I’ve spent the past month talking about the past. Relics from the past. Some good. Some bad. One of those relics has an unusually ancient sounding name: The National Horse Thief Detective Association. Sounds like something from an old B-western movie right? Visions of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry on horseback riding hell bent for leather immediately gallop through our minds. Truth is, the NHTDA is not as ancient as you might think. And of course, it has ties to Irvington.
The National Horse Thief Detective Association was sort of a nineteenth-century rural neighborhood crime watch, aimed not only at prevention but also apprehension and the execution of justice. And it wasn’t just looking for horse thieves. The NHTDA was as much a civic organization as a law enforcement agency — largely composed of white, property owning men wealthy enough to pay the dues. The NHTDA was well organized. It had branches (or companies) in 92 counties of Indiana. Delegates attended annual regional meetings to swap stories, catch up on NHTDA news and share the latest law enforcement techniques.
According to the Indiana Historical Society, the horse thief detectives were Hoosier-based from the beginning, with the first official company, the Council Grove Minute Men, formed in 1845 near Wingate, Ind. In the 1840s, Indiana was literally a wild frontier and these companies were created to police rural areas and track down criminals where law enforcement (principally enforced by US Marshals) might be days, or weeks, away. The main focus was on horse thieves but soon expanded into tracking down any “evildoers” who brought crime to an area.
Expanded duties required expanded membership and soon companies were popping up all over the state, eventually spreading to Ohio and Illinois. The NHTDA itself was founded in 1860 as an umbrella group to organize the hundreds of individual detective companies among the three states. The Hoosier countryside was riddled with bandits, outlaws and horse thieves who preyed on the people living and farming in rural communities with little established law enforcement. Stealing horses, which were crucial for farming and transportation of people and goods before the arrival of the railroad and the automobile, was crucial to survival on the frontier. Many times, these thieves were better organized than the residents themselves.
These bands of marauding bandits, rustlers and gypsies were sophisticated, with established “stations” where stolen horses could be stashed to rest during the day and moved to the next station by cover of night. These horses stolen from Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois were transported to Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, where they were quickly sold. To combat these professional horse thieves, during the 1850s, Hoosier lawmakers passed legislation officially appointing association members as constables, granting them the authority to arrest and jail criminals and recover stolen goods. This legislation allowed them to cross county lines to track and apprehend thieves – something county sheriff’s couldn’t do.
Horses and livestock were one of the most vital resources a pioneering family had in those days of early westward expansion. Without horses travel was slow, plowing impossible and getting perishable goods to market a hopeless proposition. Horse thievery in antebellum Indiana resulted in crops being abandoned and farms being lost. Indiana winters are harsh and a stolen horse was no laughing matter. Failure to locate and prosecute horse thieves by US Marshals and local law enforcement often led to vigilante justice.
In most cases, horse thieves were transient and almost impossible to locate having crossed state lines in the blink of an eye. Brands were disguised, herds were split and mixed, and apprehension, let alone prosecution, was rare. However the operators of the safehouse stations were locals and word soon circulated that some neighbors were being paid by the gangs for tips on who had the fattest, fittest herds that could be easily stolen. To make matters worse, due to the sparse rural population, these operations were conducted quite brazenly during the day. It was this environment of widespread horse thievery that led to the first horse thief detective agencies being founded in Indiana.
The citizenry’s earliest attempt to tame the wild regions of rural Indiana were called the “Minute Men.” According to an association pamphlet, that membership included “only the best men in the community” and represented all the “vocations in pioneer life.” There were secret passwords and signs, and strict standards of behavior; Any member who played cards, gambled, or “used liquor to excess” was expelled. A registered member paid dues and became a constable with police powers. Operational enforcement was pretty straight forward.
If a horse was suspected as stolen (and not just a stray) the owner would go to a neighbor and ask them to notify the local association, passing along identifying information about the stolen horse (color, breed, type of shoe, height, etc.). Then, association members would call in other members who would ride immediately to a designated secret meeting place nearby. Once organized, the duly notarized constables would fan out individually, inquiring at toll booths, homes, farms, and stores in an effort to track the culprits down. The more people they notified, the more likely a horse could be found before the trail ran cold.
National Horse Thief Detective Association ledgers digitized and found on the internet, libraries and various private collections detail the lengths to which a particular chapter would go to retrieve a stolen horse. The October 1867 Warren Township HTDA Ledger, which included the Irvington area, reports of HTDA agents hunting for the horse of Mr. George White, who resided just off Brookville Road, east of Arlington Avenue.
