On this Saturday night in 1866, John and Simeon Reno stopped a moving train in a remote area in order to rob it “without risking interference from the law or curious bystanders.”
That October 6th, the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad mail train was traveling eastbound when the Reno brothers boarded near Seymour, Indiana. The masked bandits demanded keys to the safes in the Adams Express Company car.
They first “rifled” the local safe, removing $12,000 – $15,000. Next, they tossed another safe off the train because the messenger did not have its key; it reportedly contained “$15,000 in coin, besides currency.” Agents of Adams Express recovered that safe, but the New York Times does not report if the contents were secure.
This robbery was perhaps the most adroitly committed of any in the annals of of express robberies. The great New Haven robbery was done by getting in a car at a station which was not occupied by a messenger, but this one was committed while the cars were in motion and with a messenger in the car.
By 1866, the Civil War had ended. Trains were expanding service; companies had begun “transporting payroll and other valuables via railroad.” After these robberies kicked off, the railroads called Allan Pinkerton.
The Library of Congress reports (without explanation):
Considered the first train robbery, the incident at Seymour was preceded by a similar train burglary exactly nine months before. In early 1866, bandits entered an Adams Express car en route to Boston from New York and stole over half a million dollars from safes on the unoccupied car (emphasis added).
News reports differ as to their arrests.
According to the NY Times, “Jack” Reno was known in Illinois and Indiana for his “safe-blowing, horse-stealing and counterfeiting.” In addition to the Reno brothers, authorities reportedly arrested Frank Sparks within two weeks of the robbery.
The Wilmington NC Journal reported that two men “supposed to have been engaged” in the recent Seymour train robbery were arrested on 11 October 1866. Also on that day, robbers loosened a rail which caused a Louisville and Nashville train to derail. The robbers made off with $11,000, and the trainmaster was “seriously injured” when the railcar left the tracks.
To put these sums into a modern context, $11,000 in 1866 is about $212,000 today based on CPI calculation. However, the relative per capita GDP or relative income value is considerably greater: $3,311,700.
The Library of Congress notes that train robberies “peaked in the 1890s.” Famous bandits “included the Reno brothers, who operated in southern Indiana; the Farringtons, whose escapades took them into Kentucky and Tennessee; and the Jesse James gang, who wreaked havoc upon rails in the Midwest.”
Railroad companies turned to Pinkerton to protect their assets.
Pinkerton detectives used “revolutionary investigative techniques and comprehensive undercover operations. Their ahead-of-its-time strategy launch[ed] a new era in private security.” They had . “quickly identified the criminals” in the Seymour case.
A desperate battle takes place… [that] shows a life- size picture of Daniels, the chief of the bandits, as he takes aim and fires into the audience. The picture is so realistic that women scream, and even though no sound is heard, they put their fingers in their ears to shut out the noise of the firing (emphasis added).
A 1955 movie, Rage At Dawn, purported to tell the story of the Reno Brothers:
This is the true story of the Reno Brothers…Clint, a respected farmer, and Frank, Simeon, John, and Bill…who were the first train robbers in American history. Looting, burning and killing, this infamous clan rode through the middle border states setting the pattern for the great outlaw bands which were to follow: the James Boys, the Daltons, and the Youngers (emphasis added).
The following year, 20th Century Fox released Love Me Tender starring Elvis Presley, in his silver screen debut, as the youngest of the Reno Brothers.
The working title of this film was The Reno Brothers… the film was initially conceived as a post-Civil War story without songs. Once internationally popular rock and roll idol Elvis Presley was cast as the younger brother, however, four songs, including Love Me Tender, were worked into the script. RCA-Victor was so impressed with Presley’s rendition of that song that it decided to release it as a single prior to the opening of the film. After Presley sang the ballad on the Ed Sullivan Show, Fox decided to retitle the film Love Me Tender.