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.
Other close calls with the law followed. Some of the gang traveled to Iowa and executed robberies there. Frank Reno and a couple of the other men were arrested but managed to escape from the rickety jail through a hole in the wall. In April 1868, members of the gang were once again taken prisoner in Iowa after stealing from some local cities’ treasuries. Once more, they managed to escape.
On May 22, 1868, the guys carried out their fourth train robbery in Marshfield, Ind. Extracting an estimated $96,000 from an onboard safe, this was to be their biggest heist yet. Of course, the gang also violently removed express manager Thomas Harkins off the moving train, too. He died from injuries caused by the fall.
Town folk in Seymour were fed up with the lawlessness. In March 1868, a group was formed called the Jackson County Vigilance Committee — its main purpose being to stop the outlaws any way it could, including lynching. Before long, six gang members captured by law enforcement had been hanged from an old tree close to town.
Fond of gambling, William and Simeon Reno opted to hide out for a while in Indianapolis. On July 27, 1868, Pinkerton Government Services discovered their retreat and captured the brothers. After a trial found them guilty of their crimes in Lexington, Ind., the sheriff decided to send the guys to a more secure jail in Floyd County due to the vigilante threat.
“When they captured them, they said, ‘Let’s take them to New Albany,’ because we had the only stone jail in Indiana,” Seidl said. “This was the biggest and most powerful city in the state.”
In later October, two more members of the gang, Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson, joined William and Simeon in New Albany after being extradited from Canada.
Now don’t think the New Albanians were necessarily keen on having these men kept in their local prison. Remaining gang members had in the past threatened Seymour that if any of the convicted men were executed by a mob, the town would be burned to the ground. Likewise, the vigilante group didn’t make things much easier. In the turmoil, Floyd County Sheriff Thomas J. Fullenlove issued a public statement.
“We do not believe that there is any danger of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee extending their visit to New Albany,” Fullenlove purportedly said. “They would be sure to meet a hot reception here, and they had better keep at a safe distance. These men were sent here for safekeeping and they will be safely kept if it is in the power of the authorities to do so.”
On Dec. 12, 1868, Fullenlove became keenly aware of the limits of his power when a group of Seymour residents decided to pay a visit to New Albany.
“The vigilantes, there was supposed to be about 100 of them, commandeered a train in Seymour. They came down to New Albany and got off at the depot at State Street,” Seidl said. “They went down to the sheriff’s house, which was down where the library is now. [They] broke in there, started beating on him. Shot him with his own gun in the arm and that’s when his wife gave them the keys to the jail. [The] sheriff made the quote about you can take my life but you cannot rob me of my honor or my duty … something like that.”
With the keys to the prison, the angry mob proceeded to go up the stairs to the second floor where they hung the four inmates from a balcony railing. Frank and William died first. Simeon put up a fight, so the crowd used the noose to slowly choke him to death from the rafters. Anderson, the last to be killed, had to be strung up twice due to the rope breaking midway through.
After the killings, according to legend, the outlaws were displayed in pine boxes at the jail so long lines of visitors could witness the bodies. To this day, no one has ever been convicted of their murders.