The Society of Mutual Aid Against Thieves came about for good reason. In 1795, horse stealing was a serious problem in the new United States. It was nothing new. Early colonists squabbled with the Indians many times over the problem. And cases of horse thievery appear in court files.
During the American Revolution, a horse was a very valuable commodity, and stealing them for use in the war was not uncommon. When the war ended, the countryside was invaded by soldiers returning from the war and looking for economic opportunity. Law and order was in short supply.
But by the 1790s, farmers were getting fed up with trying to chase down their livestock. And there was a sense among the farmers that horse stealing was becoming a full-time occupation for some criminals.
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 was formed in 1789.
Over the next ten years, similar societies were formed in Woodstock and Glastonbury in Conn. and Oxford, Mendon, Bellingham, Milford, Rehoboth, Seekonk, Pawtucket (now in Rhode Island) and Norton in Mass. all developed mutual aid societies for detection of thieves.
A well-remembered society was formed in 1795, in Worcester, Mass.: The Worcester Association of Mutual Aid in Detecting Thieves. Thirty members joined in in its inaugural year, and it grew steadily afterwards. Isaiah Thomas mentions joining the organization in his diary.
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 :
“ We, the subscribers, do therefore associate ourselves to ether for the purpose of more effectually providing means for the recovery of any property that may be stolen from the members of this association, and of mutually aiding each other, by the adoption of the most efficient measures for bringing offenders to justice.”
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.
Six shillings was the membership fee in the Worcester association. An official “pursuing party” was named to chase down thieves, but all members were obligated to join in a pursuit if asked by another member and shown evidence that a crime had been committed. Failure to help meant the offending member would be expelled from the organization.
The mutual aid societies function into the 1860s, and beyond in the Western United States. Horse thieves grew into gangs, who used rather sophisticated methods to work their trade. Some members specialize in stealing. Others specialized in disguising the stolen animals by altering their appearance and any brand marks. Still others were the sales men 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, though they continued functioning much longer in the Western states. In some instances, however, they persisted as social organizations for many years. The Worcester society met for more than 100 years, long after it had chased down any horse thieves.
Book by John K. Burchill and Picturesque Worcester: City and Environments by Elbridge Kingsley