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Frank Reno

On This Day: Reno Gang Robs Train Outside Marshfield, Ind.

May 22, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 22, 1868, the infamous Reno brothers robbed a train near Marshfield, Ind., making off with $96,000. The gang is regarded as the country’s first train robbers.

The Rise and Fall of the Reno Gang

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The Reno Gang was notorious for train robberies during the period of unemployment and lawlessness that followed the Civil War. On May 22, 1868, Frank Reno, head of the gang after his brother John was imprisoned, led the outlaws in their biggest ever score, seizing $96,000 from a Jefferson, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad train near Marshfield, Ind.

The New Albany Ledger reported a day after the robbery: “As the engineer and fireman were seeing about the locomotive, they were waylaid by a gang of twelve men who moved out of the darkness of the densely wooded, swampy area. The railroad men were quickly overpowered … Four of the robbers broke into the express car and were fired upon by the messenger. His shots were ineffective and he was badly beaten with pistols and crowbars, then thrown from the door of the car. He was found the next morning on the rail embankment barely alive.”

The Reno Gang was primarily made up of four brothers—Frank, John, Simeon and William—who came from the rural Indiana community of Rockford. The brothers started their life in crime as youngsters and were quickly joined by other lawless types who wanted to share in the fame and fortune.

Moving between Indiana towns, the gang robbed individuals, post offices and stores, and operated a counterfeit ring. Though gang members were caught on several occasions, they managed to avoid conviction through bribes, intimidation and the murdering of witnesses.

In 1866, the gang came up with a new idea: robbing trains. On Oct. 6, 1866, the gang carried out what many consider to be the first train robbery ever committed in the U.S., taking more than $10,000 in cash and gold from an Ohio & Mississippi train traveling through Seymour, Ind.

The end of the Reno Gang came not long after the Marshfield robbery. The Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had been hired by railroad companies in 1867, relentlessly pursued the gang. In July 1868, six members—none of them Reno brothers—were captured by authorities and lynched by vigilantes.

William and Simeon Reno were also caught in July, and placed in a higher security jail where vigilantes could not reach them. Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson were brought into custody in October.

On Dec. 11, 1868, as the three Reno brothers awaited trial, vigilantes broke into the jail and lynched the three men. John Reno, who had been kept in a Missouri prison since 1867, was the only brother to escape execution, living until 1895.

The Reno Gang and the Rise of Train Robberies

A “wave of train robberies” followed the Reno brothers’ Oct. 6, 1866, heist, writes the Library of Congress. “Within two weeks, two trains were derailed and their safes were robbed.” The Reno Gang paved the way for other criminals, including legendary American outlaw Jesse James, who robbed trains throughout his lifetime.

Train robberies reached a peak in 1870, but, thanks to increased law enforcement aboard trains, most of the famous train robbers had been captured, killed or otherwise put out of business by the turn of the 20th century.

Background: The Pinkertons

The Pinkerton National Detective Agency, founded in 1850 by Scottish immirant Allan Pinkerton, became famous for foiling a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

The massive network of Pinkerton agents were hired to track down outlaws
such as the Reno Gang, Frank and Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the later part of the 19th century and early 20th century, the Pinkertons later became known for strike-breaking and other anti-union activities. Their strong-armed tactics generated controversy, and turned public opinion against the agency.
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