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Illustration by Security Management

Today in Security History: The First American Train Robbery

On 6 October 1866, brothers John and Simeon Reno staged what is generally believed to be the first train robbery in American history. Their take was $13,000 from an Ohio and Mississippi railroad train in Jackson County, Indiana.

Trains had been targeted before the Reno Gang’s holdup, but these previous crimes were burglaries of 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 there was little risk of law enforcement or bystanders interfering.

The new method of robbing trains quickly became popular throughout the American West. Bandits who might otherwise have hit banks or stagecoaches discovered that the newly constructed transcontinental and regional railroads made attractive targets, especially given their cargo of cash or precious metals. The wide-open spaces of the West provided train robbers with plenty of isolated areas that were ideal for stopping trains and hiding from the law. Some enterprising gangs, like the Wild Bunch—including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—found that robbing trains was easy and lucrative. For a [period of] time, they made it their criminal specialty.

The railroad owners couldn’t allow this to continue. Valuables on trains were subsequently protected in massive safes, which were watched over by heavily armed guards. Some railroads added special boxcars to carry guards and their horses. In the event of an attempted robbery, these men could not only protect the train’s valuables, but they could also quickly mount their horses and pursue the bandits. The Pinkerton Detective Agency led a regional investigative effort in concert with railroad and law enforcement personnel. By the late 19th century, train robbery was becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous.

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Members of the Reno Gang and others were eventually captured by Pinkerton agents and law enforcement authorities, although several were later lynched by a large group of highly organized vigilantes known as the Jackson County Vigilance Committee, or the Scarlet Mask Society. No one was ever charged or investigated for the murders.

The Reno Brothers lived on in history through film and song. “Rage at Dawn” is a 1955 Hollywood film based on the Reno Brothers. The song “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” on Elton John's 1970 Tumbleweed Connection album mentions the Pinkertons and Reno: “Now I know how Reno felt when he ran from the law.”

Chris Hertig, CPP,CPOI (Certified Protection Officer Instructor), writes about security industry history. He manages the Security History Group on LinkedIn and Facebook. He is a member of the Professional Development Community and a Life Member of ASIS.