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The Reno Gang

Rage At Dawn, the 1955 film based on the Reno gang.
Rage At Dawn, the 1955 film based on the Reno gang.

From October 6, 1866, until February of 1869, the nation's newspapers carried headlines covering the saga of the world's first train robbers and the apparent lawlessness of Jackson County, Indiana. The Reno gang's fame was soon overshadowed by the ghastly work of the “Scarlet Mask Society” who strung up bodies left and right. But you've probably never heard of the Reno gang, even though their fame superceded that of the James gang, both groups achieving rock star status in their time comparable to the Rolling Stones.

Viewing the California-set, 1955 western, Rage at Dawn, directly based on the story of the Renos and ending abruptly with the lynching of three Renos and one compadre in the Floyd County Jail, I had a few questions. I wondered why the Renos, while every bit as notorious and celebrated as the James gang, had not been granted the same immortal status in folklore and Hollywood, why they'd been forgotten. At first I suspected the railroad directly, as clearly such a fledgling institution traversing the Wild West had an interest in making a severe example of the daring dudes who'd managed with two men to board the Ohio & Mississippi wearing masks, enter the express car, and clean out $18,058 from the safe, even pulling the bell-rope for the train to stop where they got off without incident. Since the Scarlet Mask Society had ridden the train from Seymour to New Albany that night they'd broken into the jail, shooting the sheriff and torturing him for the keys so they could lynch the Renos, I assumed the Railroad in some way, shape, or form stood directly behind the hangings. SOMEBODY had wanted more than justice for the Renos — they'd wanted to silence them, I was convinced. Curiosity got the best of me, and thanks to modern resources like the internet I have since been able to put a more accurate picture together.

The story began not with the railroads but with their predacessor, the rivers. It was what the White man creatively dubbed the “White” River that first attracted the two families to Jackson County who would be the main players in the story. In 1813 James Reno brought his family up from Kentucky and settled on the eastern shores of the river, claiming 1200 acres of swamps, fertile bottoms, and sandy bluffs adjacent to what became the town of “Rockford,” so named because the river bed there was composed of limestone gravel, rather than sand, and so a “rock ford,” when the water was low enough.

In 1816, James Shields moved his family up from Fort Shields, Tennessee, claiming 1200 acres of valley land directly to the south of the Renos. His son, Meedy Shields, was twelve years old at the time.

The Renos and the Shields never got along. In 1827, Meedy Shields, 23 at the time, was sued in the Jackson County Courthouse for “malicious trespass” by James Reno.

Meanwhile, the town of Rockford grew into a thriving commercial center with a pork-packing plant, sending goods both down the road and the river, as Rockford stood about halfway between Indianapolis and Louisville, a day's horse ride from each city. When the Indianapolis and Jeffersonville railroad line was completed in 1848, Rockford gained more significance, drawing real estate speculators, and the Renos' proximity to the town offered an advantage over the Shields, one mile to the south. James Shields passed on that year, and Meedy took the helm.

Another railroad line was proposed, this corporation based out of Cincinnati that would be the “Ohio & Mississippi” line, from Cinci to St. Louis. Naturally the line would go through Rockford, the region's commercial center, crossing the north-south line, exponentially enhancing Rockford's draw as a commerce center. There was no geographic reason why the railroad would not go through that town, but Meedy Shields — “Captain Shields” who'd earned his stripes shooting aboriginal people in the Blackhawk War, was not going to sit idly and watch his nemesis, Wilke Reno, make bank selling off lots to speculators while he was stuck in the sticks, a mile south of the action. Meedy joined the board of directors for the Ohio & Mississippi corporation, promising not only to mound up sand to elevate the rails over his swamps but to name the great city which would surely follow the railroad crossing as “Seymour,” after John Seymour, the engineer in charge of constructing the railroad. “I'll do anything it takes,” he assured them.

Everyone assumed the railroad would go through Rockford as planned, where both the north-south and east-west lines would have intersected on the Renos' farm.

Meedy, a portly fellow at 45 with jet black locks, needed more than bribery.

“That's where you come in,” said Meedy, offering a nip from his jug to the kid with the red curls and freckles. “Bet you're glad to be out of them hay fields. You like the adventurous life more, am I right? I heard you swapping stories with One Eye the other night — you two was pretty liquored up.”

Only 16, Slim's fingers quivered as he accepted the jug. Usually if a boss man like Meedy called you up to the house it meant trouble. “Uh, yeah I don't remember what I said. Probably was lying.”

“About that barn you torched up in Chicago?”

“I don't remember nothing about that.”

“I got half a mind to remand you to the authorities, but the other half says there's maybe some work for you.”

Fires broke out in Rockford, and Meedy used the arsons to put forth the case that the city was riddled with crime and bad for commerce. Persistence paid off, and within a couple years the railroads intersected on his farm, creating the town of “Seymour.”

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