First U. S. train robbery in 1865 close to Butler County
(This is the first of a four-part series on train robberies in the region.)
By Jim Blount
When and where was the first train robbery in the United States? Sources disagree, but a strong claim is for a site just a few miles south of Butler County. May 5, 1865, near North Bend in Hamilton County, the target was a westbound passenger train on the Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, a line connecting Cincinnati and St. Louis.
The Civil War is considered to have ended less than a month earlier, April 9, 1865, when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Va. But some Confederates held out for a few months. For instance, the North Bend incident was five days before the capture of Jefferson Davis, the fleeing president of the defeated Confederacy, near Irvinville, Ga. President Abraham Lincoln was buried in Springfield, Ill., May 4 -- the day before the train heist.
The North Bend robbery -- committed when the nation was still in a wartime mentality -- is often ignored when railroad banditry is considered. Some writers have assumed it was the work of Confederate guerillas who refused to accept surrender. They label it a military action, not a criminal act.
The Cincinnati Times said Kentucky "has been fearfully infected by guerillas, who in roving bands have ravaged the whole country." The train robbers were assumed to have come from Kentucky.
Tracks on the north side of the Ohio River, about seven and a half miles west of Cincinnati, also don't fit the literary and show business stereotype of a train holdup in the remote American West.
The North Bend robbery wasn't an isolated event in the region. Law enforcement and railroad officials hunted railroad bandits in the area for the next three and a half years. None of the crimes were in Butler County, but local railroad workers and passengers were wary as they boarded trains in the late 1860s.
The O&M train left Cincinnati at 8 p.m., at its scheduled time, including a steam locomotive, a baggage car, an Adams Express Co. car and four passenger coaches. The Cincinnati Times said the train was derailed "almost in the suburbs of Cincinnati by one of the nefarious gangs of cutthroat Rebel robbers." It said the site was between the Gravel Pit and North Bend stations.
The newspaper said about 20 men were seen crossing the Ohio River "in skiffs from the Kentucky shore some time during the day." They were assumed to have been responsible for removing one rail, causing the derailment and overturning the locomotive, baggage car, express and one coach.
Passengers and crew realized it was no accident, said the Times, when "two desperadoes made their appearance at each car, and backed by two more who kept guard outside, commenced pillaging the passengers." They took $1,000 in cash from three people, plus valuables and more money from the other passengers and crew members.
Five bandits, using an ax, entered the wrecked express car. They forced an agent to open one safe and two others were compromised with gunpowder. The Adams Express Co., which had an office in Hamilton, didn't report its loss.
"The guerillas were, all save one, dressed in civilian clothes," the Times said, and two men were addressed as lieutenant and captain. They were assumed to have recrossed the river to Kentucky.
May 9 the Times softened the initial claim that the robbery was a military act. "It is believed by many that the band of men . . . were not regular organized rebel guerillas," the writer said, "but a gang of desperate thieves and robbers" whose purpose was "retrieving their fallen fortunes."
The Times said they may have been local criminals, "entirely free from any connection with the used up Confederate cause or sympathy for the same." It said "they were bent on robbery and plunder, and that alone."
"They attempted no wanton and useless destruction of property after the train had been stopped," the Times noted, and "were armed only with revolvers. Now, your real bushwhacker or rebel would hardly have attempted the capture of the train, unless backed by their carbines."
In a separate story, the Times said 25 to 30 men in Indiana were searching for a 15 to 20-man "gang of scoundrels" responsible for a series of robberies and arsons. Later, Indiana outlaws would terrorize railroads in that state, including the Ohio & Mississippi.
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Reno gang terrorized region's railroads in late 1860s
(This is the second of a four-part series on train robberies in the region.)
By Jim Blount
Seventeen months after a train was derailed at North Bend, Ohio, and its passengers and express car robbed, another train on the same Ohio & Mississippi's Cincinnati-St. Louis line was victimized in south central Indiana.
The night of Oct. 6, 1866, three men jumped on a baggage car as the train left the station at Seymour, Ind. They forced an express messenger to surrender $15,000, and pushed a small safe out the door before jumping off the train. When a posse approached, they reluctantly abandoned the safe containing $30,000.
That botched heist near Brownstown, Ind., is regarded as the nation's first train robbery in railroad and criminal lore. That's because the gang of about 20 men responsible for the May 5, 1865, North Bend robbery were, at first, believed to have been rebel guerillas who refused to stop fighting after the Confederacy surrendered. Ignored were details that indicated it was a criminal act, not a military mission.
Those responsible for the 1865 North Bend crime were anonymous. The 1866 Brownstown attempt, about 90 miles west of Cincinnati, had more literary appeal because it was attributed to a colorful gang known as the Reno brothers.
