This week in history: on Oct. 6, 1866, the first robbery of a moving train happened in the United States. Interestingly enough (for me, at least), this occurred in Jackson County, Indiana — the county where I grew up.
Three members of the “Reno gang” entered an Ohio & Mississippi train as it started to leave the depot in Seymour (my hometown). They broke open the train’s safe, and nabbed about $16,000. They pushed a larger safe off the train, but they had to fled before opening this one as a posse was approaching. Holdups had taken place on trains sitting at stations or in freight yards, but this was the first robbery of a moving train. Train terrorists — yikes. Although these guys were more interested in stealing cash than in taking lives.
Sticking up moving trains in remote locations with little law enforcement became popular in the American West, since the large number of recently-constructed railroads made them attractive targets. Western economies were booming, and trains often carried lots of cash and precious minerals. Sparsely populated areas meant that bandits had plenty of opportunities to stop trains, as well as plenty of spots to hide from the law.
There were gangs that made train robbery their criminal specialty. Butch Cassidy’s Wild Gang is one example.
Railroad owners eventually wised up and fought back, protecting their cargo with safes, armed guards, and fortified boxcars. By the late 1800s, robbing trains had turned into a dangerous and far less-lucrative job.
The Reno gang consisted of four Reno brothers and their associates. In 1868, Seymour residents formed a vigilante group with the goal of killing the Renos. Later that year, the Renos were finally captured after committing a series of train robberies and other crimes. In December of 1868, a mob stormed the Indiana jail where the bandits were being held for trial and meted out vigilante justice, hanging brothers Frank, Simeon and William Reno (their brother John had been caught earlier and was already serving time in a different prison) and fellow gang member Charlie Anderson. This is believed to be the only time in U.S. history that a federal prisoner was lynched by a mob before a trial.
At least three movies have been made about the Reno gang:
- The Legend of the Reno Brothers, a 2013 documentary film
- Rage at Dawn, 1955
- Elvis Presley‘s first movie was the 1956 Love Me Tender where he starred as “Honest” Clint Reno (neither Clint — nor Reno sister Laura — were part of the gang …)
There’s even a book about the robbery, and about the Reno Gang, called The Masked Halters (affil.). It’s written by Edwin Boley, who was a Seymour historian (I think he was my social studies teacher one year when I went to Shields Junior High). Our family has a copy, and I remember dutifully reading it during my youth, although I’ve retained much none of it.
Does your hometown have a claim to fame?