Story by Tom Correa
Horse thieves lived dangerously in the Old West. While stealing a horse in the east was considered a misdemeanor, the opposite was the case in the American west where a horse theft was considered a serious crime worthy of a rope and a short drop.
Fact is that there's no telling just how many horse thieves got a taste of Frontier Justice hanging from a tree limb after the law or the real owner caught up with them. Of course there was, more likely than not, the local vigilance committee.
Let's not forget that law was not very common back then. To have some law and order, many towns formed vigilante groups.
These "vigilance committees," better know as vigilante groups, were made up of the local citizens when no law was available and criminals preyed upon the citizenry.
Some think of vigilante groups as masked men who hid their identity. That may have gone on in some parts of the country, but it was not the norm and certainly not everywhere. Fact is that most folks knew exactly who was on the vigilance committee of their town.
Small towns are like that. Folks usually have an idea of what's going on around them. That's just the way it is in the country. Also there was another part of belonging to the local vigilance group, the same men that belong to that group were most likely the same one's on the volunteer fire department and the one's who help build their town.
And besides, most vigilance groups provided their towns and the area they lived in with a sense of security and an imediate response to crime. Some people don't understand that vigilance groups in the old west was just an organized "hue and cry."
In common law, a "hue and cry," which I belive is Latin for "a horn and shouting," is the process used when citizens are summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal. The "hue and cry" is what came before organized law enforcement was ever established.
Citizens who witnessed a crime would call out for help, and other citizens would quickly respond. And in fact in Old English law, it was a crime if you didn't respond.
The "hue and cry" was the law that meant that anyone who witnessed a crime could make a "hue and cry," and that the "hue and cry" must be kept up against the fleeing criminal until the felon is apprehended. It meant that all able-bodied men, upon hearing the shouts and calls for help, were obliged to assist in the pursuit of the criminal.
This is where we get the tradition of forming Posses to pursue outlaws and bandits, rustlers and horse thieves. The "hue and cry" is comparable to the Posse Comitatus law which says that all able-bodied men when asked will assist.
In the mining towns and camps like this part of the Mother Lode Country here in California, miners set up Miner's Courts to establish laws. And yes, miners set up vigilante groups to protect claims, settled claim disputes, and even protect miners and newcomers.
During the 1850's, thousands of San Francisco residents openly formed the Vigilance Committees to take back control of the city government from crooked city officials who they saw as being corrupt.
Vigilance groups are also said to have mediated land disputes during range wars, ruling on ranching areas and ranch boundaries. They also registered cattle brands, and yes, they also protected cattle and horses from rustlers and thieves. Folks understood that people will steal horse, and the horses needed to be protected.
"There ain't nothing lower than a horse thief!"
To me, one of the lowest life forms on earth is a horse thief! And I'm not alone these days, but it's nothing new.
Many folks in the Old West thought so, after all being afoot in the west meant ruin or death. Back then a horse was not a pet, he was a tool and just maybe companion. But for certain, a horse could definitely be a part of your livelihood.
To many, a horse not only meant transportation, but more importantly something you had to have in order to work and make a living. If you were a farmer or a rancher and your horses were stolen, then that criminal act could mean the end to your farm or problems herding cattle and working the range.
If you were a traveler atop your horse and stopped by a Highwayman, who then robbed you and stole your horse leaving you afoot, it could mean your death. Yes, a death brought on either at the hands of Indians or death at the hands of the elements. That, my friends, is why they hanged horse thieves in the Old West.
There were few things that matched how people looked at horse thieves back then. Horse thieves were considered lower than snakes, vermin, as no good and dirty rotten as one can get in life.
Even the term "Horse Thief" was an insult back then, and still is in some places today. The term is plain language for someone lacking any shred of moral decency.
These days they might not be hung for stealing horses, but the fact is that today there are still horse thieves that are as big no good dirty rotten scoundrels as there ever were.
Today most stolen horses end up in either horse auctions or slaughter houses. And whatever you do, please don't think that it can't happen to you. I read where horse thieves are a very real law enforcement problem throughout rural America. Fact is that one estimate puts the figure at as many as 40,000 to 55,000 horses stolen each year.
Today stealing a horse is still grand theft under California law. This California statute came into effect January 1, 1997 and was amended in 2008, however this statute can be traced back to the 1800's.
California consolidated a variety of common law crimes into theft in 1927. Horse theft has always been what is considered an elevated class - “grand theft”. The larceny of a horse was grand larceny as late as 1882, even though its value was less than $50. (People v. Salorse (1882) 62 Cal 139, 1882 Cal LEXIS 709).
It just shows how serious of a crime it was, and really still is. Granted no one's going to legally hang a man for stealing a horse today, that's not to say that some wouldn't want to, but these days it is a felony and prison will be there for a horse thief.
There is a problem today in that many states do not require that a person who is in possession of a horse show proof of ownership of the horse. This means that horse thieves today can sell stolen horses at horse auctions, slaughterhouses, or privately with very little fear of the law looking into where the horse came from.
This allows horse thieves to relax and not worry about criminal prosecution. Why, well all because this is the way the law works in many states.
Fact is that in many states today, even if your horse is properly identified, there are many auction houses and slaughterhouses that are not forced by law into making any sort of inspection of these markings.
