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Now & Then
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NOW AND THEN: Remembering an infamous night at the old New Albany jail

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NEW ALBANY — Despite being one of New Albany's busiest intersections, the cityscape at the convergence of State and Spring streets is rather mundane.

You'll find banks on three of the corners, with a gas station located on the fourth. But the land on which one of those banks sits — the PNC, to be specific — has a unique history, rich yet dark.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the old New Albany jail stood in that very lot for just over a century. As it was put at the recent inaugural New Albany Odd Walk, the cells that once filled the space have been replaced by teller stations and vaults, but the crooks remain. (Just a bit of lighthearted humor, of course.)

Isaac P. Smith, one of New Albany's most prolific early architects, erected the jail in 1859, roughly seven years after completing the Town Clock Church just a few blocks away. Smith also built residences throughout the city, some of which can still be found today with facade designs similar to the jail.

Now and Then - Isaac P Smith-2.jpg

The old jail’s architect, Isaac P. Smith, also built residences throughout the city, with some like this home on Main Street still standing today with a facade design similar to the jail. 

The jail remained in use until the opening of the City-County Building, and it was ultimately demolished in 1961 to make room for the Union National Bank of New Albany.

"At that time, there wasn't really a big push to try to save the building," city historian Dave Barksdale said. "I just don't think our society was educated yet to preserving our history the way it is now. That was even before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It came down before there was much awareness about saving such structures. I think it would be really cool to still have it there."

Though the structure itself is no more, one event that took place there is still present in the minds of many Southern Indiana history buffs.

It occurred on the night of December 11, 1868, when members of the United States' first gang of train robbers met their doom in the building's confines. In the months leading up to that dark night, brothers William and Simeon Reno of the notorious Reno Gang were transported from Indianapolis to New Albany. Fellow member Charlie Anderson and the gang's leader Frank Reno soon joined them after being captured in Canada.

The Reno Gang had developed a reputation for stealing and killing, starting in their native Jackson County before branching off into other corners of the Midwest.

The old New Albany jail, you see, was the most secure jail in the region, most likely due to the city's size and prominence during the era. For this reason, authorities thought it best to keep them locked away there.

Holding the Reno Gang in, however, would be the least of their concerns.

Rather than allowing the proper authorities to take care of the violent gang members, a vigilante group by the name of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee took justice into their own hands that December night.

"The vigilantes from Seymour hopped on a train, came down here in the middle of the night, plotted their strategy, broke in, hanged them, got back on the train and left," Barksdale said.

Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove at first refused to submit to the angry mob of nearly 70, but a beating and a non-fatal gunshot wound was able to convince him to hand over the keys to the cells. The first to meet the end of the rope was Frank. Last to go was Anderson, who had to be hanged twice before taking his last breath.

Townsfolk were able to catch a glimpse of the deceased outlaws afterward, when their corpses were displayed in pine boxes at the jail. Members of the vigilante mob proceeded to catch a train back to Seymour, never to be heard from in New Albany again.

"They didn't have gallows," Barksdale said. "They strung them up inside the building from the cells on the second floor. We actually have one of the cell doors in our museum. Whether this was one of the doors that held the rope, who knows."

That cell door is now part of the collection at the Floyd County Historical Society Padgett Museum at 509 W. Market St., which is open 1-3 p.m. Saturdays.

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