Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Horse Thieves -- Yesterday & Today

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. 

The 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 known 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 hide their identities.

That may have gone on in some parts of the country, but it was not the norm and certainly not everywhere. The 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 belonged to that group were most likely the same ones in the volunteer fire department and the ones who helped build their town.  Besides, most vigilance groups provided their towns and the areas they lived in with a sense of security and an immediate response to crime.

Some people don't understand that vigilance groups in the Old West were just an organized "hue and cry." In common law, a "hue and cry," which I believe 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 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, settle claim disputes, and even protect miners and newcomers.  During the 1850s, 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 would steal horses, 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 in thinking that way 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 a companion -- but 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 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 of 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. Few things matched how people looked at horse thieves back then. Horse thieves were considered lower than snakes and 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 English for someone lacking any shred of moral decency. These days, they might not be hung for stealing horses. But the fact is, today there are still horse thieves who are no good dirty rotten scoundrels who should face the full measure of the law. 

Today most stolen horses end up in horse auctions or slaughterhouses. And whatever you do, please don't think that it can't happen to you. I read that horse thieves are a very real law enforcement problem throughout rural America today.

Fact is, 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. That California statute went into effect on January 1st, 1997. It was amended in 2008, but this statute can be traced back to the 1800s.

California consolidated a variety of common law crimes into theft in 1927. Horse theft has always been what is considered an elevated class of "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.

The 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 the odds are still in their favor of not getting caught. The reason, people will try to get away with stealing and there simply isn't enough law enforcement to go around to stop it. And yes, like stealing cattle, stealing horses goes unpunished in many cases.  

Tom Correa

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