Cattle rustlers have a harder time stealing cattle these days because of Brand Inspectors, but stealing horses goes unpunished in many cases.
But I guess this isn't anything new, after all even famed Old West lawman Wyatt Earp was a horse thief.
Imagine that! I guess there's no telling who is low enough to steal horses!
It happened in Arkansas, during April of 1871, Wyatt Earp was accused of horse theft in the Indian Territory. And yes, because it was a Territory, it was covered by Federal Law.
Fact is that the Federal Government started legal action against Wyatt Earp and his alleged accomplices right away. A Bill of Information was filed on April 1, 1871:
"April 1, 1871, Bill Of Information. U. S. vs Wyatt S. Earp, Ed Kennedy, John Shown, white men and not Indians or members of any tribe of Indians by birth or marriage or adoption on the 28th day of March A. D. 1871 in the Indian Country in said District did feloniously willfully steal, take away, carry away two horses each of the value of one hundred dollars, the property goods and chattels of one William Keys and prey a writ [signed] J. G. Owens."
Based on Deputy United States Marshal J. G. Owens' sworn statement a writ was issued by Commissioner James Churchill to bring the accused parties before the District Court.
United States of America, Western District of Arkansas
THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
To the Marshal of the Western District of Arkansas, --
WHEREAS, complaint on oath hath been made before me, charging that Wyatt S. Earp and Edward Kennedy did on or about the 28th day of March A.D. 1871, in the Western District of Arkansas feloniously steal and take away two horses from the lawful possession of James Keys, contrary to the form of the statute in such cases made and provided, and against the peace and dignity of the United States.
NOW THEREFORE, You are hereby Commanded, in the name of the President of the United States to apprehend the said Wyatt S. Earp and Edward Kennedy and bring their bodies forthwith, before me, Jas. O. Churchill, a Commissioner appointed by the United States District Court for said District, whenever they may be found, that they may then and there dealt with accordingly to law of said offense.
Given under my hand this 1st day of April, A. D. 1871, in the 95th year of our Independence.
Jas. O. Churchill
U. S. Commissioner, Western Dist. Arks.
It was on April 6, 1871, when Deputy United States Marshal J. G. Owens took Wyatt Earp into custody charging him with stealing horses. Commissioner James Churchill arraigned Wyatt Earp on April 14, 1871, and bond was set at $500. This is all true believe it or not.
For Wyatt Earp who was locked up to have a bail set at $500 shows the importance of the crime. Friends, the sum of $500 was a huge sum of money in 1871.
To give you an idea of how much money it was, understand that a United States Congressman made about $5000 a year, and the average working cowboy at the time made about $27 a month. Wyatt was never a Cowboy, but his income was hardly much more than one at that time of his life.
To give you an idea of what he was making those days, records show that years later when Wyatt Earp was appointed to the Wichita police force on April 21, 1875, he was paid a salary of $60 a month.And even later, in 1878, when he was Assitant Marshal of Dodge City, Wyatt's salary was $75 per month.
So whether the amount of bail was a big factor or not, no one knows, because 23 year old Wyatt Earp didn't let something like a $500 bail bond stop him from getting out of jail. Fact is that he remained in custody until he escaped in early May of 1871.
After his escape, on May 15th, 1871, Wyatt Earp was indicted on the charge of stealing horses. And believe it or not, following his escape, a warrant for his arrest was actually issued - but yes it was returned unserved on November 21, 1871.
Why was it returned unserved? I can't seem to find that out the full story on this, but it sounds like it was dropped because of "lack of service."
In other words, the Territory simply didn't have the manpower to go after an escaped horse thief
especially since his alleged co-defendant, who was lucky enough to have not escaped, Edward Kennedy, was later acquitted of the charge because of a lack of evidence.
Anna Shown, wife of John Shown, in a sworn statement accused Wyatt Earp and Ed Kennedy of forcing her husband to help steal the animals. She also claimed that Earp and Kennedy had threatened to kill her and her husband if he turned State's evidence and testified against them.
According to records it's believed that Wyatt Earp did indeed steal the horses. Although he was never tried for it in court. From what has been written, and records, it was assumed that Anna Shown's claims against Wyatt Earp and Ed Kennedy were true.
All in all who knows where it would have lead, but this incident wasn't the first to throw a bad light on the man who would later become a famed lawman after his death. In fact many researchers today question Wyatt Earp's actions during his life. It has lead some to wonder what side of the law was Wyatt really on?
As for Wyatt Earp almost getting his neck stretched? Well it's said that he was never shot because he was lucky, and maybe that has some truth to it. To me, it sounds like his luck started when he out ran Frontier Justice and the hangman's noose for being a horse thief.
For me, I can't help but question the moral and ethical quality of anyone who would steal a horse. To me, they are not exactly men of fine honorable character.
About this Author: Tom Correa, an ex-Marine originally from Hawaii has written short stories, poetry, and other works for around 35 years. He is the Editor/Owner of the American Cowboy Chronicles blogspot. Like most of us, he and his wife live simple and work to make ends meet while trying to lead a happy life.
You will find this entry on his blog at: http://americancowboychronicles.blogspot.com/2011/07/old-west-wyatt-earp-was-he-horse-thief.html
* "One source says 40,000 to 55,000 are stolen each year." - These numbers are based on a study done in the late 90's. There are no current numbers available.
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