The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves

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This drawing appears on all membership certificates of the Society.

The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves is one of the "oldest continually existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States, and one of Dedham's most venerable social organizations."[1][2][3] 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.[4][5]

At one time membership of the "ancient and well known society"[6] was limited to "the pillars of society" and the "very flower and pick of the vigor, manhood and rising youth of the vicinity."[7] It has also been said that "for sheer whimsy, the Society... is without peer."[4] Today it is a tax exempt non-profit social organization[8] that continues to meet "just in case."[9]

Early years[edit]

The Society was formed inside the Norfolk House, then known as Marsh's Tavern.

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. At the time, "this posse of vigilantes was a real civic necessity,"[10] and during that time period at least 72 such organizations existed in New England.[11]: 407  Thirteen men[5] first met on June 4, 1810, at Marsh’s Tavern at 19 Court Street and opened a subscription list,[12][13] 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...[1]

At this meeting, the following officers were chosen: William Ellis, Clerk, Nathaniel Whiting, President, General George Ellis, Vice President, and Eliphalet Baker, Treasurer.[14] Captain Eliphalet Thorp, John Endicott, Joseph Swan, Jr., Captain Jeremiah Baker, John Morse, Josiah Daniells, Moses Gay, and William Phipps were elected as the Committee of said Society.[14] William Ellis, Jr., Calvin Guild, Major Abner Ellis, Paul Ellis, John Guild, Obed Baker, Reuben Morse, John Fisher, Jr., and Jason Messenger were elected as Riders for the Society.[14]

Annual and special meetings were held at Marsh's Tavern until 1849, at which time they moved to the Phoenix Hotel.[15] In 1814, the organization changed its name from the Detecting Society in Dedham to The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves.[12][15]

On May 4, 1832,[16] 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."[9][17] It is the oldest active account at Dedham Savings.[16]


Anyone may be nominated for membership so long as the $10 (In 1906 it was $1[18]) 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."[19] By 1960, the president of the Society reported that "memberships are as coveted as the Kentucky Colonels."[20] As of 2022, there were 10,709 members, with membership continuing after death.[21]

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."[22] Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis is a member, though when a reporter asked him he said he had never heard of the Society.[23]

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.[1]

Notable members[edit]

Investigations and rescues[edit]

The Society has been called upon four times[11]: 436  and there is only one instance of a horse thief being caught by the Society.[18][25] In 1904, a horse and buggy were stolen from Broad Oak and the Society was called into action.[26]

In 1906 an animal was stolen from Scarry’s Livery Stable on Eastern Avenue. The alarm was raised, fliers were distributed, and members set off in motor cars, but they failed to find the stolen horse.[1][6][11]: 431  While by this time the Town of Dedham had a professional police force who was primarily responsible for tracking down the thief,[11]: 431  at one point the chief of police was reporting to the Society.[1]

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."[1]

By 1906, with the advent of the automobile, the world, and the Society, were changing, prompting the Boston Herald to run the following Dedham Dittie:

It was not like that in the olden says in dear old Dedham town,

In the limping, scrimping olden days, when they ran a horse thief down.

Then each man rode off on his fastest horse, and he rode both fast and far,

But now the rider hunts the thief in a chugging motor car.[18]

The last time the Society investigated a horse theft was in 1909, although though a number of pranks between members set off false alarms after that. In days when vigilante justice was a major component of the Society, "not a few horse thieves were apprehended by the organization of the long name."[18]

Proposed switch to automobiles[edit]

By 1915, it was said that "without doubt" the organization's existence scared away potential horse thieves, as evidenced by the decreasing number of thefts of horses and increasing number of automobile thefts.[27] President George F. Joyce proposed changing the purpose of the organization to those who steal automobiles and auto parts.[28] In 1921[29] and 1924,[30] the Society was still debating whether to turn its attention to car thieves. In 1925 no horses were stolen, but a cow was recovered.[31]

In 1932, it was proposed that a Society in Dedham for Apprehending Hit-and-Run Drivers would be a good successor organization.[32] It was also predicted that by 2032, when human flight would be common, that there would be a Society for Apprehending Reckless Aviators over Dedham.[32] A newspaper in West Virginia once suggested that the Society not only turn its attention to catching auto thieves, but anarchists as well.[33]

Move to a social organization[edit]

By 1899, horse thefts were becoming so rare that newspapers as far away as The Evening Times of Washington, D.C. were noting that "it might seem to the ordinary observer that the members ought to devote themselves to something worth doing, now that their particular object in life has disappeared."[34] However, in 1931 it was said that "Dedham doesn't purpose to let an old tradition languish simply for lack of horse thieves."[10]

