George Kerr of Washington Township was inducted into the Washington Township Horse Thief Detective Association in 1891. Many townships and villages of the time had constables dedicated to recovering stolen horses.
Living in 21st Century Indianapolis, it may be difficult to imagine that this region was once lawless and untamed. There was a time when Indiana was part of the “Wild West” with bandits and gypsies and rustlers preying on settlers who were eeking out a modest subsistence from the forest and plains of the Hoosier countryside. Rather telling, it was the custom of the time that, “a traveler was expected to be heavily armed, but locals were not supposed to carry weapons.”
One of the most vital resources a pioneering family had in those days was its horse stock. Without horses travel was slow, plowing was impossible and getting your perishable goods to market was a hopeless proposition. In the early 1800s, an epidemic of horse thievery resulted in some of the area’s crops being abandoned. A stolen horse was no laughing matter. Such a hardship affected a family’s ability to survive a difficult Indiana winter. Failure to locate and prosecute thieves by official law enforcement often led to vigilante justice.
Organized gangs stole horses and operated so called “stations” where stolen goods could be hidden. Station keepers were paid by gangs to help locate horses to steal and then to feed and rest stolen horses until they could be taken to the next “station.” For years, horses from eastern Iowa and western Ohio were stolen and “fenced” in between. Horses stolen in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin were taken to the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River, later to be sold in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. These operations were conducted quite brazenly during the day due to the sparse rural population. Horse theft was difficult to prove because of the distances the horses could be easily and quickly moved before resale.
It was into this setting that the nation’s first horse thief detective organization was founded near Wingate, Indiana, in response to widespread thievery. The citizenry’s earliest attempt to bring the rule of law to the region was 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 standards of behavior; Any member who played cards, gambled, or “used liquor to excess” was expelled. A member paid dues and became a constable with police powers.
This early approach to the problem worked fairly well. If a horse was stolen (after making sure it hadn’t simply strayed) 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, similar to the fabled Minute Men of Revolutionary War times, association members would call in other members by rider. Once organized, they would fan out and inquire at toll booths, homes, farms, and stores, tracking the culprits down. The more people they notified, the more likely a horse could be located before the trail ran cold.
Ledgers now held in private collections best tell the story of the lengths to which a chapter might go to retrieve a stolen horse: (Although there was a George White living on E. 46th Street at the time, it is believed the George White mentioned here resided on a lot of land off Brookville Road, east of Arlington Avenue.)
Warren Township HTDA Ledger, October 6, 1867 reports of men hunting Mr. White’s horse:
Captain Wilson 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 Bady [Probably 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.
Though this particular case did not end in retrieval of the stolen property, (in fact, this caper almost bankrupted the group) news of successes caused similar associations to be formed throughout the region. Eventually, an umbrella group called the National Horse Thief Detective Association was organized. State laws regulating the association and giving its members authority to arrest, went on the books in 1848, granting members extraordinary policing powers. While sheriffs and deputies were not allowed to cross county lines to apprehend lawbreakers, members of the NHTDA could. Justice was swift and, on occasion, meted out at the end of a rope. Marion County had 16 chapters.
As the years went by, chapters broadened their jurisdiction to include not only horses but also carriages (eventually cars), cows and other livestock including poultry… and people. In one interesting side note, I found a New York Times article (Feb. 25, 1925) that related a story of when the Marion County NHTDA was mobilized to “hunt down” and retrieve Democrats from the State Senate who went AWOL while boycotting the chamber to keep a Republican majority from establishing a quorum.
The NHTDA was as much civic organization as law enforcement agency — largely composed of white, propertied men who were wealthy enough to pay the dues. By 1926 there were still as many as 300 active companies in the region, some of which formed alliances with the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan. It is this late association with the KKK that hastened the end of the organization and tarnished its history. In 1928, the group dropped “Horse Thief” from its name, becoming the National Detective Association, in an attempt to rid itself of the Klan connection. The name change didn’t work. By 1933, Indiana lawmakers had repealed all laws that gave the HTDA enforcement powers. All such groups had dissolved by 1957, after horse thievery “had ceased to be a major problem.”
Today, badges once worn by HTDA members, are highly collectible. Badges vary in design and size as they evolved from chapter to chapter and year to year. Buggy markers (meant to be nailed to a buggy to signify a buggy’s owner’s membership in the HTDA), books and ribbons from the HTDA’s annual state conventions are also highly sought after.
Special thanks to Tom Keesling of Hoosier Recollections, the Warren County INgenweb Project, and especially the members of the Marion County Indianapolis History Facebook discussion group for help in researching this article and a special shout out to the Indiana State Library (Manuscript section) for the Warren Township H.T.D.A. ledgers used in this article.