The Story Behind The Song – The First Train Robbery

| October 24, 2012 | 0 Comments

The First Train Robbery was written by Chris Stuart, and has been recorded by Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time and released on the 2007 album Took Down and Put Up (LDR-011).

Stuart has this to say about the story behind the song ……

The First Train Robbery is about an historical event that happened in 1866 in a little town called Seymour, Indiana. The Reno Brothers robbed a moving train and got away with some gold. Three years later they were captured by Pinkerton Agents and were returned to be hanged in Seymour. However, the night before the hanging, vigilantes broke into the jail and….hanged them….I guess they couldn’t wait another day….I forget where I read about the incident, but it struck me that it would make a good bluegrass song.

The three brothers were William, Frank and Sim. I wrote the song from the point of view of Sim. He was the youngest, so while his name never appears in the song, it’s from his point of view.

I’ve actually run into a number of people from Seymour, Indiana, who have heard the song.”

And now, the rest of the story…

On the evening of October 6, 1866, three thieves boarded an eastbound Ohio & Mississippi Railroad passenger train near Seymour, Indiana, an important rail hub at that time.

John Reno, Simeon Reno and Frank Sparkes entered an Adams Express Company car. Pointing guns at Adams Express employee Elem Miller, the masked bandits demanded keys to the safes. Miller held keys for the local safe only, so the robbers emptied that safe, said to contain $16,000, and tossed the other off the train where the rest of the gang was waiting.

Signalling the engineer to stop the train, the robbers made an easy get away. Unaware of what had happened, the engineer sped off into the night while the thieves congratulated themselves on a job well done.

A wave of train robberies followed the Seymour incident. Within weeks, two trains were derailed and their payroll cars robbed. In 1868, an Adams Express car was attacked again at Seymour. This time the expressman was tossed out the door before the safes were cleared of over $40,000.

Train robberies became frequent in the 1870s and peaked in the 1890s. Specialists in this form of crime included the Reno brothers, who operated in southern Indiana; the Farringtons, whose escapades took them into Kentucky and Tennessee; and the Jesse James gang, who wreaked havoc upon rails in the Midwest. Hired by railroad companies anxious to protect themselves, Pinkerton detectives were seldom far behind the robberies.

The story of the incident was captured in a Randolph Scott film Rage At Dawn (1955). Featured in the film with Scott, who played the part of a detective hired by the railroad to track down the Reno brothers, were Forrest Tucker, J. Carrol Naish, Myron Healey and Denver Pyle.

Stuart kindly agreed to allow us to post the lyrics here.

The First Train Robbery

(© Chris Stuart, Backcountry Music, BMI)

I was born in ’43 down in Jackson County,
Daddy was a farmer, we were tired of being poor.
My brothers taught me how to steal and live by jumpin’ bounty,
And I learned how to kill in Lincoln’s dirty war.

When the fight was over, I returned to mother,
I promised her I’d go to work and be an honest son.
But in Seymour, Indiana, I met up with my brothers,
They said here comes the O&M, and they handed me a gun.

chorus:

Goodbye brothers, and all the Reno gang,
Me and Frank and William, together we will hang,
And goodbye sister, Laura true and lovely,
Tell everyone that we swung for the first train robbery.

We boarded at the station and steamed through the holler,
The engineer out of fear stopped that rolling train.
We broke into the mail car and found those silver dollars,
But I saw a neighbor’s face as we rode away,

I said, “Boys, there was a witness, so before we split a penny,
We need to find him and be sure he’ll never testify”
So we stole into Seymour and shot poor Mr. Kinney,
Though he fell on his knees and pleaded for his life.

chorus:

Goodbye brothers, and all the Reno gang,
Me and Frank and William, together we will hang,
And goodbye sister, Laura true and lovely,
Tell everyone that we swung for the first train robbery.

For three years longer we lived on steak and brandy,
Till the Pinkerton agents threw us in this jail,
Now I hear the voices of the vigilantes,
Say let’s put the Reno boys on a train to hell.

chorus:

Goodbye brothers, and all the Reno gang,
Me and Frank and William, together we will hang,
And goodbye sister, Laura true and lovely,
Tell everyone that we swung for the first train robbery.

Copyright reserved.

Here Chris Stuart & Backcountry perform the First Train Robbery while on tour in the Netherlands in 2007.

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A docudrama film project is in production now that will retell this story in some detail. The Legend Of The Reno Brothers is directed and by Anthony Susnick and Morgan Raque.

Here is the trailer:

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Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.

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Category: Bluegrass Songwriting News