Great Train Robberies of the United States.


THE story of the great train robberies of the United States for the last forty years is almost the story of the growth of the railroads for the same period. These raiders of the New World have followed the steel trails across the prairie and over the mountains as vultures follow the march of an army. Daring, resourceful, unscrupulous, sometimes morose and cruel, sometimes gay and almost chivalrous, they have plundered express-cars and collected tribute from passengers.

It has been somewhat roughly estimated that the average aggregate loot of all the train robberies of the country is not far from $150,000 a year. Yet it is the one profession which is not overcrowded and in which success is rare and difficult of attainment. The few who succeed fall through their very success, for fame in this calling spells ruin.

Though a man have the courage and skill of Dick Turpin, the debonair recklessness of Claude Duval, or the fiendish cruelty of Bluebeard, sooner or later the hard hand of the law will fasten on him, and he will be led away to gallows or cell. It was so with the first band, the Renos, and it will be so till the last train robber dangles from the limb of a tree or languishes in a steel cell. At the end of the trail, however long and tortuous it may be, stands Justice, blindfolded with scales and two-edged sword.

To read the story of the great train robberies of the United States is to gain a clearer view of human endurance, daring, cunning, and cruelty, and of the certainty with which the man who sins in this way collects his wage which is extermination. In this and in succeeding numbers of the RAILROAD MAN's MAGAZJNE will be told for the first time in coherent form the true story of the great train robberies of the United States. It is thrilling, vivid, and authentic in every particular.


The Jeffersonville Railroad
the First Victim of an Organized Train Robbery -
Rise and Fall of the Reno Gang.

ON May 23, 1868, the newspapers of the country printed a paragraph to the following effect:

"The car of the Adams Express Company was robbed last night on the Jeffersonville Railroad, at Marshfield, Indiana, twenty miles below Seymour. A party of robbers supposed to be the notorious Reno brothers, held up the train and made a clean sweep of the express company's safes, said to contain in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars."

Train robberies had been committed in the border States during the preceding year, but it was not until the Marshfield hold-up had been successfully pulled off that the authorities became thoroughly aroused as to the serious nature of this new and unique form of crime. In the enormity of the sum secured, the far-reaching effects on the international relations of two great countries which ensued, and the terrible penalty paid by the perpetrators of the robbery, the case stands alone in the annals of crime, and may properly be considered the first of the great train robberies committed in the United States.

Train robbing was an aftermath of the war. When the last echoes of civil strife were dying away the railroads of tbe West entered upon an epoch of reconstruction and extension. Almost immediately operations were confronted by dangers and obstacles of a new and harassing character, which followed in the wake of internecine conflict as outlaws and despoilers follow in the wake of an army. Throughout the war guerrilla and "jay hawker" operations in the border States were of a most merciless and desperate character. On the disbanding of Quantrell's guerrillas and similar organizations which had harried Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas with fire and sword, men who had followed the guerrilla leaders found themselves thrown out of employment and left upon their own resources; accustomed to a life of danger and adventure, many of them were unable or unwilling to turn to peaceful pursuits. Others, who had followed the more or less lucrative calling of bounty-jumpers, found themselves in the same position.

First Appearance of the Reno Gang.

So it was with the Reno brothers, the first of the Western outlaws and train-robbers. Before a year had passed the newspapers of the time were publishing brief accounts of deeds of violence committed by an organized band who raided county seats, looted banks, and ultimately invented a form of crime peculiarly American - the holding up and looting of express and passenger trains. This form of robbery was destined to grow to such proportions and to prove so difficult to stamp out that for thirty years the ingenuity of the railroads and express companies was pitted against the daring and systematic operations of the train-robbers.

