Some Thoughts on Horse Stealing and the History of Policing

I’ve been reluctant to write about the relationship between my research and recent debates over police reform. That’s in part because, as I’ve said earlier, I think it’s important that the microphone be given to people who are usually unheard. But the other reason is that I have spent so much of my research time lately working on the Grandpa’s Letters project that I have not done as thorough of a job as I would have liked since finishing Never Caught Twice keeping up with the history of law enforcement literature. I have been meaning to do some historiographical literature catching-up over the summer, and since it is always better to focus one’s reading in a specific direction than to cast a wide net and hope for the best, I think I’ll take a cue from recent events and work on that.

That being said, the book itself deals heavily with the history of policing and its relationship to the wider horse stealing phenomenon. And while I do not take any stance on whether or not police should be “defunded” or demilitarized in the book, I did notice several things while conducting my research that I think will shed some additional light on how police institutions themselves developed in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. Overall, I believe that a better understanding of police history is critical for both supporters and opponents of police defunding, as it will echo not only a lot of the problems we face with police agencies today, but also a lot of what made early policing agencies more efficient and in some ways more successful than their current counterparts.

So, here are three quick hits from my research to think about when engaging with police reform as a historical subject and as a contemporary issue.

Since these were hurriedly composed and written mostly without reference to my books or notes, I will welcome any corrections or questions in the comments section below.

The police were not always monolith

Today we tend to think about “the police” as a singular institution, even when they are not. Municipal police forces, county sheriffs’ offices, state highway patrols and investigative offices, plus the seemingly limitless alphabet soup of various federal agencies are all different institutions with different agendas. Movies and television shows frequently depict tensions between these different agencies as they quibble over cases, budgets, and jurisdictions. However, there are fewer identifiable contrasts between these organizations now than there were before. After all, if someone pulls you over, it hardly matters whether or not they are highway patrol or the local sheriff. On a macro level, however, interagency cooperation and the blurred lines between legal and geographic jurisdictions mean that in practice people are less likely to parse the differences between these different agencies.

Conversely, one characteristic shared by many, if not most, late-nineteenth century police departments was that they were operationally stratified. In Nebraska, sheriffs departments handled most of the felony offenses, while also servicing civil court documents like subpoenas. These roles kept them busy, so sheriffs did not do much patrolling, particularly at night. Thus, some towns like North Platte and Sidney, Nebraska created small police departments, which handled less serious offenders, like tramps, prostitutes, and drunks. North Platte even had its own “police court,” which adjudicated these offenses. Notably, North Platte also hired a night watchman, whose role was distinct from and independent of the police. Especially serious offenses could invite the involvement of a federal marshal.

This motley assembly of different law enforcement roles and organizations suggests that the public did not see law enforcement as a state-monopolized monolith, but as a spectrum of various officers and offices, ranging from night watchmen to federal marshals, who looked after their own specific niches. There was no police monolith, and, as NYPD detective Andre Davis (played by Chadwick Boseman) puts it in 21 Bridges when he wants to send thousands of police into Manhattan to search for two cop killers, no way to “flood the island with blue.”

The police were underfunded and paraprofessional

Almost across the board, various law enforcement agents and agencies in late-nineteenth century Nebraska were underfunded and understaffed. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department’s budget was comprised almost entirely of user fees, for instance, which were charged upon serving warrants, subpoenas, and other official legal papers. This offered few resources for things like horses, weapons, and deputy salaries. There was no other recourse, however. Much of the land in Lincoln County was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, and thanks to the federal government’s transcontinental funding model it did not have to pay taxes on that land. Starved of revenue, the County found creative alternatives. North Platte eventually hired a city marshal and, later, a municipal police force, but even these organizations paled in comparison to their contemporary equivalents.

Of course, this lack of funding was to some degree immaterial, since late-nineteenth century police had few if any of the technologies available to them then that they have now. Law enforcers had no tanks, no tear gas grenades, no cruisers or SUVs, no body armor or cameras, no computers, no cell phones . . . the Western meme of a disaffected sheriff’s deputy handing in his badge and gun and then walking off into the sunset was not too far away from the truth. The gun was his equipment, and the badge his uniform.

Because of the comparatively shallow learning curve for new law enforcers, the work itself was mostly paraprofessional – meaning that while law enforcers were empowered by the state to carry out their duties, they seldom received professional training or vetting through background checks. Virtually anyone could become – and did become – sheriff, including convicted criminals. Police science was not yet a thing, and while today the FBI is considered by many to represent the gold standard in professionalized and competent law enforcement and investigative competency, in the late-nineteenth century a private police force could have made a similar claim: the Pinkertons.