Eventually, John Reno, Simeon Reno and Frank Sparks were arrested and charged with robbing the O&M train. But irregularities -- including the murder of a witness -- forced postponement of their trials.
The Reno's well-publicized misdeeds created fear in Indiana and surrounding states in the late 1860s. They were never suspects in a Butler County crime, but every local railroad worker and most passengers were aware that their next trip could be the gang's target. Two rail lines then operating west and northwest from Hamilton extended into Indiana, the Reno's territory.
Their criminal reputation grew after Sept. 28, 1867, when two other men staged a second robbery of the same O&M train at Seymour, escaping with about $8,000. The Renos weren't blamed, but the gang wasn't left out. There are several versions of what happened after the robbery. Most agree that the Renos eventually got the $8,000 and possibly plotted the arrest of the train robbers.
Just before midnight May 22, 1868, a train crew's routine task turned deadly, bringing a remote Scott County location into national headlines. "For bold daring and audacity," said a Louisville, Ky., newspaper, what transpired that night "eclipses any transaction that ever took place in southern Indiana."
Previously, Engineer David Hutchinson and Fireman George Fletcher had halted trains to resupply steam locomotives with water and wood. That night they started their chores at Marshfield, Ind., a regular fuel stop for the day's last northbound passenger train from Jeffersonville to Seymour.
Within moments, Hutchinson and Fletcher were unconscious beside the tracks as shadowy figures uncoupled the locomotive, its tender and an express car from the remainder of the train.
A suspicious conductor shot at the intruders. Their return fire wounded the conductor and sent passengers scurrying from the coaches into the nearby woods of Scott County, Indiana.
With a hijacker at the throttle, the train dashed north about two miles to the Austin depot. There an express company agent -- unaware of the hijacking -- opened the baggage car door from the inside. Thomas Harkins, although surprised, fired a shot before being subdued. As the train continued north, the unconscious agent was pushed from the train. He died later of his injuries.
The stolen train stopped at an arranged spot on the Jeffersonville, Madison & Indianapolis Railroad in Jackson County, about six miles south of Seymour. Other gang members joined in forcing open two safes in the baggage car. Then the bandits disappeared into the darkness.
Vanishing with them was $96,000 worth of gold, government bonds and cash -- regarded as one of the largest losses in a train robbery in the nation's history. The Marshfield take also was the Reno Gang's biggest heist.
Their ranks included three brothers, Frank Reno, the leader, and Simeon (or Simon) Reno and William Reno. Completing the 12-man gang were Albert Perkins, Michael Rogers, Miles Ogle, Frank Sparks, John J. Moore. Philip Clifton, Volney Elliott, Charles Roseberry and Henry Jerrell.
But residents of Seymour and Jackson County weren't bemused by the brazenness of the mob, believed responsible for a series of crimes and deaths, besides railroad robberies, over about a four-year period. They organized vigilantes to hunt the gang. Detectives hired by the railroad joined the search.
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Search for region's train robbers centered in Indiana
(This is the third of a four-part series on train robberies in the region.)
By Jim Blount
The search for train robbers in 1868 centered in Seymour, Ind., and surrounding Jackson County. "The world over," declared the Cincinnati Commercial, "there is probably no neighborhood that furnishes more thieves, counterfeiters and murderers than that in and about the town of Seymour, Indiana."
That statement was based on a failed train robbery Oct. 6, 1866, near Brownstown; an express car heist Sept. 28, 1867, near Seymour; and a deadly theft May 22, 1868, at Marshfield, Ind.
There had been a successful robbery May 5, 1865, near North Bend, a few miles south of Butler County. Because first reports assumed it was the work of Confederate guerillas who refused to surrender, the Ohio incident usually is regarded as a military event, not a criminal act.
The North Bend theft -- denied the infamous distinction of being the nation's first train robbery -- seemed an isolated event until the series of railroad crimes in Indiana in 1866-68.
By the summer of 1868, vigilante groups formed in the Seymour area. The Ohio & Mississippi Railroad, the victim in three of the four robberies, and the Adams Express Co., hired Pinkerton detectives to track the criminals. Their common target was the Reno gang, which was blamed for numerous crimes.
The 12-man gang was headed by three brothers, Frank Reno, the leader, and Simeon (or Simon) Reno and William Reno. Other members were Albert Perkins, Michael Rogers, Miles Ogle, Frank Sparks, John J. Moore. Philip Clifton, Volney Elliott, Charles Roseberry and Henry Jerrell.
The detectives used deception to trap their prey. The plot involved James Flanders, an O&M engineer, who had gained the gang's confidence. He allegedly shared information that encouraged the outlaws to target an eastbound St. Louis-Cincinnati train the night of July 9-10, 1868.
