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The Renegade Reno Brothers

Updated on September 24, 2015

Frank Reno

A group of four brothers called “The Reno Gang” were outlaws who terrorized Central Indiana shortly after the Civil War. The Gang was comprised of Frank, John, Simeon and William Reno.  Frank, the oldest, was considered the leader.

 What makes these four brothers stand out in history is they are credited with committing the first American train robbery on October 6, 1866.  In fact, they carried out the first three peacetime train robberies in U.S. history. Most of the stolen money was never recovered.

However, these events culminated much later in their outlaw career. There were actually five Reno brothers and a sister. Clinton, born in 1847, decided early on to pursue other endeavors, but got into a few scrapes with the law on his own.  Their sister Laura, the youngest, is rumored to have had a part in forming the gang.

They were the offspring of John Wilkison Reno of Kentucky and Julia Freyhafer.  Wilkison moved to Jackson County, Indiana about 1813, where he met Julia.  They were strict Methodists and raised their children accordingly. However, the youngsters apparently didn’t care much for the stringent adherence to biblical principles and rebelled.

John Reno

Their earliest known crimes by the Reno boys began around 1851 and entailed slickering men out of their money in crooked card games.  They soon graduated to small time burglary and arson in Jackson County.  By this time the Reno boys had become known as not being the most upstanding, honest citizens in the county.  Therefore, it’s not surprising local citizens strongly suspected the Reno’s were behind most of the crimes.

It became obvious the brothers had no scruples.  When the Civil War started, three brothers enlisted in the Union Army…but apparently not to serve their country. William joined in 1864.  At the time the Army offered sign on bonuses.  Documents reveal Frank, John, and Simeon soon deserted.  It is said they continued to reenlist numerous times under different names just for the bonus money.  

Around 1864, Frank and John returned to Jackson County and were soon rejoined by Simeon and Bill. It is about this time they became known as the Reno Gang.

Allan Pinkerton

In 1865 the Reno Gang continued their crime spree around Jackson County burglarizing businesses and breaking into homes.  They even added post offices to their itinerary robbing the postal services in Dudleytown, Indiana and Seymour, Indiana.  A number of robberies across the Midwest were being planned as well as taking up counterfeiting.

The Reno Gang began using the Radar Hotel in Seymour as their headquarters.  It was the perfect spot since there was never any shortage of people to part with their money.   In fact, the July 27, 1865, issue of the Seymour Times printed an article warning visitors to “be wary of thieves and assassins that infest the place.” About a week later the newspaper also ran an editorial calling for vigilante action to restore order. “Nothing but Lynch law will save the reputation of this place and its citizens,” the Times declared.

Late that year, Frank and two gang members Grant Wilson and a man named Dixon, robbed the Post Office and a General Store in Jonesville, Indiana.  The men were arrested and released on bond pending their trial.   Wilson was convinced to testify against the other men.  He never made it to trial.  He was gunned down before the trial ever began.  Frank and Dixon walked away free men.

Although never proven the Reno Gang was suspected in the decapitation of a Radar Hotel guest in 1866.  The head was found floating in the White River North of Seymour.

Mock Train Robbery

Historic Seymour

When the Civil War ended, returning soldiers found jobs scarce. There was never any shortage of people to fill the gangs’ ranks.

On the evening of October 6, 1866, an Ohio & Mississippi train left the Seymour depot. It was reported John, Simeon and another gang member Frank Sparks, were on board when it departed. Once the train had traveled a few miles, they made their way to the Adams Express Company car and forced their way inside. They easily opened a small local depot safe containing over $10,000 in valuables.’

 They attempted to open a larger safe shipped from St. Louis, but couldn’t.  They rolled it to the door, pulled the bell rope to stop the train and as the train slowed, pushed it out the door.   However, they never succeeded in getting it open. Some claim the safe held $35,000 in gold. The first recorded peace time train robbery had just occurred in a matter of minutes.

A passenger on the train, George Kinney, witnessed the robbery and identified two of the holdup men as members of the Reno Gang.

John Reno Arrested

John, Simeon and Sparks were arrested on October 11, 1866.  They quickly made bail and were released.  Soon after, witness George Kinney was fatally shot and once again the Reno gang walked away.

Gang members were arrested a number of times, but always released. The brothers liked to brag it was because they had "political clout.” but the truth was they were bribing and terrorizing people into silence.

 The next target for robbery was the County Courthouse in Gallatin, Missouri on November 17, 1867.  John and gang member Val Elliott made off with over $23,000 in cash and bonds. Unfortunately John was recognized and finally caught by the Pinkerton’s in Seymour on December 4, 1867. He was returned to Missouri to stand trial. John pleaded guilty on January 18, 1868 and was sentenced to 25 years hard labor at the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

Despite their brother doing hard time the gang continued with business as usual. But now they were hitting county treasury departments. On February 18, 1868, they struck the Harrison County treasury in Magnolia, Iowa.  The next week the gang robbed the Louisa and Mills County treasuries, followed by the Howard County treasury in late March.

