May 22, 1868: The Reno Gang Makes Outlaw History

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Reno Gang member John Reno.

John Reno of the Reno Gang.

May 22, 1868. The darkness of the backcountry night has settled around a train stop where the Jefferson, Madison & Indianapolis train takes on wood and water. In this outpost near Marshfield, Indiana, seven men wait for the train. They lurk beneath trees or behind bushes. Frank Reno, the leader of the men, kneels down and puts his ear to the rail. The train is on its way. Within minutes the train has come to a halt, and engineer George Fletcher, oilcan in hand, leaps down from the engine.

A man steps out of the darkness and strikes Fletcher on the head, knocking him unconscious. Fireman David Hutchinson is attacked and overcome by two bandits. Other men cut the telegraph wires. Conductor Americus Wheeler draws his pistol but is shot and severely wounded. The outlaws then uncouple the engine, tender, and express car and drive the train down the track, the baggage cars stranded on the rails near the stop. Like a scene out a western movie, gang leader Frank Reno and one other man make their way across the top of the cars and climb down to the platform outside the express car. They jimmy open the door. The agent inside refuses to hand over the keys to the boxes holding 97,000 dollars in gold and government bonds. He is beaten with pistols and crowbars and thrown out the door, where he will be found beside the tracks the next day, still alive but badly injured.

The train is abandoned near Seymour, Indiana, but the conductor, fireman and engineer locate a handcar and make their way to the engine and adjoining cars. They back the train down the tracks, reconnect with the other cars and make their way to Indianapolis, where they tell authorities about the heist. It proves to be front page news around the country, one of the most stunning robberies in the nation’s short history.

Frank Reno, leader of the Reno Gang.

Frank Reno, leader of the Reno Gang.

The robbery was the work of the Reno Gang, an outfit made up of four brothers named Reno–John, Frank, William, and Simeon–along with an assortment of other hoodlums. It was the gang’s third robbery, but the brothers had a long history of criminal activity prior to their careers as train robbers.

The Reno men were born into a strict Methodist family in Indiana. Their father, Wilkinson Reno (sometimes spelled “Wilkison” or “Wilkerson”) moved to Indiana from Kentucky in 1813 and married a woman named Julia Ann Freyhafer in 1835. Wilkinson Reno settled with his family on a farm in Jackson County, Indiana. In addition to the four men mentioned above, there was also a daughter named Laura and a son named Clinton, who came to be known as “Honest Clint” as he never joined in the gang, although he had his own problems with the law, which included arrests for running a gambling house and an indictment for assault and battery.

Reno Gang member Frank Sparks.

Reno Gang member Frank Sparks.

John and Frank drifted into crime during their youth, fleecing travelers passing through the area with crooked card games. John, Frank, and Simeon were all Union bounty jumpers during the Civil War. A bounty jumper was a man who would enlist in a unit of the Union or Confederate army and then abscond with his enlistment bonus or bounty. Some would join multiple units, collecting as many bounties as they could. By 1864 Frank and John returned to their old stomping grounds and resumed lives of civilian crime, forming a gang that robbed both travelers and local merchants. The Renos apparently had no qualms about murdering travelers they robbed.

The gang committed their first train robbery on October 1, 1866 near Seymour, Indiana, which has become known outside the state in recent years as musician John Mellencamp’s hometown. The gang robbed an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train not long after it departed the Seymour depot, netting an estimated $16,000 dollars. But the Renos had stirred larger and more dangerous forces than an outraged local citizenry. The safe containing the money from the October robbery was insured by a firm called the Adams Express Company, and company officials quickly hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to go after the thieves.

Logo of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The logo helped give rise to the term "private eye."

Logo of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The logo helped give rise to the term “private eye.”

The Pinkertons themselves would become legendary during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Formed during the 1860s by a Scottish-born detective named Allan Pinkerton, the company won respect for foiling an assassination attempt on President Lincoln, conducting Union intelligence operations during the war and pursuing western outlaws, including such notables as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but earned equal infamy for its role as the hired guns of large corporations suppressing labor agitation. Now the Pinkertons were in pursuit of the Reno Gang.

