History Mystery: Was Horse Stealing a Capital Crime in Texas?

Well, folks, I’m back . . . as in, back on Twitter. You can follow me at @luckettdr. I’m not going to sweat out my follower count too much – I like being able to opine freely, and lately that has been on politics – but I am trying to make an effort to bring more research-relevant content to my timeline. For my purposes, that means searching for tweets about horse stealing.

And after a couple of days doing just that I realized pretty quickly that there is a gaping hole in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. Although I talk at length about horse stealing in Nebraska, including its status in the penal code, I don’t mention similar or comparable laws in Texas. While that makes sense, obviously, given the title, the myth that horse thieves were lawfully hanged in Texas remains strong:

This one is my favorite:

My guess is . . . no, I don’t think anyone should be worried about being hanged for horse stealing. This is not to say that horse stealing is not still a problem (because it is), and the fact that people are bringing up hanging at all when referencing modern horse thieves speaks both to the gravity of the problem and the power of the myth itself. But is it actually a myth, or can horse thieves face the death penalty in Texas still?

Let’s find out!

The first thing we need to do is research what the laws in Texas actually were and read what they said about horse stealing. Since we are looking for a Texas state law, and Texas state laws were published, all we need to do in theory is consult the Texas penal code. The earliest digitized copy of Texas criminal law currently available through the Texas Law Library is the 1879 Penal Code of the State of Texas. Passed by the legislature on February 21, 1879, the code superseded preexisting Texas law and exhaustively laid out what was against the law in Texas, and what the prescribed penalty should be for each offense. Since this is a text-searchable PDF, all we need to do is hit Ctrl-F and search for “horse” until we get to the appropriate law.

If you want to skip the searching, you can find the relevant statute on page 97, in Title XVII, Chapter 11:

“If any person shall steal any horse, ass or mule, he shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary not less than five nor more than fifteen years.”

Here’s a screenshot of the law:

Notice that the punishment for stealing cattle was two to five years in jail, as opposed to between five and fifteen. Cattle were valuable in Texas, but apart from commodity production and pulling draft they had little utility. The difference in punishment between the two underscores how important horses really were, even if horse thieves did not necessarily face the death penalty for their crimes.

This seems pretty conclusive, right? It would be, except for the fact that the above law is from 1879. Texas established its independence from Mexico over three decades earlier, and the United States annexed it in 1845. Needless to say, a lot of violence occurred in Texas during the preceding thirty years: the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, a generation of warfare against the Comanches, and the explosion of Texas cattle ranching across the Plains. Wouldn’t it be more likely for horse stealing to be a capital crime during this era, as opposed to 1879, when things presumably cooled down a little bit in the Lone Star State?

To check the law even earlier, we will have to exit the Texas State Law Library and head over to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas. This is where we will find a PDF copy of The Penal Code of the State of Texas adopted by the sixth Legislature, passed into law and published in 1856. This volume represents a codification, rather than a revision, of existing laws – meaning that the laws inside were already on the books in one way or another, but had not yet been incorporated into a single body of legal code.

Once again, it does not take long to find out what the punishment for horse stealing was in Texas in 1856:

“Article 765. If any person shall steal any horse, gelding, mare, colt, ass, or mule, he shall be punished, by confinement in the Penitentiary, not less than two, nor more than seven years.” Here is a screenshot of the law from the book itself:

One difference that should immediately stand out is that the punishment for horse stealing was actually more severe in 1879 than it was in 1856. Why was that? There are a lot of reasons for this (I talk about them in the book, of course), but one important factor bears mentioning here: horses were more valuable after the Civil War than before. The massive herds of mustangs were declining or moving north, growing ranches required enormous numbers of horses for their remudas, and urbanization elsewhere pulled horses out of rural markets. There was more competition for horses during the late 1870s, and as demand and prices for horses rose so, too, did their role in society. They were used for transportation, plowing, pulling draft, and countless other applications. This made them more ubiquitous and more essential to everyday life.

Yet despite their critical role horses were subject to a host of maladies, from epizootics to snake bites to lighting strikes to old age. They were expensive and virtually uninsurable, and people without the funds to buy multiple horses often overused the ones they had, leading them to age rapidly. Thus, of all the possible problems to plague horse owners, horse thieves shouldered much of the burden, as they were easily scapegoated and could presumably be controlled more easily with threats and punishments than lighting strikes or poisonous snakes.

