Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves

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On Tuesday, December 3rd, the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves will hold its 203rd Annual Meeting at Moseley’s-on-the-Charles, on Bridge Street. The Society is the oldest continuously existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States, and one of Dedham’s most venerable social organizations. The following sketch outlines its unique history.

The dubious honor of being titled the “world’s oldest profession” may belong to a certain social element of the female persuasion, but runner-up distinction is richly deserved by the ancient and redoubtable order of horse thieves. Since time immemorial, there have existed amongst us, individuals whose driving force in life has been the acquisition of fine horseflesh – at the ultimate discount.

At the turn of the 19th Century, Dedham had no “loose ladies” of whom any record has survived, but the Townsfolk did have a most distressing abundance of missing horses. In June of 1802, for example, Abner Ellis, a local innkeeper, lost his prized grey mare to the evil hand of a thief. His rage and his thirst for revenge, overwhelming his Yankee frugality, drove him to offer a $10 reward for the return of the horse – and $30 reward for the apprehension of the perpetrator! Ellis was one of the few victims of horse thievery who were lucky enough to have their animals returned and their desires for retribution fulfilled. The thief, one Isaac Cottrell, an unemployed laborer out of Dudley, Massachusetts was apprehended, whipped on the gallows at Dedham Common, confined in the grim Bastille of Dedham Gaol, and finally hired out at forced labor to work off his fine and court costs.

Cottrell’s punishment apparently dissuaded few of his ilk from pursuit of their nefarious craft, for horses continued to disappear at a prodigious rate all over Norfolk County. Finally, on June 4th, 1810, in an expression of public outrage, a number of Dedham citizens assembled at Marsh’s Tavern on Court Street, and opened a subscription list for the formation of a Town organization to combat horse thievery.

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...

Thirteen men signed up at that first meeting, and twenty-one more joined before the end of the month. Horse thieves were put on notice that Dedham was in a condition of concerted vigilance…

The records of the Society are largely silent about the group’s external activities, but give a much clearer view of internal confusions among the righteous vigilantes. The group, for example, had, at their first meeting, formally adopted the title of the “Detecting Society in Dedham” but the Society’s own records variously referenced the “The Detecting Society in Dedham for the Purpose of Detecting Horse Thieves,” or the “Horse Society in Dedham for Detecting Horse Thieves.” A formal vote of the Society on October 10, 1814 explicitly adopted the title “The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves” – but Clerks still confused matters by utilizing an unauthorized “The Apprehending Society in Dedham,” and as late as 1861, there were still odd titles, such as “The Dedham Horse Thief Detecting Society” cropping up. After the Civil War, the record-keepers finally caught up with themselves, and the official title “Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves” title achieved the monopoly it should have had since 1814.

In the larger picture, the problems with the group’s name may have been symbolic of a deeper malaise within the Society. Although the rolls showed a large membership, a substantial portion of that membership was not paying its dues and assessments. The annual Meeting of 1823 (at which only thirteen people appeared) adjourned itself for a month, called a special meeting (at which thirty people showed up), and proceeded to dissolve the Society, drop out the deadbeats, and immediately form a new organization under the same name.

Lack of attendance at the Annual Meetings may not, in all objectivity, be surprising, since they were short, dull affairs, consisting essentially of a Treasurer’s report and an election of officers. From 1810 through 1848, the session (no meal, no entertainment) continued to be held at Marsh’s Tavern, through its subsequent changes of management and title as “Gragg & Alden’s,” “Gragg’s Hotel,” “The Norfolk Hotel,” “The Norfolk House, ”McIntyre’s Hotel,” and “Bates’ Hotel.” The attendees did have the option of visiting the establishment’s bar after the meeting.

In 1849, the Society changed the venue for its Annual Meetings to the “Phoenix House,” which was located on the corner of High and Washington Streets, where the Knights of Columbus Building now stands. Still no meal or entertainment, but – until the Phoenix became a “Temperance House” and went dry – attendees could visit that bar on their way out. From 1880 through 1883, the Annual Meetings were held in the County Treasurer’s Office at the Court House: no meal, no entertainment, and no liquid relief at all. The next peregrination was to the Dedham Water Company offices, in the “Bank Building” on the corner of Pearl and High Street: no meal, no entertainment, and no allowance for rival products to Dedham Water. In the period 1892 to 1900, the Annual Meetings were held in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall on High Street, across from the Post Office: no meal, no entertainment, and no record of what other refreshment might have been available.

