America’s First Train Heist: The Gang That Nearly Pulled It Off
Of the train heists committed by the Wilkerson boys, known as the Reno Gang or the Jackson Thieves, their first was also America’s first.
Prior to the Reno Gang’s run of heists, trains were only robbed in terminals, while stationary. At the time, nobody had anticipated thieves would board a moving train. That’s why they didn’t have proper security measures in place.
The Reno Gang not only committed the first moving train heist, they changed the way the rail industry operated security protocols.
Growing Up Wilkerson
The Wilkerson family moved to Indiana in 1813, when they were just Mom and Dad. There were six kids born between 1837 and 1851 in the Wilkerson brood, a family of methodist Christians.
Mom and Dad required the kids to read the bible all day on Sundays. The part about “thou shalt not steal” didn’t stick, not for everyone.
They weren’t all bad kids. “Honest Clint” and his sister, Laura, had nothing to do with the naughtiness of the other four.
Those four, Frank, John, Sim, and Bill, were into shenanigans from an early age. Never proven, the boys started with crimes like horse theft, running crooked card games, even starting fires.
The Civil War
This was all prior to the US Civil War. After the war broke out, during the early 1860’s, the boys took up bounty jumping a criminal practice that took place on both sides, Union and Confederate.
They would enlist for pay in the Union Army, then not show up, but kept the enlistment cash. Then they would do it again elsewhere.
One of the three, Bill, actually returned to complete his enlistment. He was honorably discharged later. Some historians argue that William was never part of the gang, that he had integrity and was only guilty by association. If he was involved, Bill was not the leader. John and Frank ran the show.
A Gang Is Born
John and Frank first organized the boys around 1864, working with other thieves at first. They started with robbing a post office, various merchants shops, train passengers and stationary trains.
Like most thieves, the more robberies they committed, the more comfortable they became, the more creative. It was during this incubation period they hatched the plan for their first train robbery, near Seymour, Indiana. (Small world tidbit: this author spent the first five years of his life in that small town.)
The plan was that they would overtake a train that was leaving the Seymour depot. It almost worked.
The First Moving Train Robbery
October 6, 1866. The plan was simple. John, Sim, and another gang member named Frank Sparkes, would board the train as it left the depot. Already hiding in the train were other gang members, waiting to spring into action.
John, Sim, and Frank acted as planned, They broke into the express car, then subdued the one guard. Their plan should have worked without a hitch. As long as the train was moving without problems, nobody should’ve suspected anything.
The moving train would enable them to get far away from town, empty the safe then flee. There was $16,000 in the safe, but they would never see a dime of it. Someone had managed to signal for help.
Someone had managed to signal for help. The boys fled the train chased by a posse.
The aftermath of this event, like all the thefts leading up to this one, only taught the Reno gang how to be better thieves. They would go on to rob three more trains with success.
In time, authorities caught the boys, but never they recovered the stolen money. The fate of the Reno gang ended at the end of a rope in their jail cells, murdered by vigilantes in 1868.