In Indiana particularly the railroads found themselves confronted by this persevering and determined type of despoiler. In 1868 the region around Seymour, Indiana, was known as one of the most dangerous places in the country for the transportation of persons and valuables. Rockford, a little village about two miles from Seymour, was the home of the Reno brothers, leaders of an organized band of outlaws, whose operations, like those later of their contemporaries, the James and Younger brothers, extended all over the border States. The four brothers - John, Frank, William, and Simon Reno - robbed the Adams Express Company on several occasions in 1867; boarded trains, overpowered the express messenger, or took possession of the engine and express-car, uncoupling them from the remainder of the train and running them up the line, leaving them after robbing the safes.

Modern Robber Barons.

Fruitful of expedient, debonair, masterful men, the Reno brothers not only rendered life and property unsafe, but held the peaceful, law-abiding people of the whole community in a state of fear and intimidation. Though many efforts were made by the railroad and express companies, assisted by Pinkerton detectives, to bring about their capture, the brothers lived openly among their neighbors, who were assured of dire vengeance in case of betrayal, and for a long time seemed practically immune from punishment.

Besides conducting their own nefarious operations, they considered the region theirs by "right of discovery,'' and would tolerate no rivalry. An instance of this professional jealousy occurred early in 1867. Michael Collins and Walter Hammond, two "independent" outlaws, held up a train on the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, and took six thousand dollars from the Adams Express messenger. The Renos, who happened to be in the neighborhood at the time, got wind of the robbery. Collins and Hammond fled on horseback after their coup. They were pursued and overtaken by the Renos, who relieved them of the money and subsequently exerted their political influence to such good effect that "the small competitors" were sent to the Indiana penitentiary for a long term of years.

Up to this time an open arrest of any one of the Reno brothers in their own district had proved impossible, but they made the mistake of extending their operations into Missouri. On returning from a raid through the latter State, John Reno, the eldest of the brothers, was kidnaped from Seymour, through the instrumentality of Allan Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, assisted by the sheriff of Daviess County and several determined Missourians. He was tried and convicted of robbing the safe of the county treasurer, at Gallatin, Daviess County, Missouri, and sent to the Missouri penitentiary for twenty-five years' hard labor. Thenceforward he was to be counted out of the operations of the gang.

Early in 1868 the three remaining Renos - Frank, William, and Simon (or "Sim," as he was called) - accompanied by a strong gang, made a raid through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, robbing county treasurers and banks. Frank Reno, Albert Perkins, and Miles Ogle (who subsequently became a noted counterfeiter) were arrested by William Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton, for robbing the safe of the county treasurer at Glenwood, near Council Bluffs, Iowa. The three men were taken to the Glenwood jail, but in some inexplicable manner escaped and coolly returned to their criminal pursuits. Such was the condition of affairs with the Reno gang in May, 1868, at the time of the robbery of the Adams Express Company at Marshfield, a crime which all previous experiences may be said to have led up to and culminated in.

The Renos' Greatest Feat.

On the night of May 22,1868, a little band of less than a dozen men lay secreted near the railroad water-tank at Marshfield, Indiana, a wood and water station on the Jeffersonville branch of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, some twenty miles from Seymour. The night was dark and gloomy. It had rained during the early part of the evening, and drifting banks of clouds obscured the heavens as though to shut out from view the deed of violence about to be enacted below. Marshfield was a fuel station for the old-fashioned wood-burning locomotives of the time. Near the water-tank, where the group of somber figures waited, rows of cordwood lay stacked beside the track, convenient for loading upon the locomotive tender.

The men had been gathered together for some time. They conversed in low tones and appeared to be on the qui vive for some event to come to pass for which they waited, as well as to avoid detection by any chance night-passer. The long, low whistle of a locomotive sounded far down the track, the engineer signaling for a stop. Instantly the men sprang up and began fumbling with the revolvers in their belts. Without the least confusion, and as coolly as if they were about to engage in some perfectly legitimate transaction instead of a most desperate act of outlawry, the men separated and stationed themselves in the most convenient places to surround the head of the express train and to carry out their various parts in the deed.

