NEW ALBANY — Even before the likes of Jesse James or Butch Cassidy, the Reno brothers defined what being a proper outlaw was like in post-Civil War America.
Although they didn’t invent train robberies, these boys from Rockford sure did find a different way of implementing them. Raiding trains sitting in the station wasn’t their cup of tea. For the first time in history, the gang robbed moving trains out in the Southern Indiana wilderness, something both James and Cassidy later would emulate.
But these crimes brought something more than just wealth and notoriety to the Reno brothers. In the early morning of Dec. 12, 1868, while being held in a New Albany jail, the thefts cost the men their necks.
Everyone thinks they know all about the Reno brothers, at least that’s what local historian Gregg Seidl has come to believe. During his haunted history tours, he recounts the story of the men’s unnatural demises at the hands of a vigilante mob.
“The James boys and the Renos get the credit for having the first train robbery based on how you define a train robbery,” Seidl said. “I think the James had a little longer career than the Renos had. The Renos got this one [big] train robbery and [then they were caught and hanged]. They weren’t very good at eluding, I guess.”
It all started Oct. 6, 1866, when John Reno, his brother Simeon Reno and another gang member boarded a train as it began to chug away from a station in Seymour. After breaking their way into an express car, the men forced open a safe carrying $16,000. Causing the train to slow, they jumped from the moving car and met up with the other outlaws who had their getaway horses.
Later, local law enforcement discovered a passenger on the train who agreed to positively identify the thieves. Mysteriously, the witness was shot to death in his home, guaranteeing the Reno boys would not face prosecution for their crimes.