12/6/1868 - Before there were criminal James and Younger Brothers, ahead of the Daltons, and in front of Ma Barker and her brood of murderers, showing the way for families with sociopaths, there were the Reno Brothers of Indiana, the first gang of American outlaws to rob a train ... and the first band of criminal brothers to come to a decidedly bad end.
First Train Robbery
At first, the family seems typical enough of Americans trying to carve out a living for themselves on the western frontier of the early 1800s ... J. Wilkinson Reno and his wife, Julia Ann Freyhafer, marry in 1835, and begin raising a family of five sons and one daughter on a 1,200 acre farm outside of the rural community of Rockford, Indiana ... Frank (1837), John (1838), Simeon (1843 ... called Sim), Clinton (1847 ... he will be known as "Honest Clint," the only Reno brother that doesn't turn out rotten), William (1848), and Laura (1851). An upbringing that consists of church, bible reading, strict school attendance, and hours of hard, daily farm work, the brothers rebel early and soon gain an infamous reputation throughout the area for bilking travelers out of their money that pass the farm on the way to and from Seymour, Indiana with crooked card games, rustling horses, burglarizing local homes and businesses, manufacturing and distributing rotgut whiskey, counterfeiting, and using arson fires to send messages to residents interested in putting the brothers behind bars. When the Civil War begins they take part in a new racket ... under false names, collecting the government bonuses that are paid out for men joining the Union Army, they join up, desert, then using a new batch of names, enlist again (and when the draft begins, they take money to enlist as draftees from the draftees ... and then desert again).
Part Of The Reno Farm - Circa 1900
Civil War winding down, the Renos (and their newly recruited criminal associates) decide on a new post-war revenue stream ... good old armed robbery. A post office, a store, and then a new target no one has ever tried before, a train robbery ... and so, on the evening of October 6, 1866, John and Sim Reno, along with Frank Sparkes, board an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train as it leaves Seymour, break into the express car, take the guard prisoner, and loot the safe inside of roughly $16,000 in cash (they also push a second, larger safe off the train at a spot where confederates are waiting, but the gang is unable to break the strong box open) ... a huge payday for the time, but the robbery is actually the beginning of the end for the thieves. Adding to the already hard feelings of the locals towards the Renos, identified by passenger George Kinney as the robbers, Kinney is shot and murdered shortly after all three men are granted bail (unsurprisingly, no other witnesses step forward to testify), and worse, because the contents of the Adams Express Company safe were insured, the Pinkerton Detective Agency begins hunting the Reno Gang.
Frank Sparkes & John Reno
Allan Pinkerton And Son Wiliam
Believing themselves untouchable, the gang then launches a crime spree that includes robbing the Daviess County Courthouse in Gallatin, Missouri (John will be arrested and convicted of the crime, and sent away with a 25-year sentence), a successful jailbreak of members after an arrest by William Pinkerton, an $8,000 train robbery, a train robbery that is broken up in a shootout with ten hidden Pinkerton agents, taking $14,000 from the Harrison County, Iowa treasury, and the next day, plucking $12,00 from the Mills County, Iowa treasury, another jailbreak (breaking a hole in a cell wall, the escapees leave behind a note that simply reads, "April Fools"), this time in Iowa after being arrested by Pinkertons, a robbery of a Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad train outside of Seymour that nets the gang $96,000 in loot (during the robbery, express messenger Thomas Harkins is thrown off the train and suffers fatal injuries, and another train robbery that is thwarted again by gunslinging Pinkertons (insuring the end of the gang, outlaw Volney Elliott is captured and becomes a canary about his associates activities).
And then, in 1868, the final arrests and punishments begin ... outlaws Theodore Clifton, Volney Elliott, and Charles Roseberry are grabbed off a train returning them to Seymour and lynched by a group of men in hoods calling themselves the Jackson County Vigilance Committee, arrested hiding on a farm in Coles County, Illinois, and being returned by wagon to Seymour to stand trial, masked men hang Henry Jerrell, Frank Sparkes, and John Moore from the same tree as the first trio of hung bandits. And the leadership of the gang doesn't escape justice either, William and Sim Reno are captured by Pinkertons in Indianapolis, and against their wills, Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson are arrested in Canada and extradited back to Indiana. On 12/6/1868, the four men are all ensconced on the second floor of the sturdy New Albany, Indiana jailhouse (after the local Seymour vigilantes announce they plan on more hangings, Laura Reno volunteers to pay all the expenses of having her brothers moved to New Albany), awaiting trials that will never happen.
Ignoring gang threats that Seymour will be burnt to the ground if there are any Reno hangings, that night over fifty hooded men attack the New Albany jail, wounding Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove as he tries to defend his prisoners (living quarters in the building, in front of his wife, Fullenlove will be beaten and then shot in the right arm). Seeing what has happened to their boss, at gunpoint, the two guards still standing give the angry mob the keys to the cells and the last Reno Gang hangings begin. The oldest and leader of the group, Frank prays and begs for forgiveness as he dies of a snapped neck as he is lynched from the second-floor tier railing, William goes next, warning his attackers that if he is hung his father's ghost will come back to haunt them all. Sim's turn, he goes berserk at the prospect of execution and fights the mob with a iron sink he has ripped from the wall to use as a bludgeon, knocking several men senseless in the process, before he tires, drops his weapon, and is pulled from his cell, and cursing his executioners, takes his drop. Last, aware there is nothing he can do, Charlie Anderson takes his medicine without any fight whatsoever, and without uttering a word. Seconds later, the jail empties out as four bodies sway from the railing.
The New Albany Jailhouse
But only three of the men are dead! Already proving himself somewhat of a Goliath in his fight with the mob, Sim suddenly opens his eyes and revives ... and then attempts the impossible as other prisoners scream for help (no one ever comes though and the two guards are never questioned as to where they were for the crucial minutes after the mob departs). Slowly strangling to death, for roughly thirty minutes the outlaw tries to pull himself up the rope, hand-over-hand, he is hanging from, but too tired from his efforts fighting his attackers, eventually ends up like his two brothers anyway. Reign of terror over (John will eventually get out of prison and die in 1895), the vigilantes put the coda on their efforts to bring law and order back to the region, issuing a proclamation that declares, "Having first lopped off the branches and finally uprooted the tree of evil which was in our midst, in defiance of us and our laws, we beg to be allowed to rest here, and not be forced again to take the law into our own hands. We are very loathe to shed blood again, and will not do so unless compelled in defense of our lives."
But maybe the most amazing thing about the Renos' story is that somehow Hollywood decides the monsters would make a fine subject for a Hollywood movie ... and to play the role of the good brother Clint, for his first film role ever, 20th Century Fox recruits the hottest talent in the world of entertainment for the part, 21-year-old Elvis Aaron Presley (thinking his older brother Vance has died in the war, Presley marries his brother's girlfriend, Cathy, played by Debra Paget)! Originally intended to be released as "The Reno Brothers" (actor Richard Egan stars as the leader of the gang, a character named Vance Reno), when Presley performs his song from the movie, "Love Me Tender," a month before the movie comes out on the Ed Sullivan Show, the next day RCA receives over a million advanced orders for the single ... the first time ever a record has gone gold before it has ever been released ... and wanting a piece of that kind of profits too, the studio renames the movie, "Love Me Tender" also (a big hit, the only time Presley will play a historical figure, the movie is pure bolderdash in its portrayal of the outlaw family having good Clint killed in a last shootout, and his brothers going free after the real outlaws of the movie are revealed at its conclusion).