At the turn of the 20th century, 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 speaker at the annual dinner in 1908.[35] He spoke on the poetry of Robert Browning and said "a more refined and intelligent audience I never saw."[35] He reported that the membership was limited to 350 men and that there was a perpetual waiting list to join with "the slightest fleck on your social record" being cause to be rejected.[35]

The organization met in a variety of taverns and other public buildings around town throughout the years.[1] In 1893 the annual meeting was held at the Grand Army of the Republic hall in Dedham Square,[36] and in the early 1900s the organization met at Greenleaf Hall.[a] For at least one year, in 1919, the Society met at the Boston City Club.[21] By 1920,[38] and as late as 1956,[39] it met at Memorial Hall. 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.[1][21] While alcohol was forbidden in the schools, it was a convenient setup with both a cafeteria and an auditorium, and surprise was expressed yearly at the variety of colors of "water" in glasses.[1][21] Attendance steadily increased at the annual meeting and beginning in the 1970s the organization met at Moseley's on the Charles.[1][21]

In the early 1900s, the committee of Riders were elected based on their weight, "so that when a thief is captured his captors can sit on him to prevent him from escaping."[40] Riders were required to weigh at least 200 pounds.[2][3][20][41]

The organization represented New England at the 1964 New York World's Fair.[42] Today, donations are occasionally made to local charitable organizations.[3][41][43]

21st century[edit]

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."[19] In 2007 members came from as far away as California, just to attend the dinner.[22] One member, whose "hulking frame could barely contain his enthusiasm for the group," told a reporter that the annual meeting was "the greatest event in the history of Dedham, ever. And the best part is, it has no redeeming value whatsoever, except for pointless fun and unbelievable camaraderie."[44] In recent decades, the dinner has always been roast beef.[21]

Some years, photos of horses are brought in "to acquaint riders who may never have seen one before."[44] For many years it was a men's only club, but in 2012 Margo Pyle became the Society's first female Rider, or one who is responsible for searching for horse thieves when one is stolen.[44] Being elected a Rider is "a position of signal honor."[2]

In 2020, when a horse named Leo went missing in Bear Brook State Park in New Hampshire, Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Hampe was contacted asking if the Society would help looking for it.[21] Hampe initially thought the call was a joke, but eventually informed the caller that the Society's jurisdiction is limited to within 20 miles of the Norfolk County Courthouse.[21]

For many years, the Dedham Society thought they were the oldest such society in the nation.[45] When the Red Hook Society for the Apprehension and Detention of Horse Thieves sent them a letter in the 2010s announcing that they were 14 years older, however, Dedham's Lew Victor traveled to Red Hook to concede the point and attend their annual dinner.[45][21]

Offshoot organizations[edit]

While many similar private anti-theft organizations existed at the time the Society was founded,[11] there have been at least two organizations inspired by the Society directly. In 1841, 42 of 76 original members began a new organization, the Society in Dedham for Apprehending and Prosecuting Thieves.[11]: 417  The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity with the Devil was formed in 1936 in direct response to learning about the Society in Dedham.[46]