A singing sound on the rails and a low rumble, growing momentarily louder, heralded the approach of the train. In another minute the glare of the headlight shone on the rails with panting exhaust and grinding brakes, the Jeffersonville express rolled up to the ambushed bandits, the engine stopping beside the water-tank.

Except for the lights in the locomotive cab, the head of the train was dark. The doors of the express-car, which was just behind the engine, were locked and barred, both those on the ends and sides. Every member of the train-crew, from conductor to "candy-butcher," knew the dangerous character of the country they were passing through. They knew, too, that Frank Reno, the daring and adroit leader of the Reno gang, had "broke jail" with two desperate companions only a short time before. It was impossible to lock up the entire train, but the express and baggage men at least were taking no chances. Back of the baggage and express, the ground on each side of the track was illuminated by the light from the windows of the passenger coaches. The moment the train stopped the bandits clustered about the engine and express-car. There was no need for further orders; every member of the outlaw gang knew his work, and went about it systematically and expeditiously, with a running accompaniment of threats and curses calculated to intimidate the trainmen and passengers who might be curious to find out what was going on "up front."

Working Their Own Ruin.

In the scene of confusion and alarm which ensued upon the first dash of the robbers, Americus Wheeler, the conductor of the train, was the only man who offered any immediate resistance. By some curious mistake, this conductor's name appears in all the current reports, as well as in later histories of the affair, as Wheldon; but, as the Pinkerton records show, his name was Wheeler. As far as can be discovered, this is the first time the name has appeared correctly in print. Wheeler was a man of nerve; he did not propose to stand tamely by while the outlaws conducted their looting operations - for he understood what had happened instantly the train stopped and a pistol-shot rang out, punctuating a chorus of hoarse voices. Drawing his old cap-and-ball revolver, he sprang down from the platform and began firing. For a moment the Renos were surprised; then one of the gang, standing beside the locomotive, yelled out, laughing:

"Here's a d----d fool that wants to get shot full of holes."

A fusillade of revolver-shots followed the remark. It is no credit to the conductor that he is living out his old age to-day in peace and comfort. As one of the outlaws said subsequently: "He did his d-----est to get himself shot up, and he got what he came after." Not one of the Renos realized at the time that in firing upon and wounding the man who opposed them they were all signing their death-warrants. Possibly it would have made no difference if they had; they were men who held life cheaply, their own as well as that of those who opposed them. Nevertheless, the first shot fired at the conductor was the herald of a terrible fate to come.

While the flashes of the revolver-shots lighted up the darkness, the passengers in the coaches scrambled out, concealing their money and valuables. But the robbers did not design to molest the travelers on this occasion, as they had done once or twice before. While the majority of them forced the trainmen with revolver-shots to keep under cover, the leader sprang into the. engine-cab. The engineer hesitated to obey the order to assist in uncoupling the express-car; he was brutally assaulted by the bandit arid tumbled out of the cab after the fireman.

Frank Reno was an amateur engineer; except for the purpose of saving himself trouble, he did not require the services of the engine crew to aid in carrying out his designs. The other members of the gang were also familiar with the mechanism of railroad trains. In less time than it takes to tell it, the engine and express-car were disconnected from the remainder of the train, and, with the tall robber at the throttle started up the track in the direction of Seymour, twenty miles away. At the water-tank the trainmen stood beside the abandoned train, listening to the exhaust of the stolen locomotive as it dwindled away in the distance.

Looting the Treasure-Car.

Equipped with crowbars and hammers, the robbers clambered upon the platforms of the express-car, and as the locomotive pulled it away from the water-tank, they began an assault upon the locked doors, hurling horrible threats at the messenger within. No one will ever know precisely what took place in the express-car during the few moments that succeeded the breaking in of the doors. The engine had gathered full headway by the time the robbers had demolished the doors, poured into the car, and overpowered the messenger, helpless against such overwhelming odds.

