The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves
|An article in the
History of Dedham
The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves is "the oldest continually existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States, and one of Dedham’s most venerable social organizations." Since its founding there have been more than 10,000 members including heads of state, Supreme Court justices, governors, popes, professors, generals, and other notables. The membership has been described as "the pillars of society" and includes the "very flower and pick of the vigor, manhood and rising youth of the vicinity." It has also been said that "for sheer whimsy, the Society... is without peer." Today it is a tax exempt non profit organization.
At the turn of the 19th century the citizens of Dedham, Massachusetts came together to combat the rash of horse thievery that was afflicting their community. Thirteen men first met on June 4, 1810, at Marsh’s Tavern on Court Street and opened a subscription list, noting that
The great number of horses stolen from amongst us and in our vicinity is truly alarming, and calls for the attention of every well-disposed Citizen. It is evident that there has been, and probably will continue, a combination of Villains through the northern states to carry into effect this malignant design, and their frequent escape from the hand of justice stimulates them to that atrocious practice. And as that kind of property is most liable to be carried out of our knowledge, it requires the utmost exertion of every good member of society, to baffle and suppress depredations of this kind...
In 1832 the Society opened a bank account at the Dedham Institution for Savings and the account remains open today, and the bank claims that the account "may be the oldest continuously active account in the United States."
Anyone may be nominated for membership so long as the $10 membership fee is paid. Applications for membership in the Society must be approved by a majority vote by current members and a "controversial nomination years ago of Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran was not seconded."
The person receiving honor of the membership in the society need not even know that they had been nominated. Robert Hanson, who has followed in the steps of his father and grandfather as clerk-treasurer of the Society, has said "I've always wondered what the reaction in the Vatican mail room is when they open the envelope and see the certificate." Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis is a member, though when a reporter asked him he said he had never heard of the Society.
Membership was originally limited to residents of Dedham but restrictions were loosened over the years to limit membership to residents of Norfolk County; or to residents of Norfolk and Suffolk Counties; or to persons resident within a 20-mile radius of the Norfolk County Courthouse; or to residents of Dedham, Norwood, Westwood, or Dover. Eventually all residency restrictions were lifted. The club's website claims that Robert Ripley of Ripley's Believe It or Not! fame had applied for membership before this restriction was eliminated, and the clerk-treasurer returned his application with a note rejecting his application.
Dear Mr. Ripley:
Since you are not a resident of Dedham (or Norwood, or Westwood, or Dover, or Norfolk County, of Suffolk County), you cannot join our Society.
Believe it or not,
Charles M. Gibson.
- Louis D. Brandeis, member 640, joined 1903
- Michael Dukakis, member 5835, joined December 2, 1975
- Thomas Finneran, member 9254, joined December 2, 2003
- Mikhail Gorbachev, member 7591, joined December 3, 1985
- Lyndon B. Johnson, member 4119, joined December 4, 1963
- Edward M. Kennedy, member number 4710, December 4, 1968
- John F. Kennedy, member number 3926, joined December 6, 1961
- John F. Kennedy, Jr., member number 4247, joined December 2, 1964
- Pope John Paul II, member 6496, joined December 5, 1978
- Richard M. Nixon, member 4737, joined December 4, 1968
- Ronald Reagan, member 6864, joined December 2, 1980
The organization met in a variety of taverns around town throughout the years, and in 1899, under the guidance of its new president, Dr. Edward Knobel, its annual meeting became a social event with dinner, drink and entertainment. Elbert Hubbard was the keynote speakers at the annual dinner in 1908. He spoke on the poetry of Robert Browning and said "a more refined and intelligent audience I never saw." He reported that the membership was limited to 350 men and that there was a perpetual waiting list to join with "the slighest fleck on your social record" being cause to be rejected.
Eventually the meetings moved to the old high school around the time of the First World War and then to the current high school when it was constructed in the 1960s. For at least one year, in 1956, it met at Memorial Hall, where the Police Station now stands. While alcohol was forbidden in the schools it was a convenient set up with both a cafeteria and an auditorium and surprise was expressed yearly at the variety of colors of "water" in glasses. Attendance steadily increased at the annual meeting and beginning in the 1970s the organization met at Moseley’s on the Charles.
The last time a horse was stolen in Dedham was in 1909, though a number of pranks between members set off false alarms after that. In 1906 another animal was stolen, the alarm was raised, fliers were distributed, and members set off in motor cars, but they failed to find the stolen horse. The clerk of the society reported at the annual meeting that though the animal was not recovered, it was not for a lack of trying:
"It is only fair to the Riders of this Society to state that the owner of the horse even consulted mediums in his efforts to find the horse. This only proves that our Riders did their full duty, as the horse could not be found."
The Society has spawned imitators, with The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity with the Devil having been formed in 1936 in direct response to learning about the Society in Dedham.
The annual meeting of the Society takes place on the first Tuesday of December each year. At the 192nd annual meeting in 2002 "more than 200 proud members... toasted their success last night at their annual meeting, a bacchanalian affair featuring bad jokes, old-time music, a generous amount of both spirit and spirits and a virtual who's who of political and business life." In 2007 members came from as far away as California, just to attend the dinner.
- Society's Website
- Jerry Taylor (December 6, 1985). "EVER VIGILANT IN DEDHAM ON THE LOOKOUT FOR HORSE THIEVES SINCE 1810, GROUP HAS NOW EASED OFF A BIT". The Boston Globe.
- Sarah MacDonald (2003). "Thick as thieves: Society holds annual meeting in Dedham". Daily News Transcript. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-01.
- Elbert Hubbard (1998). "A Useful Institution". Elbert Hubbards: Selected Writings Part 6 (Kessinger Publishing). ISBN 978-0-7661-0428-0.
- "Dedham, MA 02027 Tax Exempt and NonProfit Organizations". TaxExemptWorld.com. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
- Dedham Institution for Savings (2004). "This man has an account with us, opened in 1832, to fund the apprehension of horse thieves" (pdf). Retrieved 2006-12-02.
- Howard, Marjorie (January 25, 2013). "Office Treasures: No Horse Thievery Here". Tufts Now. Retrieved 2014-1-7.
- Peter Hartze (2002). "No neigh-sayers at society gala". Daily News Transcript. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-01.
- Emily Sweeney (December 23, 2007). "Dedham's 200-year-old posse rides a bit more gently" 272 (176). The Boston Sunday Globe. pp. 1 Globe South.
- Sean Cole (12/01/2007). "The Dedham Society". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2007-12-23.
- Elbert Hubbard. "A New Club!". The Fra (January, 1909 to June, 1909).
- 1956 Dec. 5, Page 1 Quincy Patriot Ledger
- James W. Tucker (1951). "Town Makes Restitution To "Goody"". Lane Memorial Library. Retrieved 2006-12-02.