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 "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 organization.[8]

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,"[9] and during that time period at least 72 such organizations existed in New England.[10]:407 Thirteen men[5] 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...[1]

On May 4, 1832,[11] 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."[12][13] It is the oldest active account at Dedham Savings.[11]

Membership[edit]

Anyone may be nominated for membership so long as the $10 (In 1906 it was $1.[14]) 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."[15] By 1960, the president of the Society reported that "memberships are as coveted as the Kentucky Colonels."[16]


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."[17] Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis is a member, though when a reporter asked him he said he had never heard of the Society.[18]

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[10](refactored from 436) and there is only one instance of a horse thief being caught by the Society.[19][14]

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.[6][1][10]:431 While by this time the Town of Dedham had a professional police force who was primarily responsible for tracking down the thief,[10]: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 hourse, and he both both fast and far,

But now the rider hunts the thief in a chugging motor car.[14]

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."[14]

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.[20] President George F. Joyce proposed changing the purpose of the organization to those who steal automobiles and auto parts.[21] In 1921[22] and 1924,[23] the Society was still debating whether to turn its attention to car thieves. In 1925 no horses were stolen, but a cow was recovered.[24]

In 1932, it was proposed that a Society in Dedham for Apprehending Hit-and-Run Drivers would be a good successor organization.[25] 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.[25] A newspaper in West Virginia once suggested that the Society not only turn its attention to catching auto thieves, but anarchists as well.[26]

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."[27] However, in 1931 it was said that "Dedham doesn't purpose to let an old tradition languish simply for lack of horse thieves."[9]

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 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 slightest fleck on your social record" being cause to be rejected.[28]

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,[29] and 1907 the organization met at Greenleaf Hall.[30] By 1920,[31] and as late as 1956,[32] it met at Memorial Hall, where the Police Station now stands. 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] 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.[1] Attendance steadily increased at the annual meeting and beginning in the 1970s the organization met at Moseley’s on the Charles.[1]

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."[33] Riders were required to weigh at least 200 pounds.[2][34][3][16] Donations are occasionally made to local charitable organizations.[35][34][3]

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."[15] In 2007 members came from as far away as California, just to attend the dinner.[17] 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."[36]

Some years, photos of horses are brought in "to acquaint riders who may never have seen one before."[36] For many years it was a men's only club, but in 2012 Margo Pyle became the Society's first Rider, or one who is responsible for searching for horse thieves when one is stolen.[36] Being elected a Rider is "a position of signal honor."[2]

Offshoot organizations[edit]

While many similar private anti-theft organizations existed at the time the Society was founded,[10] there have been at least two organizations inspired by the Society directly. In 1841, 42 of 76 original members began a new organization, the The Society in Dedham for Apprehending and Prosecuting Thieves.[10]: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.[37]


References[edit]

  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. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-01. 
  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". TaxExemptWorld.com. Retrieved 2006-12-02. 
  9. ^ a b "No horse thieves in Dedham". The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). December 17, 1931. p. 10 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ a b "Dedham Savings Opens Branch". Daily Boston Globe. October 11, 1959. p. B 14. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Howard, Marjorie (January 25, 2013). "Office Treasures: No Horse Thievery Here". Tufts Now. Retrieved January 1, 2007. 
  14. ^ a b c d "Chase Horse Thief in Fast Automobiles". Daily Industrial News (Greensboro, North Carolina). August 26, 1906. p. 7 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  15. ^ a b Peter Hartze (2002). "No neigh-sayers at society gala". Daily News Transcript. Archived from the original on September 28, 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-01. 
  16. ^ a b Carey, John (November 20, 1960). "'No Horses Stolen This Year' But They Have a Great Time". Boston Globe. p. 51. 
  17. ^ a b 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. 
  18. ^ Sean Cole (December 1, 2007). "The Dedham Society". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2007-12-23. 
  19. ^ 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 Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  20. ^ "Horse Thieves Quiet". Boston Daily Globe. December 1, 1915. p. 2. 
  21. ^ "Horse Thieves Out of Date". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). December 3, 1913. p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  22. ^ "EDITORIAL POINTS". Boston Daily Globe. December 7, 1921. p. 14. 
  23. ^ "Catchers of Horse Thieves' Banquet". Boston Daily Globe. December 2, 1924. p. 8A. 
  24. ^ "NO HORSE WAS STOLEN, BUT ONE COW WAS RECOVERED". Boston Daily Globe. December 3, 1925. p. A14. 
  25. ^ a b "Hit-and-Run Observers". The Eagle (Bryan, Texas). December 27, 1932. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  26. ^ "109th Annual Meeting". The Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, West Virginia). December 2, 1919. p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  27. ^ "A Fossil Society". The Evening Times (1 ed.) (Washington, District of Columbia). December 12, 1899. p. 4 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  28. ^ Elbert Hubbard. "A New Club!". The Fra (January, 1909 to June, 1909). 
  29. ^ "New England Gleanings". Boston Post. December 5, 1893. p. 2 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  30. ^ "HUMPHREY NEW PRESIDENT: Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves Holds Meeting and Annual Banquet.". Boston Daily Globe. December 3, 1907. p. 3. 
  31. ^ "Catchers of Horse Thieves to Dine". Boston Post. December 5, 1920. p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  32. ^ 1956 Dec. 5, Page 1 Quincy Patriot Ledger
  33. ^ "Its 103d Anniversary". Boston Daily Globe. December 2, 1913. p. 4. 
  34. ^ a b "HORSE THEFTS DOWN TO ZERO IN DEDHAM". Daily Boston Globe. December 5, 1935. p. 4. 
  35. ^ "BEGAN HORSE THIEF CATCHING 100 YEARS AGO". Boston Daily Globe. December 4, 1917. p. 7. 
  36. ^ 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. 
  37. ^ James W. Tucker (1951). "Town Makes Restitution To "Goody"". Lane Memorial Library. Retrieved 2006-12-02. 

External links[edit]