Butch Cassidy's 1894 Utah prison mugshot.

Butch Cassidy’s 1894 Utah prison mugshot.

The detectives scored their first success by nabbing John Reno for robbing the Daviess County treasury in Gallatin, Missouri on November 17, 1867. Gang members shifted their focus to robberies in Iowa after John’s arrest, but were back in Indiana late in 1867. Two gang members, neither of them Reno brothers, robbed another train leaving the Seymour depot in December 1867. They netted around $8,000, which was turned over to the Renos. A fourth attempt at robbery in July of 1868 was foiled when six of the gang, once again minus the Renos, stopped a train only to encounter ten armed Pinkerton men. In the following shootout, one member of the gang named Volney Elliott was captured and gave the detectives information leading to the arrest of two other gang members: Charlie Roseberry and Theodore Clifton—but the remaining Reno brothers were still on the lam.

Allan Pinkerton

Allan Pinkerton

But it was the beginning of the end for the Reno gang. A vigilante organization had formed in March of 1868, two months before the notorious late May train robbery, and the thirst for vengeance was great. On July 10, 1868, vigilantes intercepted Pinkerton agents transporting the captured outlaws and told the detectives to “trot for Seymour” before hanging Elliott, Roseberry and Clifton from a tree. Three other gang members soon met the same fate at the same spot, which became known as “Hangman Crossing.”

William and Simeon Reno were captured next. The two men were apprehended in Indianapolis on July 27 and transported to a jail in Floyd County offering greater protection against vigilantes. Frank Reno escaped to Windsor, Ontario in Canada with gang associate Charlie Anderson. Windsor had become a safe haven for American criminals and a source of frustration for American officials and private detectives like the Pinkertons. Allan Pinkerton contacted Secretary of State William H. Seward requesting extradition of Frank Reno and Anderson back to the U.S.

Thus began a series of diplomatic communications that stalled the extradition of the two men. Frustrations increased when other Reno gang members attempted to assassinate Allan Pinkerton on two occasions. This further outraged Seward, who dispatched a gunboat to Windsor to pressure the Canadian and British governments into action. It was there for ten days before departing after the Canadian government protested its presence in Canadian waters. The Canadian government in turn was frustrated to learn that Frank Reno attempted to bribe the teenage son of the judge overseeing the extradition hearings with six thousand dollars in gold, hoping the boy would somehow influence his father on his behalf. Governor-General Monck of Canada finally agreed to release the fugitives to the United States.

Allan Pinkerton with President Lincoln and George McClellan at Antietam.

Allan Pinkerton with President Lincoln and George McClellan at Antietam.

But there was one last hurdle. Britain had changed its rules regarding the extradition of fugitives and another delay occurred. Finally, Pinkerton and his men went to Canada to take custody of the fugitives. Pinkerton’s problems weren’t over yet. After taking custody of Frank Reno and Anderson, the tug they were traveling in was sliced in half by a steamer. Pinkerton and his men treaded water and held on to the two convicts in leg irons and handcuffs until the steamer turned around and rescued them.

Yet all of the waiting and effort that went into securing these remaining fugitives of the Reno Gang would be undone by the work of vigilantes. Trouble came by train, appropriately enough, on the night of December 11, 1868, to New Albany in Jackson County, Indiana. A group of around sixty-five masked men exited the train, seized the sheriff, overpowered the jailer and hanged Frank, William, and Simeon Reno along with Charlie Anderson. When their grim work was done, the men boarded their train and returned to their homes. No one was ever charged with any crime in connection with these executions.

Western historian James D. Horan wrote “There was a token investigation of the lynching but nothing came of it. Secretly state and local officials congratulated themselves that the power of the outlaw gang had finally been shattered. No one pointed out that the vigilante action only underscored the total breakdown of law and justice in their state.”

