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Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Failure of Law:

The Reno Gang

By Janett L. Grady


It was a time when there was a weakness of law. Laws were inadequate, and the men and women of the time could not abide by them and survive. The place was New Albany, Indiana, and the time was shortly after the end of the Civil War...and the lynching happened because of the time as well as the place.

It was a time when the great herds from Texas were on the move north to the railheads. In the cattle-hungry north, beef was selling at fifty dollars a head. In Texas, a steer brought five dollars. As the saying went, any Texan with a pencil and paper could make a bundle.

The United States census of 1880 showed that from 1866 to 1880, a total of 4,223, 397 head of cattle moved out of the Lone Star State. As far as the eye could see, the broad wavering river of cattle moved north, bawling, grunting, munching the lush grass, their hoofs raising a pillar of dust that seemed to reach the sky.

Cowboys, rough and tough and hard-working men who would sing or fight at the slightest provocation, loved best the open range, the sky, the mountains and the breathless expanse of the untamed land. They had a wealth of vitality and lived reckless, exuberant lives.

But there were outlaws, too...vicious gangsters who robbed and murdered and plundered the honest and hardworking cowboys and townspeople. Often, these gangs were made up of Eastern toughs on the run, army deserters, fugitive cattle rustlers and horse thieves, stagecoach robbers, ambushers and bullies who brazenly swaggered up and down the streets openly brandishing six-shooters and blackjacks.

These gangsters were men like the Reno brothers: Frank, Simeon and William...vicious men who had somehow managed to consolidate other gangs into one large gang of cutthroats and killers, a gang which soon controlled and terrorized the southern part of Indiana. The state attorney and other authorities admitted that the Reno gang was creating an "alarming" situation, but the authorities did nothing about it. The Seymour Times, referring to the Reno brothers, sadly commented: "Seymour has a carnival of crime."

As time and crime went on, however, the honest and hardworking men of the herds began talking about forming a vigilante committee. They had come to realize that there was a weakness of Law. There were no posses or sheriffs or marshals to run to on the open prairie, and the laws in the towns were so corrupted and defective that as they then stood on the Statute Books, they all favored criminals going unmet with justice.

It was bitterly cold on the night of December 11, 1868. The people of Seymour, Indiana, burrowed under their blankets as the wind howled through the streets. Men suddenly appeared, disappearing now and then in the shadows. Each man carried a six-shooter and wore a long, flapping scarlet mask. A few of the men, obviously leaders, with numbers chalked on their winter coats, lined the men up in single file as they all arrived at the depot where a train had just pulled in.

A few minutes later, the train chugged out of Seymour to stop fifty miles south at Jeffersonville station, where the engineer of another train was overpowered, bound and gagged. The masked men, taking over the train, continued their journey. The train pulled into the New Albany station an hour or so later.

A rider galloped up to the station.

"The lines are cut!" he reported.

"Good," replied Number One.

Number One then raised his hand and pointed up the street. "Let's do it," he said, and led the way to the New Albany jail.

As the dozen or so masked men scrambled their way up to the second floor of the jail, ropes were being passed from one man to the next. The first prisoner, Frank Reno, was dragged from his cell, pleading and crying. A noose was slipped over his head and the other end tied to an iron beam, and then the screaming outlaw was tossed into the air. He fell like a stone until the rope jerked tight. There was a loud snap, the sound of a man breaking a dry stick over his knee, and the body of Frank Reno twisted slowly in the flickering light of several lanterns. The gangster was dead.

"Number Three and Five!" shouted Number One. "Grab the one in cell Seven."

Cell Seven was opened, and the second brother, William Reno, was dragged out. With a noose choking off his final screams, William Reno was hurled over the second floor railing. A moment later, he, too, swung silent in the flickering light.

Simeon Reno fought to the end. He had wrenched the iron sink from the wall in his cell, with the ferocity of a madman, and used one of its legs as a club. But he, too, was quickly beaten into submission. He was bound, dragged out of his cell with a rope around his neck and thrown into space.

Charlie Anderson, a member of the Reno brothers' gang, wept and pleaded for mercy as the masked men dragged him out. He was tossed into the air. But the rope snapped and he crumbled to the floor, screaming and crying. He was dragged back up to the second floor and another noose was placed over his head, and this time he was lowered slowly and strangled to death.

"The job is done!" hollered Number One.

"Let's hang 'em all!" someone yelled.

"No," the leader replied. "We did what we came to do."

The masked men hurried out of the jail, and behind them, four bodies slowly twisted in the air.

As the remaining, horrified prisoners watched, one of the hanging bodies came to life. It was Simeon Reno.

As Simeon opened his bulging eyes, his body began jerking at the end of the rope. The prisoners began to bang on their cell doors, screaming as Simeon Reno fought for his life, swaying back and forth, toes barely touching the stone floor. Gradually the pandemonium ceased, and with horrified fascination the prisoners watched Simeon Reno die by inches. It lasted about thirty minutes. Then the twitching body was quiet.

The four vicious gangsters were left hanging, and in their cells the other prisoners pressed their faces to the bars and stared in silence.

Were they staring at a failure of the Law? Or were they staring at justice?

When the Law failed to protect the honest and hard-working citizen from the Reno gang, justice was not served. Later, when the Law failed to protect the incarcerated Reno gang, justice once again was not served.

But most men of the herds, and a majority of men and women in the towns of the time, felt otherwise.

Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.

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