I must tell you that Willie Sutton never said he robbed banks because that was where the money was. In his autobiography Bill Sutton, as he preferred to be known, did admit that “If anybody had asked me, I’d have probably said it.” But after robbing 200 banks over a 40 year career, Sutton enunciated his real philosophy as thus; “Go where the money is…and go there often.” And that idea becomes really interesting when you combine it with the philosophy of novelist Paul Theroux, who noted that “Almost anything is possible on a train…”
“RAILROAD, n. The mechanical device enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.” - Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary.
Frank Reno (above) began his criminal career running three-card monte games along the Columbus highway, which forded the White River near his family’s 1,200 acre farm, about two miles north of Seymour, Indiana. When neighbors who had been fleeced complained, Frank and three of his brothers - John, Simeon (Sim) and William - responded with arson. Over several years, as the boys matured, most of their hamlet of Rockford was burned down at least once. The brothers then invested their winnings, buying up distressed properties, including a hotel, the Radar House.
“DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.” ibid
Beginning in 1863 the boys joined in the Union Army, not out of patriotism but with a fiduciary respect for the $400 bounties that were being paid for new recruits. So strong was the Reno sense of capitalism, that after a day or two of military service the boys would desert just to sign up again. It was called bounty jumping if they caught you, but only William was held long enough to receive an honorable discharge.
“RASCALITY, n. Stupidity militant.” ibid
In 1864 Frank and John (above) teamed up with a black man, Grant Wilson, to rob a store and Post Office 8 miles north of Rockford, in the Wayne County community of Jonesville, Indiana. The three were quickly arrested and under pressure Grant Wilson agreed to testify against Frank. However the officials in Wayne County did not know the Reno brothers well, and all were granted bail. Shortly thereafter Grant was mysteriously shot to death answering a late night knock at his front door. The Reno boys walked away free men.
“RETRIBUTION, n. A rain of fire-and-brimstone that falls alike upon the just and such of the unjust as have not procured shelter by evicting them.” ibid
In July of 1865 the Seymour Times warned visitors to “be wary of thieves and assassins”. In 1866 this warning was reinforced when the body of Mr. Moore Woodmansee, guest at the Radar House, was found floating in the White River, sans his head. His luggage and $2,800 in cash he had been carrying, were also missing. Then, in October, the Reno brothers got really inventive.
“HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy…” ibid
John and Sim Reno, along with a compatriot named Frank Sparks (above), boarded the 6:00 p.m. Ohio and Mississippi train out of Seymour. A few miles south of town they made their way to the express car, got the drop on clerk Elam Miller and removed $10,000 in gold coin and $33 in bank notes from the safe. It was the first robbery of a moving train in American history. George Kinney, a passenger on that train identified the Reno brothers as the robbers. They were arrested on October 11th. But after Mr. Kinney met with an unfortunate accident while answering a late night knock on his front door, no other passengers stepped forward, and, again, all charges against the Reno brothers had to be dropped. But local anger was growing.
“ABSCOND, v.i. To "move in a mysterious way," commonly with the property of another” ibid
Faced with increasing hostility from his neighbors, on November 17, 1867, John Reno and a friend named Val Elliot took a train to Gallatin, Missouri and robbed the court house of $23,000. However, Pinkerton detectives tracked John back to Seymour, and arrested him there in early December. The brothers tried to raise money for a good lawyer by robbing another train out of Seymour, but this only inspired the locals to form a vigilante committee, called the Scarlet Mask Society. The remaining brothers and their “friends” (above) decided to look for financial opportunities elsewhere. So, with a lynch mob organizing, on January 18, 1868, John Reno faced the music in Gallatin alone and was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Missouri.
KILL, v.. To create a vacancy without nominating a successor.” ibed
This inspired the remaining brothers and their gang to move on to Iowa, where a robbery on February 18th at Magnolia netted $14,000. But the now incarcerated John seems to have been the brains of the group, because after another robbery in March, three members were arrested, and they just managed to break out for April Fools Day. The brothers now decided it would be safer to practice their trade closer to home. They were wrong.
“BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-h--l-and-the grave and four parts clarified Satan.” ibid
On May 22nd, twelve men boarded a train Marshfield, Indiana, broke into the express car, threw the clerk off the train, and grabbed about $96,000. The clerk died of his injuries. Then on July 9th the Reno gang went a robbery too far. This time, when they broke into the express car, 10 Pinkterton detectives opened fire. Theodore Clifton and Charles Rosenberry, were wounded, and Volney Elliot, was captured. On July 10th, as the three prisoners were being transported south to the county courthouse, the Scarlet Mask Society waylaid the train, removed the prisoners at gunpoint and hanged them from a tree at a nearby crossroads. Indiana, it seemed, and gotten civilized enough to lynch evil doers.
“TREE, n. A tall vegetable intended by nature to serve as a penal apparatus.” ibed
On the 11th three more gang members, Henry Jerrell , Frank Sparks and John Moore, were arrested in Illinois, and dispatched to Seymour via wagon. On July 25th they were also intercepted by the Scarlet Mask and introduced to the same tree. The site became known as Hangman’s Crossing; today, simply as “The Crossing”.
“GALLOWS, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven” ibid
Two days later, on July 27th, William and Sim Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, where they had gone to gamble. They were tried and convicted of the Marshfield robbery, and after local officials heard rumors that the Scarlet Mask was preparing another neck tie party, the two men were shipped south to the strongest jail in Indiana, in the Ohio River town of New Albany(above). Said Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove, “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”. Shortly thereafter Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson were arressted in Windsor, Canada, arriving in New Albany at the end of October, 1868.
“ACCOMPLICE, n. One associated with another in a crime, having guilty knowledge and complicity, as an attorney who defends a criminal, knowing him guilty.” ibid
Just after midnight, Saturday, December 12th an unscheduled train arrived in New Albany. Some 65 hooded and masked men disembarked and made their way to the jail. There they surrounded the jail and beat up Sheriff Fullenlove before securing a rope to an iron stairwell support. Then Frank Reno was dragged from his cell. After he was dead, the mob lynched William and then Sim, with Charlie Anderson being strung up at about 4:30 a.m. However the overused rope finally broke under the strain of Charlie, dropping him to the floor. So the members of the lynch mob simply procured another rope and strung up poor Charlie again, and this time the rope held. It appears that the members of the Scarlet Mask also adhered to that other lesson later espoused by Willie Sutton, “Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”
HANGMAN, n. An officer of the law charged with duties of the highest dignity and utmost gravity, and held in hereditary disesteem by a populace having a criminal ancestry.” ibid
No one was ever accused of participating in any of the lynchings. Ten years later, in February 1878, John Reno was released from prison and returned to Rockford. He quietly worked the family farm for five years before being arrested for counterfeiting. After serving another three year sentence, he died in his home, January 31st, 1895. And that was the end of the Reno gang of Indiana, if not the world’s best train robbers, at least the world’s first. And there is something to be said for that.
“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car. But if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” Theodore Roosevelt.