Thursday, April 23, 2009

New Albany Weird - The Reno Brothers Short Visit in 1868

A friend has inspired me to dig up and recount some of the weirdest history and people of New Albany. We’re an old river town after all, and we had characters aplenty coming and going as often as a train pulled in or a steamboat tied up. Some put roots down here and went to procreating, providing us with a healthy dose of distinctiveness that carries through to today.

So begin several posts in which New Albany’s strange and little-known history will be shared and discussed.

The Night the Reno Brothers Hung Out in New Albany

Think of the wild American West and it’s doubtful that New Albany, or even Indiana, would be in your thoughts. Train robberies and shootouts just don’t seem to fit. However, if you are familiar with the Reno Brothers Gang then you know that would be a mistake.

You can read about the Reno Gang at their Wikipedia page. They were troublemakers, and damn good at it. They relished swindling travelers in shady card games and swindling the U.S. government by enlisting in the Army during the Civil War under multiple names, collecting enlistment bounties and then bolting. These scoundrels (from the Seymour area) are also credited with the first three peacetime train robberies in the United States.

My focus will be on the Reno Gang members who visited New Albany. It was the last place they visited.

The Gang appears to have robbed one train too many. They’d taken $96,000 in cash and bonds from a train in May 1868 and soon after had attempted to sell some of the bonds in Syracuse, New York. The railroad company was alerted and arrests were made. Gang members Frank Reno and Charles Anderson were tracked down across the border, in Canada. Simeon and William Reno were arrested in Indiana shortly thereafter. All were brought to New Albany, which was known to have the sturdiest jail in the region. A photograph of the jail is below – it was located at the northeast corner of State and Spring (current location of the PNC Bank).
Previous law enforcement failures to stop the Reno Gang had given rise to some vigilante justice in and around the Seymour area. A group calling itself the “Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee” had had some success in tracking other gang members down. Lynching was the justice they dispensed.

Having four Reno Gang members in New Albany was a juicy target the Committee could not pass up. At 3:30 am, December 12, 1868, about 70 members of the Committee arrived by train from Seymour. This was a business trip and their business was hanging the Renos.

Upon arrival, the Committee stormed the jail and shot Sherriff Thomas Fullenlove (not fatally) in the shoulder and got the cell keys. They were in and out in twenty minutes. The engraving below depicts how they dispersed around the jail while the deed was done.
The Reno Gang was hanged from the jail catwalk, one at a time. Frank Reno was first. Charles Anderson last. The mob then made their way down to the train station at the base of State Street and headed off back to Seymour. No charges were ever filed.

After the hangings, this simply delicious proclamation was issued by the “Southern Indiana Vigilance Committee.” Click the link to read the entire thing.

Do not trifle with us, for if you do we will follow you to the bitter end and give you a short shrift and a hempen collar. As to this our action in the past will be a guarantee for our conduct in the future.

So there you have it. The first train robbers in the United States had their butts hanged right here in New Albany, at the current location of the bank where I do my business. It’s some damn strange history and enough to give me the shivers when I visit the bank.

More Reading:

Images provided by the Floyd County Historical Society


B.W. Smith said...


Wouldn't take much for New Albanians to resume lynching people. We'd probably be on the list.

B.W. Smith said...

Also...NY Times newspaper archive links off of the Wiki page are interesting. Again, nice work.

shirley baird said...

Great article. It's hard to realize sometimes that New Albany was a thriving metro while Louisville had pigs running down Main St. in front of the Galt House.

bluegill said...

Good stuff.

If you haven't already, you should check out a book called The Masked Halters.

It details the rise of the gang from a very corrupt Seymour to the events you relate.

Ironically, if it weren't for extreme political corruption, Seymour would never have become an overnight train stop and the Renos may not have had much of a criminal career in the area.