America’s First Train Robbers Predate James Gang

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With regards to the famous exploits of the James-Younger Gang, the very first American train robbery occurred in Seymour, Indiana, by the locally unpopular Reno Gang.

While Jesse James held up his first train in 1870, an unsophisticated family gang with the surname Reno committed the first American moving train robbery four years earlier in 1866 in the small midwestern town of Seymour, located in the northeast corner of Jackson County, Indiana.

Westward Expansion and New Railroads Develop Indiana

Like many midwestern and western towns, the railroad played a significant part in Seymour’ history and the Reno Gang’s train robbery was just a small, if dramatic, part of it.

Seymour’s conception resulted from a behind-the-scenes deal during the heyday of railroad development. Property owner Meedy Shields offered to name the town after the engineer who designed the route if the railroad depot and tracks were on the Shields’ property rather than in the previously established nearby community of Rockford.

As a result, transportation-friendly Seymour’s population and businesses quickly grew as Shields offered churches affordable property rates and families moved to the growing community.

Civil War Soldiers Without Hope, Prospects

In the post Civil-War era in the Midwest, there were many disenchanted and hardened former soldiers or others who became outlaws and made frontier life dangerous for townspeople and travelers. This was true in Jackson County, Indiana, as well although the Reno family had the reputation of being uncouth and unruly prior to the war.

The Reno Gang in Rockford

Growing up in tiny, tightknit Rockford, the Reno family included four boys and one girl, Laura. While there was one Reno Brother, Clinton “Honest Clint” Reno, who did not participate in the gang’s activities, his four brothers did. Frank, John, Simeon and William turned crime into a family business and it was rumored that Laura would have been a willing participant had it not been for her gender.

The First Train Robbery

In October 6, 1866, Frank and John Reno accompanied by Frank Sparks boarded the Ohio & Mississippi train while it stopped at the town’s depot, taking about $12,000 at gunpoint from the Express car. After pulling on the bell rope, the train slowed and the robbers escaped just a few miles into the train’s journey. After the success of the heist, several similar robberies quickly followed in Seymour and throughout the Midwest and West.

Vigilantes Find the Renos

The Renos continued their robbing spree until they were ultimately captured and jailed while awaiting trial. Due to previous lynchings by the Jackson County Vigilantes, the outlaws were moved to New Albany for their protection and Frank, who had been jailed elsewhere, joined Simeon and William.

Infuriated by the lack of access, the Jackson County Vigilantes traveled to New Albany and promptly lynched Frank, William and Simeon Reno and accomplice Charlie Anderson. John, jailed elsewhere, and the more law-abiding Honest Clint survived, albeit with their own legal troubles throughout the years.

The Legacy of the Reno Gang

Largely forgotten by the rest of the world, the Renos are remembered in books, outlaw-centric websites and, most visibly, in a small, offside section of the old Seymour City Cemetery on the corner of Hwy 11 and 9th Street in Seymour.

Sources:

  1. Jackson County Public Library, Local History Section, Seymour, Indiana. Staffed by Jackson County Historian and department contains large selection of local, church, family, and business histories.
  2. Jackson County Historical and Genealogical Center, Brownstown, Indiana. Museums and research centers provide significant county family histories and resources on county/city history.