Frank and Jesse James with their revolvers. They would follow in the Reno tradition and became skilled train robbers.

Frank and Jesse James with their revolvers. They would follow in the Reno tradition and became skilled train robbers.

Crowds poured into town to see the bodies on display in the jail in Seymour. The large numbers of visitors choked the roads outside of town. Visitors were allowed to pass the pine coffins after a weeping and angry Laura Reno viewed their bodies. She shook her fist at the crowd. John Reno, who was serving time in Missouri for the Daviess County treasury raid, later wrote “The awful news came near dethroning my reason but I was kept at hard work which may have saved me.” John Reno would be released from the Missouri penitentiary in 1878, return to prison some years later for counterfeiting, and die on January 31, 1895. “Honest Clint” was the longest living Reno brother. He died in Kansas in 1921.

The lynching of the Renos stirred up trouble with Canada and Great Britain. England was shocked by the executions, and wanted an apology. Some American officials were concerned England would change its extradition policy and Canada would become a refuge for American criminals. An American senator introduced a bill that would give extradited criminals federal protection. Secretary of State Seward sent an apology and a copy of the bill to British officials to smooth things over. The story of the Renos slowly took on a kind of legend as the first of the well known train-robbing gangs.

Secretary of State William H. Seward

Secretary of State William H. Seward

Others would follow in their footsteps: the James-Younger gang, the Daltons, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Renos have sometimes been credited with inventing train robbery, but that is erroneous. Other train robberies occurred prior to their careers. James Horan states in his book The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws that trains were robbed in the south prior to the Civil War. There were also train robberies at North Bend, Ohio near Cincinnati in 1865 and there was another train robbery in early 1866 that occurred between Boston and New York City.

But it was the Renos who staked a special claim in history with their spectacular haul on May 22, 1868.

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

The Authentic Wild West: The Outlaws by James D. Horan. Crown Publishers, New York. 1977

Wikipedia article on the Reno Gang.

Finding Dulcinea (website): “On This Day: Reno Gang Robs Train Outside Marshfield, Ind.”

Library of Congress web article: “Of Rails and Robbers.”

Legends of America website: “Old West Legends: The Reno Gang and the 1st Big Train Robbery.”

 

James Wright’s “In Ohio”

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James Wright (Photo Credit: The Academy of American Poets).

James Wright (Photo Credit: The Academy of American Poets).

James Wright is one of the most distinguished twentieth century American poets. Born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927, he attended local schools and served in the U.S. Army on Occupation duty in Japan, then returned to study at Kenyon College near Gambier, Ohio where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He studied overseas at the University of Vienna before entering the University of Washington where he earned both his master’s and doctorate. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1972. Wright died in 1980 in New York City at the age of fifty-two. His son Franz Wright is a distinguished poet who also won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. James and Franz Wright hold a special place in Pulitzer history as their awards are the only examples of a parent and child winning in the same Pulitzer category.

The landscape and people of Ohio occasionally appear in Wright’s poems. One of his most famous poems is “Autumn Comes to Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” which concerns on the surface the role of football in his hometown, but is also about so much more—this poem will be the subject of a special post this fall here on buckeyemuse.

Buckeye Lake

Buckeye Lake

Here’s one of Wright’s poems about his native state. Buckeye Lake is the name of a lake that stretches across Fairfield, Licking, and Perry counties. It is the first large reservoir built in the U.S. and was constructed to provide a steady source of water for the Ohio and Erie Canal during the early 1800’s.

In Ohio

White mares lashed to the sulky carriages
Trot softly
Around the discarded fairgrounds
Near Buckeye Lake.

The sandstone blocks of a wellspring
Cool dark green moss

The sun floats down, a small golden lemon dissolves
In the water.
I dream, as I lean over the edge, of a crawdad’s mouth.

The cellars of haunted houses are like ancient cities
Fallen behind a big heap of apples.

A widow on a front porch puckers her lips
And whispers.

–James Wright, from his collection The Branch Will Not Break (1963)

Patrick Kerin