Doubtless the bandits were infuriated by the refusal of the messenger, in his stunned and dazed state, to tell where his keys were hidden; certainly they did not believe his statement that the money consignments were in through locked safes which he had no means of opening. The messenger knew that the safes were carrying a very large sum of money, and the result showed that he did his best to protect the express company's property. The outlaws were men quick to violence and rapid in execution. They wasted no time in argument. Maddened by the expressman's obstinacy, they unbolted and slid back one of the side doors of the car. The engine was now running up the track under full headway. Without a word, two brawny ruffians picked up the helpless messenger and swung him in the air.

"One - two - And to h--l you go!"

The robber on the engine heard a shriek and looked back. The vagrant light of the moon showed him a dark figure tumbling heels over head down a steep embankment hi the darkness. How the express messenger, after that terrible midnight fall, ever managed to fetch up at the foot of that embankment, bruised and terribly injured certainly, but with his life still whole within him, is another problem left unsolved. Probably it was partly due to the sloping character of the ground at the point where the robbers tossed him from the running car that he did escape with his life and is living at the present day.

Once in undisputed possession of the car, the robbers proceeded to make short work of the safes of the Adams Express Company. They had not to contend with the heavy burglar-proof repositories in use on railroads at the present time - the great steel affairs with combination locks, and so strongly constructed that their destruction by explosives or otherwise cannot be brought about without the destruction of all their contents. The old-fashioned car-safes were merely oblong iron shells, three or four feet long and two or three wide and deep (though they varied in size on the different runs) with lids that fitted into the top and could be pried open with an ordinary crowbar.

What a scene that must have been for a May night! Far up the track from the stalled passenger train, the bruised and battered messenger trying to drag himself back to safety, and, still farther toward Seymour, the flying engine and express-car, with bold, reckless Frank Reno at the throttle of the locomotive, gazing grimly into the darkness ahead, and the robbers in the express-car chanting with joy as they emptied the treasure boxes and brought the rich booty into view.

Riding Home with the Booty.

The robbery was boldly planned and still more daringly carried out; but no one instance more vividly illustrates the reckless character of the leader of the band than that wild night run to a point almost within sight of his own doorstep. Accustomed to horseback raids and traveling over the district he terrorized with the least discomfort to himself, he did not propose to give himself any more trouble than necessary in reaching his own stronghold after committing the crime, and beyond question the very daring of the night ride fascinated the heedless spirit of the dare-devil knight of the rail. By the time the robber stopped the locomotive, within a mile of Seymour, the gang in the express-car had broken into the three iron boxes of the Adams Express Company and emptied the contents upon the floor of the car. When Frank Reno jumped down from the engine and came back to the car to superintend the distribution of the booty, according to the custom of the gang, the arch robber found he had made a haul which far exceeded his most sanguine expectations.

As afterward ascertained, the stolen treasure consisted of a package from Nashville consigned to New York, containing thirteen thousand dollars, and another from Louisville, containing ten thousand dollars in greenbacks of large denomination - a fact, by the way, which afterward proved of service to the detectives in tracing the robbers, for the numbers of the large bills were listed and immediately spread broadcast among bankers, brokers, and others for identification. There were also a small consignment of government bonds and sufficient cash in other packages to bring the total loss up to the enormous sum of ninety-seven thousand dollars - the result of an hour's work and of a deed which would have appalled a regiment of Dick Turpins. The work of distribution was short and quick. Twenty minutes after the engine stopped the robbers had melted into the darkness, and for the time being disappeared from the face of the earth.

Early next morning, the 23d, the "dead" engine and the express-car were found where the robbers had deserted them on the previous night. A few scraps of paper alone were left to show for the treasure the looted express-car had carried.

On the morning of May 25, when the investigating committee reported the magnitude of the robbery, the authorities were appalled. The daring of the conception and the audacity of the execution of the robbery made it peculiar among similar crimes, and the fact that the handiwork of the Reno brothers was recognized by those who were familiar with their methods made the express company determine to follow the case to the bitter end, regardless of time, money, or trouble.