In 1899, Dr, Edward Knobel, a Dedham Veterinarian, became the President – and the savior – of the Society. Recognizing that, since 1885, the group had become virtually moribund, with few new members coming in, and the old members barely going through the motions, he brought in new blood, instituted an all-stops-out membership drive, and re-cast the Annual Meetings as social events, in a banquet format. The meetings moved over to Greenleaf Hall, on the corner of High and Washington Streets, diagonally across from the old Phoenix House site. Later they were held on the top floor of Memorial Hall, under the austere influence of the south end of the horse headed north, appearing in Alvan Fisher’s painting of George Washington that now hangs in the Town Hall. Around the time of the First World War, the dinners shifted to the cafeteria at the old High School on Whiting Ave, and, in the early 1960’s, to the cafeteria of the new High School. The auditoriums at the schools provided much better setups for the entertainment, but alcohol was forbidden in the buildings – although there was an annual expression of wonderment at the remarkable variety of colors of the “water” in the glasses in the cafeteria. As growing attendance began to challenge the capacity of the school facilities, the need for a new site resulted in a shift to another Dedham institution: for the last thirty years or so, the Society has annually assembled at Moseley’s-on- the-Charles on Bridge Street.

Dr. Knobel’s campaign to resuscitate of the Society happened to coincide with the arrival of the sport of polo in the Town of Dedham, and a general re-awakening of horse enthusiasm. The Dedham Polo Club, which had its headquarters on High Street before moving up to Westfield Street, included among its membership numerous prominent individuals, including Allen Forbes, Sam Warren, Fred Stimson, B. Nason Hamlin, J. Eugene Cochrane, and Louis Brandeis. These social lions attracted more of the “horsey set” to Dedham, and it was quickly discovered that membership in the Society was just the thing to have, or to give as a gift to another horse aficionado. Inevitably, this process of popularization brought wider publicity; false alarms to the Society as the more prankish among the group “stole” horses from each other; and some bad poetry:

"If our Granddaddies could see us, Oh Lord, wouldn’t they laugh,
To see what a show we would make on a staff
Out chasing for horse thieves! By golly I’ll bet
Not one in ten of us a saddle can set,
But we can eat all the banquets and holler for more,
And thankful the horse thieves are gone on before
And left us so rich with plenty of swag,
We don’t care if we 'don’t know horse' from an old stone drag!"

The last flurries of real-life, functional activity on the part of the Society came in 1906, and 1909. In that former year, somebody swiped a horse and rig from Scarry’s Livery Stable, on Eastern Avenue, almost at the corner of Bryant Street. The Society mobilized, sent out flyers, drove around in motor cars for awhile, got themselves into a position where the Chief of Police was reporting to them - and failed to find the missing animal. The Clerk’s report to the Annual Meeting ended with the observation:

"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."

In 1909, “Old Blackie,” a horse belonging to Charlie Turner, the Town Treasurer and the Clerk-Treasurer of the Society, disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances from the horse sheds behind Memorial Hall. He later turned up tied to fence out in Norwood somewhere, but the hours preceding his discovery were hectic for the Society’s Riders. A bill was presented to the Annual Meeting, which listed the expenses of the pursuit:

Use of a mile-a-minute automobile… 60 minutes $60.00
Cash paid for fines when Blackie was seen in the distance 40.00
Sundries, including “Westwood Invigorator” .15

Total: $100.15

The whole invoice was declared “horserageous” and denied payment.

Although the Society now welcomes all applications for membership, it was not always thus. The original by-law limited memberships to persons resident in Dedham, but was modified at one time or another 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. Prior to total abolition of the geographic eligibility criteria, Robert (“Believe It or Not”) Ripley heard that the oldest anti-horse thief organization in the country was located in Dedham, and wrote to apply for a membership. Charles M. Gibson, who was the Clerk-Treasurer from 1926 through 1959, received the application, and returned it with a note:

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.

Since 1810, the Society has enrolled nearly 10,000 members, worldwide, although the actual number of living members is problematical, since many of those who have died have also failed to remove themselves from the rolls. Members have included Popes, most of the recent Presidents of the United States (except Jimmy Carter, who seems to have excited little interest), and General George Armstrong Custer (a posthumous selection). Raquel Welch was a spontaneous nomination, but was ignominiously blackballed. For a one-time ten-dollar fee, anyone may enroll him- or herself, or a friend for a lifetime membership, and create an affiliation with an historic organization, and the ancient Town of Dedham.