A reign of terror descended over the USA’s railroads on 6th October, 1866, when the infamous Reno gang carried out what is widely believed to have been the first robbery of a moving train, and the first train robbery in the USA.
Led by four brothers: Frank, John, Simeon and William Reno, the Reno gang was one of the first outlaw brotherhoods in the United States. During the US Civil War the two eldest brothers, Frank and John, had been ‘bounty jumpers’. The men would sign up for military service, take the bounty given to them by recruitment officers and then desert, heading to a new state to repeat the trick.
Prior to robbing their first train the gang had led a crime wave throughout their home state of Indiana, robbing from individuals, stores and post offices as well as operating a counterfeiting ring. By the start of 1866 the gang had been involved in several murders.
In the aftermath of the US Civil War, a period of chaos descended over much of the USA. Unemployment was rife, while the bloody conflict had led to a drastic shortage of law enforcement officers. Lawlessness started to spread, particularly over the isolated regions of the Midwest. Outlaws such as the Reno gang thrived.
The train robbery of 6th October, 1866, marked something of a new, defining era for the gang, and a terrifying time for the US’ railroads. At roughly 6:30 pm, the Ohio & Mississippi train left the depot in the town of Seymour and started to make its way east. At the first station, three members of the Reno gang (records don’t say who), boarded the train.
Once the train was a few miles out of town, the gang members leapt into action. They quickly made their way from the coach to the Adams Express Co. car. Messengers were forced at gunpoint to open the carriage’s safes and hand over packages which had been picked up along the train’s route. One of the gang members then rung the train’s bell, instructing the engineer to bring the train to a halt. As it started to slow, the members of the Reno gang jumped off the train, rendezvousing with other gang members who were waiting with getaway horses.
In total, the gang made off with over $10,000 from the train. Their haul could have been even greater, had they been able to pry open the largest safe in the carriage, which contained over $35,000 in gold. The robbery proved something of a pioneering moment, inspiring a host of other gangs to take advantage of the often isolated regional railroads of the American West to holdup moving trains.
Just under two years later, the Reno gang itself would take part in the greatest train robbery in US history, making off with some $96,000 after holding up a train near Marshfield, Indiana. In many ways however, the gang’s greatest triumph also set about their demise; their success making them the prime targets of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
In July 1868, six gang members (although none of the Renos themselves) were captured and lynched by vigilantes. By October 1868, all four of the founding brothers were imprisoned. In December that year, a large vigilante group broke into the prison holding William, Simeon and Frank and lynched them. John, incarcerated in another prison, was spared his brothers’ fate. He remained locked up until his death in 1895.
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