Give Now

Moment of Indiana History

Jackson County Vigilance Committee

Long before their third attempted train robbery, the Reno Gang had fomented lawlessness across Jackson County. The brothers and their associates were seasoned bank robbers, cattle rustlers, bounty jumpers, arsonists and murderers by the time they first held up a train in 1866—thereby introducing a new brand of larceny to the lexicon of crime. Mounting fear among the citizenry and indignation on the part of merchants, farmers and other businesspeople led to the formation of the Jackson County Vigilance Committee, also known as the Scarlet Mask Society for their chosen disguise.

Vigilantes—also known as regulators—were a ubiquitous element of pioneer justice. Vigilance committees began forming in Indiana in the 1820s in response to a perceived need for law enforcement beyond the scope of the existing criminal justice system. Vigilantism literalized the principle that people hold the power in a democracy; extending that power beyond electing representatives to taking the law in one’s own hands.

When six members of the Reno gang boarded the Ohio and Mississippi train near Brownstown on the night of July 9, 1868 with the intention of ripping off the train, they were met with gunfire from the members of the Pinkerton detective agency, who’d been lying in wait for them. Although five escaped, one wounded gang member, who was apprehended, tipped off the authorities as to the others’ locations. On July 20, three of the criminals who’d been placed in police custody were being transported when their train was stopped by a scarlet masked mob, who seized the prisoners and lynched them on a beech tree nearby. Five days later, after the three remaining outlaws had been apprehended, they met with the same fate.

Soon after, William and Simeon Reno were booked for an earlier train heist and imprisoned at Lexington, the Scott County seat. Later that summer, Frank Reno and co-conspirator Charles Anderson were cuffed in Windsor, Canada; their extradition proceedings would claim international headlines. As the prisoners were shuttled between facilities, under cover of night and often by back roads and waterways, momentum grew among the Jackson County vigilantes, who were poised to administer their own preemptive justice at a moment’s notice. While only months earlier the Reno gang disseminated the fear and mayhem that clutched southern Indiana, by December 1868, a New York Times correspondent wrote that “there prevail[s] in and around Seymour, so far as the Regulators are concerned, a perfect reign of terror.” Law enforcement officials were powerless to stem the scarlet tide. On the night of December 11, an unmarked train carrying several hundred vigilantes arrived at New Albany, broke into the jail where the three Reno brothers and Charles Anderson had been incarcerated, and hung them from the building’s iron staircase. The mob then returned to Seymour by train, subsequently issuing threats to any who might testify against them before the Grand Jury of Floyd County. No one was ever charged or investigated for the murders.

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Moment of Indiana History:

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Moment of Indiana History

Search Moment of Indiana History

WFIU is on Twitter