“Protect the Innocent; Bring the Guilty to Justice”
In the age before the automobile, horse theft was a serious offense. After all, a horse was a person’s transportation, and in the case of a farm animal, a source of income. As the United States was in its growth stages, horse thieves flourished in the frontier areas of the country. A thief could steal a horse and hurry him across state lines or into the Indian territories where local authorities could not easily follow. It was easy, and it was lucrative.
Horse theft was a particular problem in Clark County, Missouri located on the border of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. A horse could be stolen, crossed over the nearby Des Moines River or the Mississippi River and out of the state by morning. The horses were seldom recovered, since it typically cost more to go after them was more than they were actually worth.
Major David McKee of Clark County and a group of his friends formed The Anti-Horse Theft Association (AHTA) in 1853 to combat the problem. There was one major unforeseen problem with their organization. With the advent of the American Civil War, most of the members, including Major McKee, enlisted in the army. Thievery only got worse with the chaos of the war. Rogues became more reckless and desperate—especially with stealing horses and cattle.
When Major McKee was discharged from service in 1863 due to a disability, the need for a way to curtail horse theft was greater than ever. He once again started up the group with great success. The AHTA grew and spread to many states and reached a peak membership in 1916 of 50,000.
The AHTA was not a group of vigilantes, who would chase after horse thieves, catch them and hang them from the nearest tree. They did dole out justice; not from a limb of a tree, but through the courts. The group believed in supporting and upholding the law, and the last thing they wanted to do was break the law. Rather, they worked hand in hand with law enforcement, gathered evidence and testified in court to punish horse thieves and other criminals.
This is probably why the organization grew so large. It was a way for law-abiding citizens to bring order into their lives by working with law enforcement rather than becoming helpless victims.
Although it was a “secret” organization, nearly any man could join. To become a member of the AHTA, it was only necessary that you be a citizen in good standing, male and over eighteen years old. Women weren’t completely kept out of the organization. In later years, widows of members were allowed to continue their membership when their husbands died. In addition, some chapters had Lady Auxiliaries that did good works and aided in social functions.
There were no salaried positions in the AHTA. Everything was done on a voluntary basis with only expenses paid. This kept membership relatively inexpensive.
Once you were a member, if you had a horse stolen (or other property) you would report it to the president of the group. At that point, certain actions would be put in motion.
The telegraph, and later, the telephone were used to warn authorities and other chapters of the AHTA of the theft with a description of horse, and if known, the thief. In this manner, the thief was quickly surrounded by people on the lookout for him.
The president would then assign ten or more members of the AHTA to hunt for the trail of the thief. Once the trail was discovered, at least two of the members and the owner of the horse would then be assigned to pursue the thief for as long as there was a trail to be followed—regardless of time or expense. It didn’t matter if the horse was worth $25.00 and it cost $100.00 to retrieve him. It was a matter of principal.
Once the thief was caught, he was turned over to the Vigilance Committee. It consisted of six men who would determine if there was sufficient cause for prosecution. At that point, they would turn him over to the authorities and personally assist in prosecution.
If you were picked to pursue the thief and refused without a reasonable excuse, you had to pay a fine of $5.00. If you did agree to join the chase, all of your expenses would be paid.
If you weren’t a member, and you needed help to recover a horse, the AHTA would still help you, but you had to pay them for the services.
Any member who reported that a horse was stolen, and later found out that he just wandered off would have to pay for the expenses incurred in the search for his horse.
The AHTA also had a publication where they listed missing horses and property called the AHTA Weekly News. It was devoted exclusively to items concerning the organization, horse thieves and other livestock and property theft. The publishers also liked to list any particularly steep sentences given to horse thieves to use as a scare tactic to prevent future thefts. At its peak, it had a circulation of over 20,000.
One of the reasons the AHTA was so successful was because the members didn’t have to worry about crossing state lines when they were bringing back the thief. This was a problem for law enforcement officers because of the slowness in getting extradition orders. Major McKee devised a clever way around this. This is how it worked. If the thief was chased into Iowa, part of the group would stay behind in Missouri; close to the state line. When bringing the thief back, they would take him to the line and tell him to, “get out of Iowa and do it quick.” The thief obligingly crossed the state line only to be apprehended by AHTA members on the other side waiting for him.
The organization was very effective. It is stated that from 1899 to 1909 the Oklahoma AHTA recovered stolen horses and other livestock valued at $83,000. Four hundred suspected thieves were caught and 272 of them were convicted. That was just in the state of Oklahoma.
Decline in membership started with the advent of World War I. Just like during in the Civil War, many of its members joined the armed services and left the AHTA to struggle on without them. After the war, a depression in 1921 didn’t help much, either. Most members of the organization lived in rural areas. Although the 1920’s may have been a booming time in the cities, rural areas never saw such prosperity; causing membership to even decline further.
As automation took over, and horses were used less, stealing them became a misdemeanor offense. Eventually in 1926, the Anti-Horse Thief Association changed its name to the Anti-Thief Association in hopes of preserving the organization. Their mission was now to detect and suppress all crime. Instead of bolstering the group, many of the older members dropped their membership altogether.
Times were changing, and the AHTA had trouble changing with them. The Great Depression made money very scarce in rural areas. Every dollar counted. Undoubtedly, the dust storms from 1933-1939 in the Plains States, caused by extensive drought and inappropriate farming methods resulting in extreme poverty and mass migration also hurt membership in the AHTA. People just had much bigger things to worry about.
In time, the AHTA just faded away, except in a few places where it has evolved into a social club. One of them is Nepeuskun, Wisconsin, where they have an annual hearty meal of oyster stew. The AHTA is the oldest active organization in Arenzville, Illinois, where the organization contributes to community projects. Another holdout is in the tiny town of Bentonville, Ohio. They also have an annual banquet, which is held every April. Anyone can join their group by sending a dollar and a self-addressed stamped envelope for a lifetime membership to:
Bentonville Anti-Horse Thief Association
c/o Verna Naylor
7785 State Route 41
Bentonville, OH 45101
All you will get, though, is a membership card and bragging rights. Bentonville also has a memorial for the AHTA in their town that was erected in 1961 and a state historical marker.
Although the remaining AHTA organizations no longer work to retrieve stolen horses, that does not mean horse theft no longer exists. There are no solid statistics available, but it is believed that between 40,000 to 55,000 horses are stolen each year. It is relatively easy to take a horse, put it in a trailer, haul it to an auction and make a quick dollar. Sadly, many horses that go through an auction end up at a slaughterhouse.
This article was written by Judi Daly in cooperation with the Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, and used with permission by the author.
Artwork by H.M. Wilder from the book: The Voyage of the Rattletrap