Flanders knew what to expect when he stopped his train to add water about 3 a.m. in an isolated area about five miles east of Brownstown. His train was hijacked and taken to a secluded spot where the thieves forced entry to the express car.
This time detectives were waiting inside as the door opened at Shields watering station, near Brownstown. Three other detectives were hiding behind the wood pile in the tender.
The robbery was foiled and one of the gang, Volney (Val) Elliott, was wounded and captured. Charles Roseberry and Philip (Lefty) Clifton were apprehended later.
Ten days later, the three men were placed on a westbound train at Cincinnati, where they had been taken for safe keeping. But the gang members never reached Brownstown, where they were scheduled to be tried.
July 20, just west of Seymour, masked vigilantes stopped the O&M train and hanged Elliott, Roseberry and Clifton from a nearby beech tree. "So quietly was the work done," observed a Jackson County historian, "that a German farmer living but a few rods away was not aroused. Next morning he was horrified to find three stark and stiff bodies dangling from a tree almost at his door."
Five days later, the Scarlet Masks -- the name given the vigilantes -- struck again. Three other gang members -- Frank Sparks, John Moore and Henry Jerrell -- had been arrested in Illinois.
July 25 the prisoners were aboard a late-running southbound Indianapolis-to-Seymour train that missed its connection with a westbound O&M train. Instead of waiting for another train, lawmen decided to complete the final miles to Brownstown by horse-drawn wagon.
In a remote rural area, about 200 masked men stopped the wagon and ordered it driven to the same beech tree. There Sparks, Moore and Jerrell also succumbed to "strangulation by parties unknown."
Later, Simeon Reno and William Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, and Frank Reno and Charles Anderson were captured in Windsor, Ontario. Eventually, the four gang members were taken to the Floyd County jail in New Albany in southern Indiana. They were there to face charges in the death of Thomas Harkins, an express company agent. He had died of injuries suffered as he resisted the May 22 Marshfield robbery.
Their capture and jailing was not the last chapter in the string of Midwest train robberies that concerned railroad employees and passengers in the late 1860s.
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Vigilantes had final word on fate of train robbers
(This is the last of a four-part series on train robberies in the region.)
By Jim Blount
Those who worked on Midwest railroads, rode passenger trains and shipped valuables on Adams Express Co. cars in the late 1860s felt more secure knowing that members of the infamous Reno gang had been killed or captured and were awaiting trials in New Albany, Ind.
Simeon Reno, William Reno, Frank Reno and Charles Anderson -- the four surviving members of the 12-man gang -- were in the Floyd County jail, facing charges related to the death of an express company agent. He died when he resisted a May 22, 1868, train robbery at Marshfield in southern Indiana.
Estimates of the Adams Express Co. loss that night range from about $86,000 to more than $125,000 in gold, government bonds and cash. Some writers have proclaimed it one of the largest, if not the largest loss in a train robbery in the nation's history.
The gang's two to three-year reign of terror -- including crimes other than train robbery -- started to collapse the night of July 9-10, 1868. That's when Pinkerton detectives, with the help of an engineer who had gained the gang's confidence, prevented an express car robbery near Brownstown, Ind.
Three bandits were eventually captured and temporarily held in Cincinnati. July 20, they were on a westbound train taking them back to Brownstown for trial. They never reached their destination.
Instead, masked vigilantes -- who became known as the Scarlet Masks -- stopped the Ohio & Mississippi train and hanged the three suspects. Five days later, the Scarlet Masks struck again when about 200 vigilantes hanged three more gang members who had been arrested in Illinois.
July 25 the prisoners were aboard a late-running southbound Indianapolis-Seymour train that missed its connection with a westbound O&M train. Instead of waiting for another train, lawmen decided to complete the final 11 miles to Brownstown by horse-drawn wagon.
In a remote rural area, the masked men stopped the wagon and ordered it driven to the same beech tree. There the three suspects also succumbed to "strangulation by parties unknown."
Later, Simeon Reno and William Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, and Frank Reno and Charles Anderson were captured in Windsor, Ontario. They rested in the New Albany jail the night of Dec. 11-12, 1868, as some unexplained railroad movements proceeded from Seymour to Jeffersonville, then to New Albany. After the train arrived in New Albany, members of the Scarlet Masks assembled in the darkness outside the jail.
"There were from 70 to 75 men, all well dressed, wearing red flannel masks that completely concealed their features. Each man was armed with one or more revolvers, a heavy club about 30 inches long, and a slung shot," said a report in the Hamilton Telegraph. Other accounts said the vigilantes numbered about 50.
The Telegraph said the Scarlet Masks were "reported to be of the highest standing [men] in the town of Seymour"
The vigilantes cut telegraph lines before overpowering a guard. Then they confronted Sheriff Thomas J. Fullenlove, who was sleeping upstairs. After the sheriff was shot in the arm, his wife surrendered the jail keys. One at a time, the four prisoners were hanged in a jail stairway.