Picking up the Trail.

Then began one of the most famous pursuits after train-robbers ever undertaken - a pursuit which ended only with the destruction of the entire band and which resulted in a complete revision of the extradition laws of Great Britain and the United States.

Immediately after the Marshfield robbery Frank Reno, the leader of the gang, fled to Canada, and at first the Adams Express Company confined itself to offering large rewards for his capture, while the principal attention was turned to the other members of the band. The work of Allan Pinkerton in capturing John Reno was remembered, and the case was put into his hands. He deputized his son, William Pinkerton, to run down the lesser members of the gang, while he personally undertook the capture of the arch assassin and robber, Frank Reno.

For a month after the robbery detectives worked night and day in the district in which the Renos lived, piling up evidence showing that the Marshfield robbery was the work of the Reno brothers and others of their organization. In this they were successful, but they still had to "catch their men before they could hang them." The first break came early in July following. On the 10th of that month six men attempted to rob the Adams Express Company car on the Hamilton and Dayton Railroad, near Cincinnati. Clever detective work brought the job home to John Moore, William Sparks, George Gerroll, and three others, all known to belong to the Reno gang. The attempt to rob the train turned out disastrously for the outlaws, the trainmen capturing one of the robbers and wounding another, who, however, escaped for the time being.

Judge Lynch Takes Charge of the Renos.

A large reward was offered for the robbers, and within a week after the attempt two more of the men were apprehended. These three - Moore, Sparks, and Gerroll - confessed their participation in the affair, and were taken to Cincinnati for safe-keeping. A few days afterward they were transferred to the Brownstown (Indiana) jail to be held for trial. En route a deed of violence occurred which indicated that the peace-loving people of Indiana were as fully determined as the authorities to put an end for all time to the rule of the notorious Reno gang. On the night of July 22, when the deputy sheriffs having the three men in charge were approaching Brownstown with their prisoners, a vigilance committee, formed of a posse of citizens of Jefferson County, relieved them of the captives; next morning the bodies of the men were found swinging from the limbs of trees near Seymour.

By a curious coincidence, three more men - Phil Clifton, Charles Roseberry, and "Yal" Elliott - who were implicated in the attempt to rob the Adams Express Company, were in the hands of the county officials by July 22. While they were being taken under a strong guard to the county jail at Brownstown, a posse of vigilantes repeated the previous performance; the party was stopped near Seymour, the guard was overpowered, and the prisoners were lynched.

After these terrible hints of what their own fate would be, it is little wonder that William and Simon Reno decided that the country was getting too hot to hold them. But they were too late in making up their minds to flee. A price was upon their heads, and the country was alarmed. Principally through the efforts of the Pinkertons, the two brothers were run down in Indianapolis and arrested. To avoid a repetition of the vigilante lynchings, the brothers were taken to the jail at New Albany, Indiana, a short distance from Seymour. There they were destined to remain behind the bars until the end of the year, when one of the most terrible acts of retributive justice was wreaked that the Middle West has ever known. But the last scene of the drama was to be participated in by the chief actor, and he possessed the brains to give his pursuers a long chase.

The Leader Fighting Extradition.

While the band was being broken up in Indiana, Frank Reno was living peacefully in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. Here he associated himself with Charles Anderson, a noted English burglar who had fled from the States to escape the consequences of his many crimes. The Pinkertons and the express people knew that they were up against a hard proposition in endeavoring to capture Frank Reno and take him out of a country whose extradition treaty did not cover the offense for which he was wanted by the United States authorities.

Tempted by the great reward offered, many attempts were made to cajole or kidnap the premier knight of the rail across the Detroit River, but he was too clever and eluded all the traps set for him by amateur detectives and others. Finally, on the representations of Allan Pinkerton, Frank Reno and Charles Anderson were arrested in Windsor on the night of August 8, under the extradition treaty between the United States and Great Britain, on a charge of assaulting with intent to kill Americus Wheeler while robbing the Adams Express Company at Marshfield, Indiana, on the Jeffersonville Railroad, May 22.