The October 6, 1867 ledger entry reports: At 7:00 a.m. Leander White notified me that his father’s bay horse had been stolen the night before. I proceeded immediately to select men to hunt said horse. I selected 10 men to meet at George White’s house as soon as they could get there by 9:00 p.m. The men reported ready as soon as I could get a description of the horse and the direction he had started. I started 4 men to Indianapolis and Wilson, George Butcher, Henry Wilberg and Alonzo Snider to inquire at the toll gates and see if they could find any track in that dirt road. I went with the others to the National Road and there we found by the track, that he had crossed the road and went south towards McClain’s Gate; not finding any track where he had come back. I was satisfied that he had gone in a southern direction. I then sent Mr. McClain and Mr. White to Indianapolis to search the gates south and I went with the rest of the men Hiram Morehouse, John Wagoner, Conrad Reah; Thomas Cammel and Chris Wilder to the Brookville Road and started 2 men on that road and 2 south to go in a southern direction and Thomas Cammel to go on the Lawrenceburg Road and to get Jacob M. Springer to go with him. I then went to Indianapolis to meet the other men and did meet them at 12:00. M. Lonzo Snider reported that he had seen a horse pass where he had camped near Cumberland that morning about daylight that suited the description of the one he was hunting. I then sent Alfred Wilson and George Butcher east on the National Road and Lonzo Snider and Henry Wilberg south on the Bluff Road. McClain and White came home. I gave out word for the company to meet at the town house the next evening at 5:00 and ordered all the men that went to hunt to return by the next night if they got no track and if they got track, to keep on and not come back as long as there was any chance of getting him. Company met Monday evening; no word from the men exception Morehouse and his partner. They reported no track. Meeting approved for next morning at 7:00 a.m.
Oct 8, 1867: Company met all the men had returned. Cammel Springer reported. Heard of the horse at Shelbyville. Followed the tracks a few miles lost it; and could not find the track any more. Company agreed to send 6 men back to hunt said horse and called on me to select the men. I did select 6 men: Alfred Wilson, John Wagoner, Hiram Morehouse, Thomas Cammel, John Shearer, and Conrad Rahl to start immediately and if they made any discoveries, they were telegraph to George Parker. On Thursday we received a dispatch from Morehouse; they had heard of the horse. Friday evening, company met and the men all reporting no further track could be found. Company agreed to send 12 men to hunt said horse and ordered me to select the men. I did select Daniel Sharer, George Askren, Henry Wilberg, Isaac Wheatley, John Buchanon, Henry Jorger, Peter Kissel, Fred Brady, Conrad Gemmer, David Springer, Gorden Shimer, and Chris Raseno to meet at the townhouse Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. Company met Sat morning; the men all reporting for duty. On motion, it was agreed to send one man by rail to the Ohio River to examine the ferries and towns along the river between Lawrenceberg and Vevey. On motion of A. Parker, it was agreed to send the Captain. I did start the same evening at 6:00 (the first train I could get on) went to Lawrenceberg. From there, walked to Aurora thence by boat to the bay making thorough inquiries at all towns and ferries. I then went back to Aurora and took the train to Osgood thence to Versailes by hack. Soon after I got to Versailes, William Wheatly, Conrad Grammer and Peter Kissel came into the Versailes and reported no track found by them and that 7 of the company had started that morning to Lawrenceberg together. After dinner I took William Wheatly and Peter Kissel and hired a man by the name of Stevens to go along. We left Gemmer at the hotel and I road his horse. We went about 4 miles from Versailes to a place noted as a horse thief harbor, it is in the hills and about 5 or 6 miles square we rode in and thru those hills and hollows but made no discoveries. We returned to Versailes that night. Shortly after we got back George Askren and John Buchanon came in and reported no track of horse found by them.
Although the culprit (or culprits) were never found or prosecuted, this particular case shows the lengths that the HTDA in Indianapolis would go to solve a case. Apparently, even though this caper almost bankrupted the group, similar associations continued to be formed throughout the city, eventually resulting in 16 chapters in Marion County alone. Eventually, the National Horse Thief Detective Association was formed to bring them all together. State laws were passed giving NHTDA members authority to arrest and detain, granting members extraordinary policing powers. While sheriffs and deputies could not cross county lines to apprehend lawbreakers, NHTDA deputies could. Justice was swift and often judgement was enforced at the end of a rope.
In time, chapters broadened their jurisdiction to include not only horses but also carriages, cows, poultry and other livestock. By the turn of the 21st Century, NHTDA were primarily tasked with looking for car thieves, home invaders… and people. It was the twisting of that last pursuit that would see the demise of the National Horse Thief Detective Association.