One of the most famous horse theft hanging scenes can be found in the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989). Shows like Lonesome Dove continued to propagate the belief that horse thieves were legally hanged. Although this is clearly a vigilante execution it is also apparent in the series that there will be absolutely no consequences for these actions.

Naturally, one possible punishment for horse stealing was hanging, and the popular mythology around hanging horse thieves was just as strong in the late-1870s as it is now. The question of whether or not vigilantes frequently hanged horse thieves in Texas is a separate question that deserves a separate answer, but if we assume that it was a strong possibility, then the harsher punishment prescription in 1879 makes a lot of sense. Texas levied five to fifteen year prison sentences against horse thieves not only in order to disincentivize the stealing of an incredibly valuable and uniquely indispensable form of property, but also in order to convince would-be vigilantes that the state was serious about punishing horse thieves.

This post just scratches the surface of what I’ve come to believe is a fascinating, multilayered story about horse theft and its vastly unappreciated and misunderstood role in shaping our laws, politics, culture, and history. It is a story I try to tell in my book. And even though my focus is on Nebraska, there are a LOT of parallels here between Texas and Nebraska law with respect to how they contend with horse stealing.

In the meantime, though, it seems as though our mystery is solved: horse stealing is not, and so far as I can tell never was, a hanging offense in the Lone Star State. Case closed.

Now comes the hard part: convincing everyone on Twitter.

Relearning How to Teach (and How to Speak)

Hi folks,
Sorry about the lack of posts this past week. One reason is because I’ve been busy with the three courses I’m teaching this summer, as well as spending time with visiting family. Another reason is that I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, and I need to review every word of it to make sure that the printer has correctly set the type (which looks gorgeous, by the way).

But a third reason is algorithmic: suddenly, due to both changing accounting measures at WordPress and Google Analytics, as well as too-rosy-to-be-true assumptions on my part, my day to day site traffic plunged this week from what I thought was a few hundred views a day to about a dozen. While that realization this week did not necessarily cause me to not want to blog anymore – after all, I’m not doing this to be a social media influencer or a professional blogger, but to give my actual writing and teaching work a virtual home base for both new and existing readers of my work – it has reduced the urgency I feel to produce filler content when not blogging about my Grandpa’s Letters (which, as mentioned elsewhere here, is the basis of my current book project).

I say that partly in exasperation over the sheer amount of work it takes to obtain a blogging audience, but also because I want to say a couple of things about online teaching, and while this might not be one of those promised album reviews this blog is the best place for me to do it.

First of all, teaching on Zoom in my office is more difficult and much less fulfilling than teaching in a classroom. It’s easy to understand the “less fulfilling” part: I am a bit of a ham when I’m in front of an audience (a few of you may remember me “acting” in my high school’s plays during the late 90s), and even on days when I don’t feeling like teaching a class for whatever reason the time seems to speed by when I’m in a classroom. I love the energy, the forced extroversion for an hour and a half, the campus atmosphere. I love the libraries, the manicured lawns, the trees when they explode pink and green during the spring and burn crimson and yellow in the fall. I love the ritual of grabbing a pre-class coffee, and I love it when students approach me on campus with a question or a comment. I miss all that. There’s nothing Zoom or Canvas or any other online intermediary can do to make those things better, unless they combine their AI and invent a vaccine for this ghastly disease.

Then there’s the job itself. I love telling stories. I’m thrilled that I have found a way to make it my job to tell stories. Have you ever watched Moana? In some ways I believe the historian’s job is not unlike that of Moana’s grandmother: she is both an educator and a keeper of the island’s lore and legends. She is the keeper of the island’s past and its secrets. She knows where the skeletons – and the boats – are buried. But she also loves the island and its people. History is not just a growing collection of books and vast archival holdings. It is tactile, visual (hence the debate over statues), and interpersonal. Human connection and lived experience are history’s emulsifiers. Unfortunately, these things are largely if not wholly absent on Zoom. If history was born around a campfire, it will someday die on a closed browser tab.

If you’re a Moana fan, there’s a ton of backstory in the deleted scenes . . .

Of course, Zoom and other intermediaries are necessary at the moment, especially given the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases throughout the United States, including here in California. And we are all learning how to navigate these new challenges throughout the world of education . . . in fact, my grievances hardly compare to those who are now tasked with teaching Kindergarten and First Grade online. But those challenges do seem to exist across the board, including for those of us who already have some online teaching experience (like me).

