno, as a "highly educated woman." This may be exaggerated sentimental remembrance, but Jefferson County, Indiana, records show that she had a neat, legible handwriting. Wilkinson Reno, father of the outlaw breed, was born in Boyle County, Kentucky. The original name of the family is thought to have been Renault, and he was of French descent. The older Reno was so untutored that John said he could "scarcely count his own money." But the old man must have possessed a shrewd investment sense which enabled him to gather a great deal of farmland. Jefferson County records show he was one of the largest taxpayers.

Frank Reno, the leader and oldest of the brothers, was born on July 27, 1837, near Seymour, Jefferson County. He was personally courageous, completely crooked, and a natural-born leader. John Reno, his second in command, was born July 22, two years later. The birthplaces of Clinton and Laura are not known. Simeon was born on August 2, 1843; William on May 15, 1848.

In 1816 the family settled on the White River bottomland two miles northwest of the present city of Seymour, Indiana. John recalled that he had hated attending the school which had been erected on a corner of his family's property, "thinking more of sports and excitement than I did of lessons."

During the Civil War the Renos were notorious bounty jumpers. After Appomattox they bought up sections of nearby Rockford, the scene of so many mysterious fires that the Seymour Times called it a ghost town. The ravaged town soon became the headquarters of the gang.

One newspaper observed, "Jackson County contains more cutthroats to the square inch than Botany Bay." The Renos controlled their community by terror and bribery. From time to time they were arrested, but they soon reappeared in Seymour, swaggering down the main street or boasting of their political power in the taverns and gambling halls.

In comparison with the long career of banditry of the Jameses and Youngers, the Renos were comparatively short-lived, but during their time they robbed trains and county treasury offices, and engaged in counterfeiting. Although they have been credited with "inventing" train robbery in the West, there is evidence that trains were held up in the South as early as the 1850s. The Jameses, Youngers, and Daltons must have read of the Renos' exploits and perhaps were inspired by them, since succeeding train robberies in every part of the country usually followed their pattern.

Following a series of train robberies, the Adams Express Company, then the nation's largest public carrier, retained Allan Pinkerton, head of the detective agency, to protect its shipments of gold. Pinkerton's favorite theory - that any criminal enterprise could be broken by infiltration - was used.

Unfortunately, we know little of Dick Winscott, who opened the saloon in Seymour, or the handsome man with the cold eyes, luxuriant sideburns, and the embroidered waistcoat of a river gambler who made the saloon his headquarters and announced he was ready for action. Both were Pinkerton agents "laying pipe with the outlaws."

The saloon was a dingy, smoky place filled with shadows cast by the oil lamp. The Renos and their raiders sat at tables or stood at the bar, drinking and making plans for their next strike while the impassive gambler flipped his cards and cashed in the chips. When "loose women" appeared, liquor flowed and the newspapers of the time solemnly reported that the saloon became "wild and boisterous." During one of these parties, Winscott persuaded John Reno and Franklin Sparks, one of the Marshfield train robbers, to sit on a stool and pose for a photographer, possibly another detective. Reno and Sparks stared drunkenly into the lens. Within a short time the first photograph of any member of the gang had been smuggled out of Seymour to Chicago, where it was carefully studied by Pinkerton and his staff.

The next target of the gang was the Daviess County, Missouri, Treasury. In his autobiography John Reno described how he and Vallery Elliott, the member of his gang Reno identified as "E" in the narrative, staged the raid. He also revealed how - after his capture - his brother Frank frantically gathered their gang to board the train and release him, but as Frank sadly explained in a letter, he and the other train robbers "missed connections."

John Reno's version of his capture is in conflict with the facts. After the raid on the Daviess treasury office the Renos were soon identified as the suspects. Pinkerton contacted his secret agents in Seymour and it was decided that any attempt to arrest the gang in Seymour would only result in bloodshed.

Pinkerton decided the only way to get John was by kidnapping him. William Pinkerton once justified this act by explaining: "It was kidnapping but the ends justified the means," a typical nineteenth-century law-bending philosophy which ruled the nation's private detective agencies for years.

Pinkerton wired the sheriff of Daviess County to meet him in Cincinnati with a writ for the outlaw's arrest. A wood-burning train with Pinkerton and "six muscular men stood at the ready" for two days while Pinkerton and Winscott synchronized their timing.

