Darker shades of history

Gravesites, first train robbers in US

History is littered with firsts, naturally enough.  The first one to do a thing, the first time a particular event happens, is memorable.  Some… are more pleasant than others.  That doesn’t mean any of them should ever be forgotten.

After the Civil War, much of the South was in ruins, with people lacking shelter, food, and clothing; the North had prospered economically during the war, but afterwards faced the issue of rampant inflation caused by methods used to fund their fighting efforts.  Nobody really knows how high the unemployment rate was, since the Department of Labor didn’t exist to compile those statistics until 1888, but it’s estimated that from the early 1800s to the Civil War the rate was one to three percent; afterwards, it’s guessed to have risen to ten percent.  The population of the U.S. according to the 1860 census was 34,443,321; with roughly 620,000 people killed during the war, if the estimate is at all accurate that means about 3.37 million people were out of work.  Wrap your head around that for a second.

And then think about all those pairs of hands, attached to bodies that were needing life’s necessities – and by ‘necessities’ I don’t mean a car, a cell phone or a big-screen TV.  I’m talking food – maybe not even fresh, just something to fuel the body on a regular enough basis to keep from starving – a roof and sturdy walls, and thick enough clothing to protect a person from the elements… which as any Midwesterner knows can be quite harsh in the winter.  There were no social programs in those days; no Medicaid, no welfare, no unemployment benefits.

Reno grave sign in SeymourAs might be expected, one of the unfortunate side effects of these situations was a rise in lawlessness.  One of the first outlaw brotherhoods in history, the Reno gang, began terrorizing the Midwest shortly after the war.  They’d started young – playing crooked card game with travelers on the road near their family farm – and moved up through burglary, horse theft and suspected arson by 1851.

During the war, brothers Frank and John were active in “bounty jumping.”  To recruit fighters, the governments of both North and South offered rewards to men who enlisted.  Men who were drafted but who didn’t want to fight were also allowed to pay other men to substitute for them – as long as someone showed up at the draft board to help fill the state quota, the governments didn’t care.  Bounty jumpers were men who would enlist for the money, either from a draftee or directly from the government, and then desert.  (One enterprising fellow, John O’Connor, bounty jumped a whopping 32 times before being caught!)  Now, William – after going AWOL – did return and serve the rest of his enlistment; he’s the only one of the Renos to have an honorable discharge from the military.
In 1864, Frank, John, Simeon and William met in Rockford, headquartering among the burned-out buildings of the town with other bounty jumpers and criminals they’d become acquainted with throughout the war.  From there, they robbed post offices and stores.  They moved back to Seymour, Indiana, to a hotel called the Radar House and committed robbery and murder over a wide area as well as operating a counterfeit ring (Congress authorized the Treasury to issue paper money for the first time during the Civil War, non-interest bearing notes called Demand Notes, soon replaced in 1861 by the United States Notes called “Greenbacks”).

They were caught numerous times and were always released – on bail, through threat, or bribe.  The Seymour Times issued a warning in late July, 1865:  “be wary of thieves and assassins that infest the place,” and on August third ran an editorial that stated “Nothing but Lynch Law will save the reputation of this place and its citizens.”

But the gang continued to rob and murder travelers and the surrounding area well into 1866.  In October of that year, they hit on the notion of robbing a train, rather than a store or post office.

Frank Reno's markerNow, trains had been robbed before.  But they had always been burglaries of stationary trains, sitting at a depot or freight yard.  On October 6, 1866, John and Sim Reno and Frank Sparkes (another gang member) boarded an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train just as it was leaving the Seymour depot – an important railway hub at that time.  They broke into the express car, overpowered the guard and stole roughly $16,000.  Then they pulled the bell rope, the engineers stopped the train, and the three pushed a larger safe off the moving train for the rest of the gang, then got off the train themselves once it stopped.  The rest of the gang weren’t able to open the second safe and ran when a large posse started chasing them.  Two of the gang were identified by a witness, George Kinney, who was later shot and killed.  Since none of the other passengers would testify, the charges had to be dropped.  And the gang might have continued for much longer, but for the fact that the money they stole had been insured.

That insurance outfit, the Adams Express Company, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Sim Reno's markerOver the next two years, multiple members of the gang were identified, arrested, jailed and either escaped or were released.  The string of train robberies and murders continued.  In March of 1868, people in the town of Seymour formed a vigilante group called the Jackson County Vigilance Committee.  On July 10, 1868, their faces concealed by red masks, they stopped the train transporting the captured Volney Elliott, Charlie Roseberry, and Theodore Clifton, dragged the three gang members off the train and hanged them.  Henry Jerrell, Frank Sparks and John Moore – captured by the Pinkertons and being returned to Seymour, though not by train since the agents feared these prisoners, too, would meet the same fate – were dragged off their wagon and lynched near the same crossroads as the first three on July 25th.  The beech tree no longer stands there, but to this day the intersection is still known as “Hangman’s Crossing.”

William and Simeon Reno were captured in Indianapolis on July 27, convicted at a preliminary trial, but moved to the Floyd County jail in New Albany because of the threat of vigilantes.  (Probably a good call, considering the Scott County jail was broken into the day after the Renos were transported.  Also ironic, given the events in December of 1868.)

William Reno's markerFrank Reno and Charlie Anderson were arrested by Windsor, Ontario police August 8, and extradited from Canada in October; both were sent to New Albany.  Said Sheriff Fullenlove of Floyd County  “We do not believe that there is any danger of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee extending their visit to New Albany.  They will be sure to meet a hot reception….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 December 11, the men in scarlet masks comandeered trains and made the trip to New Albany.  Numbers vary; some accounts say roughly 65, other say 100.  But all accounts agree that they marched to the Floyd County jail with military precision, forced their way inside both the jail and the sheriff’s home and lynched all four Reno gang members; Frank first, then William, Simeon and Charlie Anderson.

The bodies of Frank, William and Simeon were given to the Reno’s sister Laura and Frank’s widow Sarah and buried in Seymour.

It isn’t a fun story, nor one that romanticizes the times or the deeds of either the Renos or the lynch mob.  And that’s why it shouldn’t be forgotten.

Graves of the Reno Gang, America’s first train robbers

Where:  North Ewing Street, just north of East 9th, near the St. Ambrose Catholic Cemetery. The GPS coordinates are: Latitude: 38.96802, Longitude: -85.88989

When:  The pathway to the gravesites is always open, but for a good view I’d recommend during the daytime, and from spring to late fall so that snow isn’t covering the graves.

Cost:  Free

Contact Information:  Nothing official, though there is an interesting tourist service  – a tour of Seymour and Jackson County by cell phone!  I didn’t know about it when we were there, though, so I’ve not tried it.

Website:  Tons of sites with information on the Reno gang.  Here’s the Wikipedia entry, the Legends of America, and the page on History.net

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