One of those challenges is my tendency to say “um” a lot. Weirdly enough, this is something I don’t do in class, since part of my theater and speech training was to excise such filler words from my vocabulary when speaking to an audience. However, when speaking on Zoom, I am sitting down and talking to a webcam, which is not even close to being the same thing. Suddenly, my lectures are full of “um”s, whereas when standing up and giving a lecture I will typically pause when I am thinking and, if necessary, fill the time with a sip of coffee (another great reason to bring coffee to class!).

In an effort to make my lectures more accessible, I started taking the sound files and mixing them into podcast episodes. That way students can listen to their lectures on the go or while doing other things. While this was a good idea, I think, the execution sounds very different in that I realized just how many filler words I use now:

17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II Horse Thief Historian

The 17B Lecture Series is a repository of my summer 17B Zoom lectures for my HIST 17B: United States History from 1865 to the present. In this episode we review WWII and I defend my native son attachment to Harry S Truman. Note: all episodes are labeled “explicit,” not because there is an overabundance of cursing, but because a curse word does sometimes slip out every now and then.
  1. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 10: World War II
  2. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 9: The New Deal
  3. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 8: The Roaring 20s and the Beginning of the Depression
  4. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 7: World War I
  5. 17B Lecture Series, Episode 6: Progressive Era

Practice will make perfect, and now that I am aware of the problem it is something I can begin to work on. One thing that I think will help: I just bought a nice, entry-level microphone for my broadcasts. It is not unobtrustive . . . like many broadcast mics it is inconveniently large. But I hope that, in addition to dramatically improving my sound quality, it will also trick my brain into believing that I’m actually behind a podium, and not my desk.

Speaking of my desk, I built the top out of oak and attached it to a standing desk base. Maybe my lectures would be a good time to dispense with the desk chair and start standing again.

In any event, although the podcast is a fun way to distribute lecture content, I’m not a podcaster at heart. Unlike with my recent blog analytics, I won’t be bothered by the fact that I can count the number of downloads on one hand. I can’t, ummm, imagine having to do one of those podcasts, ummm, regularly, you know? But my new microphone does look pretty cool.

One corner of my table-sized desk, complete with a picture of my kid manhandling my guitar, a Buffalo Bill mug with a bunch of pens and probably more scissors than I need, a set of horse coasters I bought in Kentucky (where else?), and my new Blue Yeti microphone. And yes, I need to clean my desk.

Ads, Albums, and Almosts

Hi folks,

You may have noticed that there are now ads on the website. That’s on me . . . this is not a free account, and I have my annual site renewal coming up, so every little bit helps. Anything above what it costs to run the site will naturally go towards my research and historical work, which as one might imagine is also expensive. I greatly appreciate your patience with this transition, and please do let me know if the ads become a hindrance to your ability to enjoy or read the posts here.

Also, as I wrote last week the final year of letters is going to take more time to produce, if for no other reason than there are twice as many letters for this period! Which is exciting, obviously, but it also means I’m going to need some time to review and write about them.

So what will I do in the interim?

First of all, I’m bringing back the book reviews! Since I have a stack of books about World War II, I might as well get started and update you on how that’s going. Since Friday is a good day for those, I will try to keep posting those each Friday, starting with this one.

In addition to that, one of my buddies from grad school recently posted a series of posts on Facebook about his ten most influential albums. I thought that was a pretty cool concept, but Facebook being what it is, I didn’t want to place my content there . . . so why not blog about them? I spent some time thinking about it, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks here, along with some stories, some historical context, and a little bit of musical criticism.

Of course, those of you who know me are probably aware that I never really put away my flannel shirts and Smashing Pumpkins CDs, so I narrowed my choices down to a wide variety of albums that reflect a broader range of interests and (as the list would imply) influences. Not necessarily my Desert Island albums, but those albums that challenged me, that opened me up to new worlds and pushed me in new directions. There’s some Johnny Cash, some Curtis Mayfield, some Sleater-Kinney, some . . . well, you’ll just have to stay tuned! And as I go through the list, I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Do you like these albums? Hate them? What should be on this list that isn’t? Please let me know in the comments!

Finally, a bit of good news: on Saturday I received the proofs for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. The book itself is gorgeous – the type, the font, even the title page . . . it all looks fantastic. The University of Nebraska Press does a fantastic job with all of their books, but I really love how they produced mine.

My job now is to review the proofs for typographical and layout errors over the next couple of weeks, and then send it back to be printed.

In other words: it’s almost done.