Finally the signal was given. The special train chugged into the station. The engine's big wheels were still turning when Pinkerton and his posse rushed out and swept up John, who was waiting to greet a friend arriving on the express. Within a few minutes, while the crowd gaped, Reno was carried, cursing and shouting, into the car where detectives roped and ironed him.

In defiance, Frank Reno led the gang across the Midwest, robbing banks, post offices, and county treasuries. In February 1868, they looted the Harrison County Treasury Office at Magnolia, Iowa, of fourteen thousand dollars. It was a stunning loss to the tiny frontier community - "a public calamity," as one newspaper described the crime.

Shortly after the robbery, William Pinkerton discovered that Michael Rogers, a leading citizen of Council Bluffs, Iowa, was a member of the gang and had selected the county treasury offices to be raided. The Pinkertons raided Rogers's house and found the "pillar of the Methodist Church" drinking with the other members of the gang. The loot of the Magnolia train robbery was discovered in the kitchen stove. The outlaws were confined in a small country jail to wait extradition to Indiana. A short time later the Pinkertons were notified they had escaped, leaving a message for the detectives chalked on the cell wall: "April Fool!" It was April 1, 1868.

The Pinkertons trailed the train robbers, who had scattered across nearby states. It was dogged, exhausting police legwork with operatives visiting boardinghouses, farmhouses, taverns, and stores, displaying what descriptions and photographs they had. In Mattoon, then the county seat of Coles County, Illinois, one detective found Frank Sparks working on a farm. Allan Pinkerton, a group of his men, and the local sheriff raided the farm and arrested Sparks. He undoubtedly informed on John J. Moore, whom Pinkerton classified as a "desperate outlaw," and Henry Jerrell, who, the agency head said, "had been led astray"; the pair was arrested in an Aetna saloon.

Earlier, Moore had been the central figure in one of the most unusual train robbery cases in frontier history. While being chased by a posse he had stolen a locomotive but jumped from the cab as it roared into a small town. The runaway engine plowed up a long length of track before it ground to a halt. Railroad officials, who realized they could not claim anything from the train robber who pleaded he was penniless, charged him with the theft of the engine. Moore's attorney shrewdly argued that under ancient English law a man could enter another man's house, move his goods from one side to another, and be charged with damage but not theft. Therefore, he triumphantly told the jury, as long as the locomotive had not been removed from the tracks, Moore had not stolen the engine. It took the jury two minutes to acquit the "desperate" train robber.

A vigilante movement was growing in some sections of the state when the Pinkertons finally won their extradition writ and brought the trio of train robbers back to Indiana in the same bullet-marked express car they had robbed. At one point the gang was transferred to wagons for the final stage of the journey to Seymour. On a lonely road vigilantes wearing crimson masks took the prisoners at gunpoint and ordered the Pinkerton guards to "trot for Seymour." The mob lynched the three outlaws a few miles from Seymour; a coroner's jury verdict found they had been "hanged by persons unknown."

To escape the vigilantes, Frank and Simeon Reno and Charles Anderson fled to Windsor, Canada. Langdon Moore, a noted bank robber of the 1870s, described Windsor in his memoirs as a sort of Canadian Dodge City, with the town's Turf Club a headquarters of international train robbers, safecrackers, thugs, and sneak thieves who were wanted in the States for every crime from forgery to murder. Detectives picked up the trail of the fugitives hiding out in Canada by trailing another outlaw named Jack Friday, who was known to have been hired by the Renos to drive their buggy.

Allan Pinkerton, fearful that the outlaws would be freed, rushed a copy of the arrest warrants and a description of the crimes to Secretary of State Seward, accompanied by a formal request that the robbers be returned to the United States for trial.

Acting Secretary of State William Hunter turned the request over to Edward Thornton, British Minister to the United States, who in turn notified London and the Governor-General of Canada, Viscount Monck. While Washington and Downing Street exchanged polite notes, the gang voted to murder Pinkerton; Dick Barry, a noted desperado, was elected as the assassin. But Pinkerton foiled two attempts. When word of the attempted murder reached Washington, Seward, an old friend of Pinkerton from the Civil War days, sent a gunboat to Windsor. It stayed ten days and departed only after a vigorous protest from the Canadian government.

