World’s First Great Train Robbery, Seymour Indiana 1866

On Monday, March 28th, 2011, in Railroading, TV, Film, & Radio, by Al Gengler
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In 1903, an employee of Thomas Edison’s motion picture company produced a movie with a railroad train as a key element of the story. It was called “The Great Train Robbery (film).” It told a simple story of a group of western criminals who steal money from a train. Later they are killed by a sheriff’s posse in a gun fight. Extremely popular. “The Great Train Robbery” started the motion picture industry.

Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison cameraman, directed and photographed “The Great Train Robbery.” It was a primitive one-reeler action picture, a little over10 minutes long, with 14-scenes It was filmed in November 1903, not in the old west but on the East Coast in various locales in New Jersey at Edison’s New York studio, at Essex County Park in New Jersey, and along the Lackawanna Railroad right-of-way.

The precursor to the western film genre was based on an 1896 story by Scott Marble. The film’s title was also the same as a popular contemporary stage melodrama. It was the most popular and commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era, and established the notion that a motion picture could be commercially viable.

Originally advertised as “a faithful duplication of the genuine “Hold Ups” made famous by various outlaw bands of the “Far West,” the plot was inspired by true events that happened from 1866 through 1868 in Indiana.

The worlds first Train Robbery took place in Indiana on October 6, 1866. The Reno Brothers, John, Simeon, Frank and William along with members of their gang nicknamed “The Jackson Thieves” robbed an Ohio and Mississippi Railway train about one-half mile east of Seymour, Indiana.

They planned to rob their first train there because Seymour, at that time, was an important rail hub. On the evening of October 6, 1866, John Reno, Simeon Reno, and Frank Sparkes boarded the train as it started to leave the Seymour depot. They broke into the head end adams express car, restrained the guard, and opened a safe containing approximately $16,000. From the moving train, the three men pushed a larger safe over the side to where the rest of the gang was waiting. Unable to open the second safe, the gang fled when a large posse approached. After the robbery a number of the Reno gang were captured. Ten of the gangs members were lynched by vigilante mobs, but the brothers escaped and continued robbing trains until 1868.

The Reno Gang robbed its fourth train on May 22, 1868. Twelve of the gang boarded a Jeffersonville, Madison and Indianapolis Railroad train as it stopped at the train depot in Marshfield, Indiana, a now defunct community in Scott County,Indiana. As the train pulled away, the gang overpowered the engineer and uncoupled the passenger cars, allowing the engine to speed away. After breaking into the express car and throwing the express car messenger, Thomas Harkins, off the train to his death the gang broke open the safe. The train robbery netting the gang an estimated $96,000. This robbery gained national attention and was published in the major newspapers of the day.

The railroad’s Pinkerton National Detective Agency pursued “The Jackson Thieves,” but the gang broke up and fled throughout the Midwest.

Eventually Pinkertons caught up with three of the Reno brothers, Frank, William, and Simeon but they were hauled from jail by vigilantes and hanged.

John the remaining Reno brother was eventually caught and after serving time in the Missouri State prison returned to Seymour, Indiana where he died at his home on January 31, 1895.

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