Reno and Anderson had plenty of money to fight the case, but they appeared to have little fear that they could be held on the charge, much less extradited to the United States. But on September 13 they were astounded to find themselves committed for extradition, to be handed over to the United States authorities as soon as the necessary papers should arrive.

Reno and Anderson employed the best legal talent, and twisted and squirmed in every possible way to escape their impending fate. Allan Pinkerton and L. C. Weir, of the Adams Express Company, who were prosecuting the case against the two criminals, were arrested at Windsor for perjury at the instance of the Reno brothers, and were held in four hundred dollars bail to appear before the magistrate at Sandwich. But the names of Reno and Anderson were already written in the book of doom.

On September 23 a writ of habeas corpus was granted by Justice Draper, directing the jailer of Essex County to "bring up Frank Reno and Charles Anderson, who were committed to Windsor jail on a charge of shooting Americus Wheeler with intent to kill at Marshfield, Indiana." The defense offered was that "shooting with intent to kill" did not come under the Ashburton treaty and was not extraditable. But on October 6 the chief justice delivered an opinion at Toronto in the Reno-Anderson case, deciding in favor of the crown and formally committing the prisoners to await extradition.

Brought to Bay.

This case gave rise to prolonged argument concerning the extradition laws between the United States and Great Britain. In connection with the Reno-Anderson case, the cases of robbers who had looted the American and Merchants Union Express Company were coupled to secure a "working decision" for future robberies. Out of these cases grew a general feeling in favor of a change in the extradition treaty and a closer understanding which bore fruit not long afterward. The cases led to the conclusion in Canada that fugitives from the United States should be given up whenever it could be consistently done, and the part unwillingly played by the great train-robber in bringing about so important a change in international law may be counted as one unintentional good that resulted from his stormy life.

The decision of the chief justice destroyed Frank Reno's last hope. He was taken back to New Albany in company with his cocriminal, Charles Anderson, and there jailed. It will be remembered that William and Simon Reno were already in the New Albany jail. The three brothers were together at last in safe-keeping. It was time for the final scene in the tragedy growing out of the Marshfield robbery, and that was recorded in a newspaper paragraph on December 12, 1868, the only obituary of the first train-robbers, and a fitting setting to the last act of a life-drama of crime.

The Robbers' Trust Is Formed.

"A vigilance committee, said to hail from Seymour, Indiana, arrived at New Albany at eleven o'clock on the night of Friday, December 11, and at three o'clock next morning proceeded to the Floyd County jail and demanded admittance, which was refused by the jailer, who was quickly overpowered and bound, after being shot in the arm and struck on the head. The watchman was then compelled to open the cells of the notorious express robbers - Frank, William, and Simon Reno, and Charles Anderson - who were immediately seized and hanged to the rafters of the jail. Frank Reno fought desperately for his life. The committee returned on the 7 A.M. train. Two of the robbers, Frank Reno and Charles Anderson, had been but recently extradited from Canada. All the telegraph wires on the Jeffersonville Railroad line were found connected together and grounded one-half mile north of Seymour. It is supposed to be the work of the regulators before going to New Albany. After hanging the robbers, they locked the jail doors and those of the jail residence and carried off the keys, making the inmates prisoners until the keys were returned by Mr. Perrette, whom they took prisoner to the depot to prevent an alarm. They took forcible possession of the train, running it past the State prison near Jeffersonville, whence they fled in every direction."

So ended the first great tragedy of train-robbery. But other knights of the rail were to follow in the footsteps of the Renos, whose deeds of daring were to equal and at times even to excel those of the earliest railroad bandits. A unique and fascinating form of crime had taken root and was destined to develop into one of the most gigantic criminal industries the country has ever known.

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