While his attorneys continued to delay the hearings, Frank Reno tried a more direct method; the magistrate who was holding the extradition hearings announced that Reno had tried to bribe his teen-age son with six thousand dollars in gold "to influence his father in their [the Renos] behalf."

The attempted assassination of Pinkerton, the crude bribery effort, and the international publicity finally persuaded Governor-General Monck to agree that the Renos should be returned to the United States for trial. Before the outlaws could be turned over to Pinkerton, London notified Canada that new rules had been established by the Queen's Council in London governing the extradition of prisoners, and a delay followed. The fuming Pinkerton was finally advised by Monck's office that he would have to get written authority from the State Department signed by the President.

Secretary of State Seward received Pinkerton's angry message while he was on his way to a funeral in upstate New York. He ordered Hunter in Washington to prepare the final papers and bring them immediately to President Johnson for signing.

Pinkerton was finally given custody of the prisoners, but his troubles continued. He hired a special tug to take the outlaw trio to Detroit. It was a calm, beautiful Indian summer day when the tug departed from Windsor. However, after traveling only a short distance the tug was sliced in half by a steamer. Pinkerton and his detectives clung to the leg-ironed and handcuffed outlaws until the steamer swung about and rescued them.

Pinkerton and his heavily armed men escorted their prisoners by wagon and buggy to the New Albany, Indiana, jail, where the Renos and Anderson were turned over to Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove. Pinkerton inspected the jail and urged the sheriff to remove his prisoners to the stronger jail at Indianapolis, but Fullenlove refused.

Then, on the night of December 12, 1868, an army of hooded vigilantes stormed the jail and lynched the outlaws in what a Chicago newspaper called "one of the most violent nights in the history of our country." Years after the lynching of the Renos in the New Albany jail, the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier assigned Dan Walsh, Jr., a staff writer, to interview surviving members of the vigilante committee and reconstruct the events of the "night of blood." The names of the leader or members of the Southern Indiana Vigilante Committee have never been revealed; those who talked to Walsh insisted on anonymity. Walsh's step-by-step account is regarded as one of the most accurate accounts of what happened that winter's night in 1868.

There was a token investigation of the lynching but nothing came of it. Secretly state and local officials congratulated themselves that the power of the outlaw gang had finally been shattered. No one pointed out that the vigilante action only underscored the total breakdown of law and justice in their state.

The bodies were cut down and placed on planks in the Floyd County Jail. Laura Reno was summoned from St. Ursula's Academy in Louisville to identify formally the bodies of her brothers. A mob surrounded the jailhouse when she arrived. The jeering and shouting died down as she hurried up the steps, her face white and drawn, her eyes red from weeping. When a deputy removed the handkerchiefs from the blue, swollen faces, Laura screamed, then rushed to the window, shaking her fist in a frenzy at the sea of upturned faces, as she shrieked over and over that the blood of her brothers was on all of them.'

Later that day the doors were opened and thousands streamed into the jail to pass the pine coffins. The roads leading into Seymour were jammed with buggies, horsemen, wagons, and men and women on foot. Special "excursion trains" chugged into the Seymour Station, engine bells clanging, as passengers fought among themselves to be the first to get off and run for the county jail. John Reno recalled how he heard the news in prison: "The awful news came near dethroning my reason but I was kept at hard work which may have saved me ..."

That Christmas week the vigilantes voted to complete their work. Posters appeared in and around Seymour listing all members of the gang and ordering them to leave town or be strung up. Hysteria gripped the community; officials known to have been friendly to the gang were warned they were being watched while highwaymen, posing as vigilantes, killed, robbed, and looted.

Then England, through the Governor-General of Canada, demanded an apology "for the shocking and indefensible lynching" of the Renos. Diplomatic relations were strained while legal experts predicted Great Britain would eliminate the extradition clause in its treaty with the United States, "thus providing in Canada a haven for American outlaws and desperadoes." A bill which would give federal protection for extradited criminals was hurriedly introduced by an Illinois senator. Secretary of State Seward enclosed a copy of the bill with his official apology, which soothed Downing Street.

Gradually the Renos passed into outlaw history. From time to time in the 1870s and 1880s, there were rumors of buried Reno gold. Men with shovels, picks, and lanterns dug in the forests along the railroad tracks outside of Seymour but admitted "all they got were blisters."

James D. Horan. The Authentic Wild West: The Gunfighters . Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. Copywright 1977.


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