Like many vigilante groups in New England, the Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves came about for good reason in Worcester, Mass., in 1795.
The young United States faced the serious problem of horse stealing. It was nothing new. Early colonists squabbled with the Indians many times over horse stealing. And many cases of horse theft appear in court files. Not only did horses have considerable value, they contained 'the essential element within itself of putting distance between the flying fugitive and his pursuers.'
For years, members of the Worcester Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves pursued miscreants who made off with their four-legged property. But why on earth did it last until 1976?
During the American Revolution, a horses were very valuable commodities, and stealing them for use in the war was not uncommon. Afterward, rootless veterans invaded the countryside looking for economic opportunity. Law and order was in short supply.
But by the 1790s, farmers got fed up with trying to chase down their livestock. And farmers sensed that some criminals made horse stealing a full-time occupation.
In 1782, even before the war ended, the people of Northampton, Mass., established the Northampton Society for the Detection of Thieves and Robbers, probably the first in America. In Vermont, the Pownal Association to Counteract and Detect Horse Thieves and Robbers formed in 1789.
Over the next ten years, similar societies were formed in Woodstock and Glastonbury in Connecticut and Oxford, Mendon, Bellingham, Milford, Rehoboth, Seekonk, Pawtucket (now in Rhode Island) and Norton in Massachusetts. All developed mutual aid societies for detection of thieves.
The Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves
In 1795, a handful of men met in a Worcester tavern and formed the Association of Mutual Aid in Detecting Thieves to fight the increase in horse theft. The group started with 30 members and grew steadily afterwards. Isaiah Thomas mentions joining the organization in his diary. Later, members renamed it the Worcester Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves.
Its charter declared:
“Whereas, the practice of stealing has been so prevalent of late that it becomes necessary for the well disposed to unite in the most effectual measures for protecting their property against the hostile incursions of unprincipled individuals and lawless freebooters that infest our community."
Typically, a handbill showing horseback riders pursuing a horse thief with a "Stop Thief" speech balloon and the names of the committee members advertised the existence of the vigilante group.
On Jan. 10, 1803, the association assessed members another dollar because they'd spent $19.47 pursuing the thief who sold Capt. John Pierce's horse.
The Worcester society provided aid to victims of all kinds of theft -- up to a point. In 1840, thieves robbed a store owned by Daniel and Benjamin Goddard. They received a bill for $17.86, half the cost of chasing the robbers. Daniel belonged to the association, Benjamin did not.
More than 30 mutual aid societies existed in New England at one point, and they tended to cluster along the state borders. That was because if a thief made his way across a state line, lengthy extradition proceedings were required before he could be brought to another state for trial. Far easier to chase him down, retrieve the stolen materials and deliver him up for trial, with perhaps some rough justice applied along the way.
The Worcester Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves charged six shillings for membership. Members named an official “pursuing party” to chase down thieves. All members, though, had to join in a pursuit if asked by another member and shown evidence of a crime. Failure to help meant expulsion from the organization.
The association's minutes, though, from 1795-1938 contain only infrequent mention of the actual pursuit of thieves and recovery of property. By 1860, when Worcester had an established police force, its main purpose appeared to be to hold a jolly banquet every year.
The mutual aid societies functioned until the Civil War, and beyond in the western United States. Horse thieves grew into gangs, which used rather sophisticated methods to work their trade. Some members specialized in stealing. Others specialized in disguising the stolen animals by altering their appearance and any brand marks. Still others worked as salesmen who unloaded the stolen horses in the marketplace.
The rise of the modern police force put an end to the practical aspect of the societies in New England soon after the Civil War. However, they continued functioning much longer in the western states. In some instances, though, they persisted in New England as social organizations. The Worcester society met for more than 100 years, long after it had chased down any horse thieves.
But 10 years after the Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves dissolved, it revived itself. In 1905, when horse theft had long stopped plaguing the citizens of Worcester, it started up again 'to preserve Worcester history.' The tradition of jolly banquets continued.
Thanks to: Bullets, Badges, and Bridles: Horse Thieves and the Societies That Pursued Them by John K. Burchill and Picturesque Worcester: City and Environments by Elbridge Kingsley. This story about the Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves was updated in 2019.