The Horse Thieves Tavern at the corner of Washington and High Streets in Dedham Square also took its name from the Society.[47][48]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ At least in 1903,[21] 1907,[37] and 1911.[35]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves". Retrieved June 15, 2015.
  2. ^ a b c "What, No Horses Stolen! Yet Society Keeps Vigil: Dedham Group Still on the Alert to Nab Thieves In This Motor Age". Daily Boston Globe. December 7, 1933. p. 14.
  3. ^ a b c "Oldest Group in U. S. Reports No Horses Stolen at Dedham During the Past Year". Daily Boston Globe. December 3, 1936. p. 17.
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ a b Sarah MacDonald (2003). "Thick as thieves: Society holds annual meeting in Dedham". Daily News Transcript. Retrieved 2006-12-01.[dead link]
  6. ^ a b "Both Sides Claim Short, Black Horse: Dedham Woman and Boston Man Are at Odds". Boston Daily Globe. December 29, 1910. p. 6.
  7. ^ Elbert Hubbard (1998). "A Useful Institution". Elbert Hubbards: Selected Writings Part 6. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7661-0428-0.
  8. ^ "Dedham, MA 02027 Tax Exempt and NonProfit Organizations". Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  9. ^ a b Dedham Institution for Savings (2004). "This man has an account with us, opened in 1832, to fund the apprehension of horse thieves" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on October 26, 2005. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  10. ^ a b "No horse thieves in Dedham". Wilkes-Barre Record. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. December 17, 1931. p. 10 – via open access
  11. ^ a b c d e f Szymanski, Ann-Marie (September 2005). "Stop, Thief! Private Protective Societies in Nineteenth-Century New England". The New England Quarterly. 78 (3): 407–439. JSTOR 30045548.
  12. ^ a b Hanson, Robert Brand (1976). Dedham, Massachusetts, 1635-1890. Dedham Historical Society. p. 196.
  13. ^ Austin 1912, p. 16-17.
  14. ^ a b c Austin 1912, p. 17-18.
  15. ^ a b Austin 1912, p. 18.
  16. ^ a b "Dedham Savings Opens Branch". Daily Boston Globe. October 11, 1959. p. B 14.
  17. ^ Howard, Marjorie (January 25, 2013). "Office Treasures: No Horse Thievery Here". Tufts Now. Retrieved January 1, 2007.
  18. ^ a b c d "Chase Horse Thief in Fast Automobiles". Daily Industrial News. Greensboro, North Carolina. August 26, 1906. p. 7 – via open access
  19. ^ a b Peter Hartze (2002). "No neigh-sayers at society gala". Daily News Transcript. Retrieved 2006-12-01.[dead link]
  20. ^ a b Carey, John (November 20, 1960). "'No Horses Stolen This Year' But They Have a Great Time". Boston Globe. p. 51.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hampe, Kevin and Victor, Lewis (February 17, 2022). The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves (Webinar). Dedham Historical Society and Museum. Retrieved February 19, 2022.
  22. ^ a b Sweeney, Emily (December 23, 2007). "Dedham's 200-year-old posse rides a bit more gently". Vol. 272, no. 176. The Boston Sunday Globe. pp. 1 Globe South.
  23. ^ Sean Cole (December 1, 2007). "The Dedham Society". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2007-12-23.
  24. ^ Tawa, Nicholas E. (1997). Arthur Foote: A Musician in the Frame of Time and Place. Scarecrow Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-8108-3295-4.
  25. ^ a b c "Horse society won't say neigh to anyone". The San Bernardino County Sun. San Bernardino, California. August 17, 1987. p. 2 – via open access
  26. ^ "To catch horse thieves". The Boston Globe. July 19, 1904. p. 12. Retrieved November 20, 2019 – via open access
  27. ^ "Horse Thieves Quiet". Boston Daily Globe. December 1, 1915. p. 2.
  28. ^ "Horse Thieves Out of Date". The Gazette Times. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. December 3, 1913. p. 1 – via open access
  29. ^ "Editorial Points". Boston Daily Globe. December 7, 1921. p. 14.
  30. ^ "Catchers of Horse Thieves' Banquet". Boston Daily Globe. December 2, 1924. p. 8A.
  31. ^ "No Horse Was Stolen, But One Cow Was Recovered". Boston Daily Globe. December 3, 1925. p. A14.
  32. ^ a b "Hit-and-Run Observers". The Bryan Daily Eagle. Bryan, Texas. December 27, 1932. p. 4 – via open access
  33. ^ "109th Annual Meeting". The Charleston Mail. Charleston, West Virginia. December 2, 1919. p. 6 – via open access
  34. ^ "A Fossil Society". The Evening Times (1 ed.). Washington, District of Columbia. December 12, 1899. p. 4 – via open access
  35. ^ a b c d Elbert Hubbard. "A New Club!". The Fra (January, 1909 to June, 1909).
  36. ^ "New England Gleanings". Boston Post. December 5, 1893. p. 2 – via open access
  37. ^ "Humphrey New President: Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves Holds Meeting and Annual Banquet". Boston Daily Globe. December 3, 1907. p. 3.
  38. ^ "Catchers of Horse Thieves to Dine". Boston Sunday Post. December 5, 1920. p. 3 – via open access
  39. ^ 1956 Dec. 5, Page 1 Quincy Patriot Ledger
  40. ^ "Its 103d Anniversary". Boston Daily Globe. December 2, 1913. p. 4 – via
  41. ^ a b "Horse Thefts Down to Zero in Dedham". Daily Boston Globe. December 5, 1935. p. 4.
  42. ^ "State Groups To Perform at World's Fair". The Boston Globe. September 13, 1964. p. 57.
  43. ^ "Began Horse Thief Catching 100 Years Ago". Boston Daily Globe. December 4, 1917. p. 7.
  44. ^ a b c Morrison, Jim (December 13, 2012). "Still gathering, just for the fun of it: Horse thief apprehension society is 202 years young". Boston Globe. p. REG.1. Retrieved June 12, 2014.
  45. ^ a b Kramer, Peter D. (October 11, 2021). "Red Hook posse has been on guard against horse thieves for 225 years, and counting". Poughkeepsie Journal. Retrieved February 16, 2022.
  46. ^ James W. Tucker (1951). "Town Makes Restitution To "Goody"". Lane Memorial Library. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  47. ^ Martin, Kate (September 30, 2016). "NewBridge Hosts Informational Meeting About Dedham Square". The Dedham Times. Vol. 24, no. 39.
  48. ^ Komyati, Ariane (July 24, 2018). "Horse Thieves Tavern in Dedham Square nears completion". The Dedham Transcript. Retrieved July 25, 2018.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]