December 6

This Day in History

Crime

Dec 6, 1868:

Train robbers reach the end of the line

A guard, who had been shot by brothers Frank, William, and Simeon Reno during a train robbery in May, dies of his wounds. His death so infuriated the public that a group of vigilantes yanked the three brothers from their Indiana jail cell five days later and hanged them. Although the Reno gang—which included another brother, John, as well—had a short reign of terror, they are credited with pulling off the first train robbery in American history and are believed to be the inspiration for criminal copycats like the legendary Jesse James.

On October 6, 1866, the Reno brothers committed their first heist. After stopping a train outside of Seymour, Indiana, they stole $10,000 in cash and gold. But they were unable to break into the safe; William Reno vainly shot it with his pistol before giving up.

Though fast on their feet, the Reno brothers didn't have much luck evading the authorities, probably because they committed almost all of their crimes in the Seymour, Indiana, area. After the 1866 heist, railroad companies hired Pinkerton detectives to find the perpetrators, and at the end of 1867, John Reno was captured. In January 1868, he pled guilty to robbing a county treasury in Missouri and was sentenced to spend 25 years in prison

In his absence, the other Reno brothers continued to rob banks and trains in the area. On May 22, 1868, they stopped a train near Marshfield and beat a guard with pistols and crowbars before making off with $96,000—which was more than the James gang ever managed to score. In an attempt to lure the predictable criminals in, Pinkerton detectives floated a rumor about a big gold shipment and then nabbed the Renos when they stopped the train.

Although Frank and William went rather quietly when the vigilantes hanged them on December 11, their brother Simon put up a bitter fight. He even managed to survive the hanging itself for more than 30 minutes before finally succumbing to the rope.

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