The severed telegraph lines afforded the mysterious hangmen a 12-hour cushion before news of the lynching spread across Indiana and the nation. By then they had resumed their law-abiding ways.
Not everyone agreed with an editorial writer in the Hamilton Telegraph who called the action "mob law" and charged that "justice, instead of satisfied, has been outraged."
"Let the reader judge if the good citizens of Seymour were or were not justified in adopting the summary means they did," said a Jackson County historian of the vigilantes. "The recognized law being found inadequate, through the manipulation of the leaders of the gang, whose stolen money was found an ever-ready means with which to influence juries, witnesses and prosecutors, the law of might was appealed to," explained the author of The History of Jackson County, published in 1886.
Since a May 5, 1865, theft at North Bend in neighboring Hamilton County, train robbery had been a concern in southwestern Ohio and south central Indiana.
After the vigilante jail invasion Dec. 11-12, 1868, train robberies -- with few exceptions -- became part of the history and lore of the western United States.
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Daniel Doty's Little Prairie became Middletown
By Jim Blount
In the winter of 1791-92, Daniel Doty found an inviting opening on the western edge of the heavily-forested Northwest Territory. He believed the tract on the east bank of the Great Miami River would be an ideal farm site. Despite its isolation and the constant threat of Indian reprisal, the 26-year-old Doty built a crude log cabin on the land he called Little Prairie. His cabin didn't last long. It washed away in a 1793 flood. But the determined Doty came back a few years later and lived to see his Little Prairie become Middletown, Ohio.
The Middletown pioneer was born March 23, 1765, in Essex County, N. J. At age 25, he headed west Sept. 10, 1790. From Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), he traveled by flatboat down the Ohio River to the easternmost of the three settlements in the Symmes Purchase.
Oct. 23, 1790, Doty landed at Columbia, about a mile west of where the Little Miami River empties into the Ohio River. Columbia had started nearly two years earlier, Nov. 18, 1788, when 26 people established the first settlement in the Symmes Purchase. It was on land Benjamin Stites had bought from John Cleves Symmes
A few days after Doty arrived at the riverside settlement, he witnessed the danger of frontier living. That's when survivors of Gen. Josiah Harmar's failed 1790 expedition against the Indians returned to Fort Washington (Cincinnati), a few miles east of Columbia.
Harmar's 320 regulars and about 1,100 militia had left Fort Washington Sept. 26. His orders were to destroy Indian crops, food supplies and villages near present Fort Wayne, Ind. The poorly-trained, poorly-equipped expedition ran into an Indian ambush Oct. 19 and lost an Oct. 21 encounter before retreating. Harmar's shattered force reached Fort Washington Nov. 3.
Indian-fighting was a duty assumed by Doty and other men living along the Ohio River at Columbia, Losantiville and North Bend. They supplemented the small garrison of soldiers stationed at Fort Washington. The defenders were in a constant state of alarm.
In January 1791, Doty was among the 33 volunteers from Columbia and Losantiville who joined 38 soldiers in marching to the relief of Dunlap Station, a settlement of about 30 people, when it was besieged by an Indian force estimated to number as high as 350 to 500 men.
Dunlap Station -- also known as Coleraine, Fort Coleraine and Fort Dunlap -- was on an oxbow of the Great Miami River, about 17 miles from Fort Washington and eight to nine miles southwest of the future site of Fort Hamilton. The Indian siege ended Jan. 11, 1791, when Doty and others came to the rescue of Dunlap Station.
Later that year, Doty -- convinced he wanted to farm the fertile soil in the Symmes Purchase -- began his search for land. He explored up the Little Miami River into present Warren County before heading west toward the Great Miami River. His quest brought him to the grassy tract north of Dick's Creek, the spot he called Little Prairie.
April 24, 1792, Doty was back in New Jersey after a prolonged trip that started with a flatboat journey to New Orleans.
He returned to the Northwest Territory in 1796 with his wife, Betsy, and their children. Doty moved his family to Little Prairie, where he had built a cabin in the winter of 1791-92. (That original cabin, according to Middletown historian George Crout, "stood on the east bank of the Miami, almost opposite the site of Barnitz Field.")
Doty arrived too late to raise a crop and there were no neighbors to share the harvest. The area was abundant in wild game, but Doty had to buy provisions in Cincinnati in 1796 to sustain his family.
Doty and his wife raised 10 children in the 52 years they resided on their farm near Middletown. "He became a man of wealth and of influence," said the 1882 county history. The Butler County pioneer was 83 years old when he died May 8, 1848, in Middletown. The city he initiated had 1,087 inhabitants two years later when the 1850 census was completed.
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