On this day in 1866, the brothers John and Simeon Reno stage the first train robbery in American history, making off with $13,000 from an Ohio and Mississippi railroad train in Jackson County, Indiana.
Of course, trains had been robbed before the Reno brothers’ holdup. But these previous crimes had all been burglaries of stationary trains sitting in depots or freight yards. The Reno brothers’ contribution to criminal history was to stop a moving train in a sparsely populated region where they could carry out their crime without risking interference from the law or curious bystanders.
Though created in Indiana, the Reno brother’s new method of robbing trains quickly became very popular in the West. Many bandits, who might otherwise have been robbing banks or stagecoaches, discovered that the newly constructed transcontinental and regional railroads in the West made attractive targets. With the western economy booming, trains often carried large amounts of cash and precious minerals. The wide-open spaces of the West also provided train robbers with plenty of isolated areas ideal for stopping trains, as well as plenty of wild spaces where they could hide from the law. Some criminal gangs, like Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, found that robbing trains was so easy and lucrative that for a time they made it their criminal specialty.
The railroad owners, however, were not about to sit back and let Cassidy or any other bandit freely pillage their trains. To their dismay, would-be train robbers increasingly found that the cash and precious metals on trains were well protected in massive safes watched over by heavily armed guards. Some railroads, such as the Union Pacific, even began adding special boxcars designed to carry guards and their horses. In the event of an attempted robbery, these men could not only protect the train’s valuables, but could also quickly mount their horses and chase down the fleeing bandits–hopefully putting a permanent end to their criminal careers. As a result, by the late 19th century, train robbery was becoming an increasingly difficult–and dangerous–profession.