Frank Reno (1837 – 1868) was raised in Jackson County, Indiana, by strictly religious parents who saw to it that their children observed all the strictures, attended church regularly, and spent all day Sunday reading the Bible. It backfired with Frank and his younger brother, John, who rebelled and turned bad early on. By their early teens, the brothers were notorious delinquents, drinking, brawling, cheating travelers in crooked card games, and were suspected by the community of horse theft and of committing a series of arsons around the county. To escape a backlash, their father was forced to flee, taking Frank and John and two other sons, to live in Missouri for a few years.
They returned to Indiana in 1860, but they had not been forgotten. To escape angry neighbors, Frank and John enlisted when the Civil War broke out, and became serial bounty jumpers, joining a regiment to collect enlistment bonuses, which steadily grew as the war progressed, deserting at the earliest opportunity, enlisting in another regiment elsewhere with fake names to collect more enlistment bonuses, and repeating the cycle.
Frank returned home in 1864, and with his brother John formed the Reno Gang, and was joined by horse thieves, safecrackers, counterfeiters, gamblers and other ne’er do wells, and began robbing Post Offices and stores in southern Indiana. Frank and two gang members were arrested but released on bail. One agreed to testify against Frank, but was murdered before the trial, and Frank was acquitted.
After the acquittal, Frank and his gang grew more violent, effectively took over the small town of Rockford Indiana, whose Rader House hotel became their headquarters, and started robbing and murdering unwary travelers who checked in. They soon expanded their reach and ambition and began robbing trains and banks and raiding communities throughout the Midwest. After his first train robbery in 1866 – history’s first peacetime train robbery – a passenger identified Frank’s brother, John, and two other gang members, who were arrested. The witness was shot dead soon thereafter, at which point the other passengers refused to testify and the charges were dropped.
In 1867, Frank and his crew demonstrated their disdain for the law by attacking and robbing a county courthouse in Missouri – a crime for which his brother, John, was eventually convicted and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. A vigilante group formed to hunt down Frank’s gang, so in early 1868 they fled to Iowa, where they attacked and robbed two-county treasuries on successive days. They were arrested, but broke out of jail and escaped to Indiana, where they resumed train robberies, one of which netted them $96,000, a princely sum that gained the Reno Gang worldwide fame.
Pinkerton Agency detectives learned of Frank’s plans to rob another train, so staged an ambush, and soon as the gang boarded the train on July 9, 1868, opened fire. Most of the gang escaped, but a captured member identified two others, who were arrested the following day. The train taking them to jail in Seymour, Indiana, was stopped by masked vigilantes, who lynched the three prisoners. Another three gang members were captured soon thereafter, and the train taking them to the Seymour jail was again stopped by masked vigilantes, who hung the prisoners from the same tree.
Frank fled to Canada, but was captured in Ontario and extradited to the US, where he was held with three other Reno Gang members in the Floyd County, Indiana, jail. On the night of December 11, 1868, scores of masked vigilantes marched on the jail and forced the jailer to surrender the keys. Frank Reno was then dragged from his cell in the early hours and lynched, followed soon thereafter by the remaining gang members.