Pinkerton's Get Involved

By now the Pinkerton’s were determined to put the gang out of business.  They found gang members Frank Reno, Albert Perkins and Miles Ogle hiding out in Council Bluffs. However, after they had been jailed, they made a hole in their cell wall and escaped on April 1, 1868. In a rare spirit of humor, they left a note stating: "April Fools.”

 On May 22, 1868, they robbed another train in Marshfield, Indiana, about 17 miles south of Seymour. The job netted some $96,000 in cash and government bonds. After dividing the spoils, the gang split up in different directions. But, the Pinkerton’s now had men on the trail of every gang member.

On July 9, 1868, six gang members who had returned to Jackson County attempted to rob an O & M train at the Shields watering station near Brownstown, west of Seymour. However, there were ten Pinkerton agents hidden in the express car. The outlaws walked into a wall of gunfire as they tried entering the express car. However, all but one was able to escape. But soon, the Pinkerton’s caught up with three of the fugitives and arrested them near Rockford.

On the night of July 20, 1868, the three prisoners were being moved by train. Three miles west of Seymour a group of hooded men calling themselves the Jackson County Vigilance Committee stopped the train, relieved the officials of their charges and lynched them from a tree.

 The other three outlaws were soon tracked to Coles County, Illinois, where they were hiding at the farm of a friend and arrested.  However, while the prisoners were being transported to the Brownstown jail in a wagon the vigilantes once again showed up.  They hung these three from the same tree as their other partners in crime.

Although the Pinkerton’s had been doing a bang-up job of tracking down the gang, the Reno brothers had so far eluded them. But it was just a matter of time. William and Simeon were soon captured in Indianapolis and taken to the Scott County Jail in Lexington. Once again the vigilantes announced their intentions to string the pair up.  Laura Reno offered to pay all expenses if the county would transfer her brothers to the New Albany jail.  The county, glad to wash their hands of the matter, quickly accepted the offer and secretly moved them in the middle of the night.

 Frank Reno and gang member Charlie Anderson were tracked down in Canada.  As the Pinkerton’s tried to extradite them, Frank Reno was concocting a plan to murder Allan Pinkerton. The detective was able to survive two different attempts on his life.   When that failed the outlaws tried bribery.  This too failed.  Finally, after several delays the prisoners were finally handed over on October 6, 1868.

The pair was delivered to the New Albany jail where Frank was reunited with his brothers, Simeon and William.  Pinkerton, making sure the prisoners wouldn’t once again manage to escape, inspected the jail and urged the Sheriff to move his prisoners to a stronger jail in Indianapolis. His request fell on deaf ears.

The citizens of New Albany panicked when they heard more of the Reno Gang was imprisoned in their town jail. The vigilantes were sure to try storming the jail and lynch these two as well. In the meantime, what was left of the gang had contacted a Fort Wayne newspaper.  Their message was…if the prisoners were hanged, they would burn Seymour to the ground.  

Responding to the threat, the sheriff made this public announcement: "We do not believe there is any danger of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee extending their visit to New Albany. They would be sure to meet a hot reception here, and they had better keep at a safe distance. 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."

But the sheriffs' statement didn’t dissuade the vigilantes. Before sunrise on December 12, 1868, over fifty hooded vigilantes assembled outside the jail and cut the telegraph wires. They then forced their way into the jail and seized the sheriff and his wife.

The lawman, refusing to surrender the cell keys, was beaten and shot in the right arm. His wife then handed over the keys and the three Reno's and Charlie Anderson were dragged out. The angry mob hauled them to the top of an iron stairway on the second story where they first hanged Frank, then William, then Simeon. Charlie Anderson had to be strung up twice because the first rope broke.  It was about 4:30 a.m.  Afterwards the bodies were displayed in pine coffins at the jail.

 A Chicago newspaper shortly after printed a story describing the event as: "one of the most violent nights in the history of our country."

Laura Reno made arrangements for her brother's bodies to be returned to the Seymour City Cemetery, where they were buried. Charlie Anderson was buried in the New Albany area.

The surviving brother John was released from prison in February 1878.  He returned to Seymour. Seven years later he was arrested for passing counterfeit bills and sentenced to three years in the Indiana State Prison. After serving his time he again returned to Seymour. John Reno died at home on January 31, 1895.

Though their brother Clinton never participated in the gangs' activities, he was indicted for assault and battery in 1874 and accused of selling liquor to a minor in 1878.  He was also arrested twice for keeping a gambling house in 1885 and 1890. He later died in a Topeka, Kansas insane asylum in 1921.

Laura Ellen Reno eventually married and became a respectable citizen.



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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I agree, no socially redeeming values at all.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      7 years ago from United States

      An interesting read, but ... what absolutely vile people!


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