2012-04-04 / Columns

Welcome To My World

The Reno Brothers Set A Precedent
by Larry Vandeventer

James and Julia Reno’s family was composed of sons, Will, Frank, John, Simeon, Clint and Bill, and daughter, Laura. They farmed about 1,200 acres near Rockford. James was a good man who wanted his family to be good citizens. He sent them to school and insisted they study the Bible on Sunday.

Most of the boys were not interested in education and they chafed against the Bible study. At an early age they began to play crooked card games and bilked travelers who passed their farm. The Reno family was considered well-to-do for the time but unfortunately James and Julia separated and he moved to a nearby town while she, Laura, and some of the boys stayed on the farm. The family began to fragment and engage in miscreant behavior. John left home at age 11 but returned a year or so later but left again.

Over a seven-year period the peaceful community of Rockford suffered through a rash of unexplained fires in numbers too large to be accidental. People blamed arsonists. Undaunted they partially rebuilt the town only to see it burned again. Gossip and whispered conversations around the community gave clear indication that townspeople blamed the Reno boys for the fires. People believed that they wanted the land where the town was located added to their farm to enhance their income and lifestyle.

Some of the boys engaged in bounty jumping. That meant that a man would pay them money to avoid service during the Civil War. The bounty jumper would assume his name; join the army and desert only to repeat the process.

They also became brokers for others looking to avoid the draft and would collect a finder’s fee for providing replacement. Becoming more brazen soon after the Civil War ended they formed a gang composed mostly of former bounty jumpers that met in the burned out buildings of Rockford. Assorted counterfeiters, thieves and robbers formed a criminal confederation under the leadership of the eldest Reno brothers, Frank and John. Simeon joined the gang as did Bill even though he was still a teenager. Clint dissociated himself from the gang and became known as “honest Clint” since he was not involved. He moved away, possibly to Iowa, where he lived out his days. Laura was not involved in the criminal activity although she supported and stood by the brothers.

The gang robbed post offices, stores and homes. One gang member agreed to testify against them but he was murdered before the trial could begin. They holed up in a hotel in a larger town nearby and robbed and cheated people who stayed there. The local newspaper, The Times, warned travelers and citizens alike of the danger of lawlessness in Jackson County and called for vigilante law and action to restore order and rid the county and area of the influence of the gang.

The year 1866 began with the murder of a Rader Hotel guest whose beheaded body was found in the river. More robberies and murders followed. The community was alarmed and fearful.

In October 1866 three Reno brothers boarded a train and while en route they entered the Adams Express Car and robbed it of about $10,000 and tried unsuccessfully to open a large safe that contained as much as $35,000. They pulled the cord to cause the train to stop. When it slowed they rolled the large safe out of the door and jumped after it. As they jumped from the moving train it sped up; the gang went back to find the safe. Other gang members arrived but they could not open the safe so it was abandoned because law enforcement and train agents returned on the train as it returned to the site.

Further robberies and murders plagued the area causing the citizens to grow more fearful and alarmed that law enforcement officers could not stop the criminal activity. The Reno Gang continued to rob trains, county offices and banks in other counties and states. They grew more and more brazen even sometimes without any Renos involved.

Unbeknownst to them, other movements were beginning that were to be their downfall. The Pinkerton Agency was engaged by the railroad companies and local law enforcement agencies finally took bold action to arrest gang members. A vigilante group called the Red Masks that numbered up to 300 formed to address citizen issues. One night as several of the Renos were held in the Jeffersonville jail, they entered the jail, overcame the law officers and hanged the Reno brothers in the jail house. Thus the reign of terror of the nefarious Reno Brothers came to an end.

The famous Reno Brothers Gang performed that first moving train robbery not in Texas, nor Oklahoma or Arizona, but right here in Indiana near the town of Seymour in Jackson County.

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