-Matt

Coming up in April 2020 and Beyond

Hi folks,
So far I like taking a month-on, month-off approach to my posts about Elmer’s letters to his parents, so I think I am going hold off on talking about 1944 (which was a VERY eventful year for Elmer) for at least a couple of weeks. But in the meantime I have started scanning and reviewing my grandparents’ correspondence with each other, which starts in summer 1943 with Elmer’s letters to Rose and in summer 1944 with Rose’s letters to Elmer. The latter will be a nice change of pace, I am sure – while Elmer’s letters are observant and contemplative, Rose had a sharp wit and a more playful writing style. They wrote very different kinds of letters, but each kind is fantastic in its own way. For April, I have written four posts that chronicle the first few months of their courtship. Although I briefly introduce Rose here, I’ll save most of her story for when I begin discussing and analyzing her letters. And her story is extraordinary.

Although I will be writing about these letters well into the summer, there will be a few other things going on as well. Barring any COVID-19-related disruptions I am still expecting my forthcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, to be released this fall by the University of Nebraska Press. I will begin using this space this summer to promote that book as well as tell my grandpa’s story, so expect some weird pivoting between horse thieves and World War II sailors. But I have some fun things planned, including some interesting stories that did not make it into the book for one reason or another, so once again please stay tuned.

Some other notes:

  • In case you haven’t noticed, I have programmed the Grandpa’s Letters posts to drop on Monday and Thursday mornings at 10am Pacific Time. I will do the same for the above-mentioned posts coming up about other Grandpa’s Letters-related documents. Posts on other subjects (like this one) may pop up at other times during the week.
  • Once again, if you have not subscribed yet, please do so! It would be a big help to me, even if you sign up using a spam email account or something similar that you seldom check. But it’s also great for work accounts, because, let’s face it, sometimes you need a five minute break from the grind.

Thanks again for reading along, and please don’t hesitate to share any posts you like on social media to help me get the word out.

Best,
Matt

Cover Art Released

Hi folks,
Great news: the University of Nebraska Press has just released the cover art for my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. Check it out:

The UNL Press has a fantastic art and marketing office, and they did an amazing job with my cover, just as they do for all of their other books. Check out their Spring/Summer 2020 catalog to see what I mean (and to maybe get some reading ideas for our collective self-quarantine) by clicking here.

The book is slated for release this November.

About the horse stealing book . . .

It’s no secret that most of the stuff I post here stems from my work digitizing, reading, and then blogging about the letters my grandpa wrote to his parents and his future wife, Rose, during World War II. Eventually I am going to work this material into a book manuscript, which I would really like to be available in time for the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 2021).

However, most of my research and historical work until recently has focused on horse stealing in the nineteenth-century American West, specifically Nebraska. I began this research nearly a decade ago, when the Autry National Center in Los Angeles awarded me a fellowship to conduct research on the John Bratt Ranching Collection. My goal was to use Bratt’s voluminous ranching records to better understand how horse stealing affected ranchers and their bottom line. The material, which few historians have used up until now, yielded some fascinating insights, and I used these to get a head start on my dissertation writing.

After finishing my dissertation, “Honor among Thieves: Horse Stealing and Culture in Lincoln County, Nebraska, 1860 – 1890” in 2014, I was slow to pick the project back up and finish it. However, I started getting serious about it a couple of years ago and decided to expand my analysis beyond Lincoln County to Western Nebraska in general. I finally finished the manuscript this summer, and it should be out next fall.

* Not the actual book cover, which has not yet been designed . . . this is just something I whipped up on Photoshop. The photo however will be in the book. (Source: Edward S. Curtis, Brulé war party, [1907?], b&w film copy negative, Edward S. Curtis Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-46958.)

I don’t want to give too much away about the book . . . after all, it is a narrative, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending! But my book, which is the first to tackle both American Indian horse raiding and white horse stealing as related historical phenomena, will cover a lot of ground. As the year goes by I will periodically post updates here, as well as tidbits from the book, items of interest that didn’t make the final cut, and other stuff.

I apologize in advance if the blog seems to ping-pong between the old West and the Pacific Theater, with occasional references to Midwestern earthquakes from time to time. Most academic historians are a bit less cluttered with their varying projects, although I would argue that my grandpa’s letters project would never happen if these letters did not literally fall in my lap (my dad, after my grandpa died, actually dropped a suitcase full of these letters inside right on my lap! It was pretty heavy . . .). In the meantime, once Never Caught Twice is out I would like to write another book about the Great Plains, which I’ve grown to love over the past ten years. I have some ideas, but, for now, I think I’m going to focus on writing just one book at a time. 🙂