The logics of late-nineteenth century policing are consistent in this regard. Officers did not need much training because their roles were limited and there were few technologies at their disposal to master. Police departments did not need massive budgets because there was little hardware to purchase.

However, the limitations of this sort of policing were visible to everyone, and therefore few were satisfied with the results.

State-sponsored law enforcement was only marginally capable of protecting private property

This is where my horse stealing research comes into play, since one of the questions I had throughout the project was why so many people both today and during that time period believed that horse thieves needed to be hanged.

The answer seems obvious: horses were important, so hanging a horse thief was a powerful disincentive for anyone considering that line of work. But it isn’t quite that simple. In Nebraska, out of fifty-eight total documented lynchings statewide, vigilantes only killed nine men for stealing horses, and three of those murders occurred before the Civil War. The others were part of larger vigilante movements in the Niobrara Valley and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the vast majority of horse thieves either escaped or, if they were less lucky, spent a few years behind bars. However, by reading the newspapers in Nebraska from the late nineteenth century, one could certainly think that vigilante killings were a daily part of life in Nebraska. Threats to hang horse thieves were especially common, and even memoirs such as Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules overstate the role vigilantism played in keeping horse thieves in check.

As it turns out, vigilante threats were a more effective tool than vigilante violence. For one, threats were cheap – just a few posters and a couple of short blurbs in the county paper about a new anti-horse thief association could frighten prospective thieves from stealing. More importantly, the threats themselves did not threaten the fragile place already occupied by law enforcement in frontier communities, which according to some recent studies were already hotbeds of violence. For law enforcement to be functional, it could not spend all of its time and resources protecting private property. Nevertheless, someone had to protect peoples’ horses, which were quite possibly the most expensive AND essential things they owned.

Law enforcement did not have the training, resources, or personnel to proactively fight theft, so other things filled the vacuum. As a result, vigilante violence, threats of violence, and detective societies were some of the options used by farmers who did not have the money and the means employed by bigger firms and businesses. Those larger enterprises, like ranches, could mobilize their ranch hands and cowboys to pursue thieves, and stockmen associations helped organize and augment these efforts, for instance by hiring brand detectives to monitor cattle shipped via train. The railroad companies themselves hired their own detectives, and Union Pacific police were a common presence along the railroad in western Nebraska. Elsewhere in the country, business and factory owners could hire police to do their bidding, as if they were private mercenaries. In one especially notorious instance, Andrew Carnegie sent an army of Pinkertons into Homestead, Pennsylvania, to break a steel workers’ strike there in 1892.

These multiple and divergent institutions responsible for law enforcement and private property protection all coexisted with one another. But by the early twentieth-century, public police began to overtake private police forces as it became cheaper for firms to rely on the police, whose swelling budgets, professionalizing talent, and growing technological sophistication led to more police and better tools. New inventions, from telephones to street lamps, made it easier to surveil with fewer people and report back in record time. And as the police continue to justify growing budgets, they embraced more and bigger responsibilities, including private property protection.

It would be difficult to continue this discussion without both getting political and leaving my immediate field of expertise, although I will note that there is a significant and growing literature concerning the role between state-sponsored policing and its relationship to slavery and systemic racism throughout history. I don’t really tumble down these rabbit holes in the book, either, although I do suggest that horse stealing be used as a jumping off place for discussions over the history of state violence being used to protect private property, the use of law enforcement in facilitating and perpetrating racist violence, and, more generally, America’s continuing fascination with both policing and vigilantism.

But regardless of what your feelings are about or your politics on the subject, we all need to establish and unpack some central premises in the history of policing if we are to have any kind of rational, thoughtful discussion on the matter. Understanding how law enforcement institutions evolved over time is critical to evaluating their efficacy in the present. After all, as the above paragraphs show, police and policing are not static, unchanging concepts. They constantly evolve, shift, adapt, and morph as the communities they serve change around them. Right now a majority of Americans agree that policing in America needs to change its trajectory and adapt once again, this time to scarcer resources, more limited roles, and public demands for greater accountability. I hope that by thoughtfully embracing some of the very good work that has been done on the history of policing in the United States we can all eventually come to a consensus that will eliminate racially and geographically biased policing while still keeping all Americans – and their private property – safe. I’ll work on putting together a list sometime this summer.

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