Learning How to Explode: Anti-Horse Thief Societies, Stockgrower’s Associations, and Vigilantism along the Middle Border

I delivered this paper on October 17, 2020 at the online Western History Association Conference. Parts of it were taken from my Marquette University MA Thesis, which is entitled “In the Name of the Law: The Pine Bluff Detective Association and the Anti-Horse Thief Movement, 1885-1916” (2005).

This conference paper brings my research on extralegal responses to horse stealing full circle: it started with anti-horse thief associations in Wisconsin, and culminated most recently in my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. I don’t know if or when I will continue working on this subject (I have some ideas), but for now this feels like a good way to put a pin in it.

In the popular mind, vigilantism is most often associated with the frontier. One might think of Montana and California, where angry lynch mobs often wielded the hangman’s noose and where the lines between civil and legal authority were visibly blurred. Even though vigilante groups have appeared throughout the United States, some of the most spectacular – and memorable – movements have associated vigilantism with the San Francisco Committee of 1856, the Montana vigilant societies in 1864, and the Nebraska Niobrara during the 1880s. However, throughout the mid to late-nineteenth century, the vast majority of vigilante organizations never tied a noose or fired a shot. These groups, known as anti-horse thief associations, could be found throughout the Midwest, from Ohio all the way to eastern Nebraska. But for some reason these organizations, much like the rain, seemed to dry up at the 100th Meridian.

In my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, I discuss the role that vigilantism played in local efforts to mitigate horse theft. I argue that while there was relatively little vigilante activity directed against horse thieves in the area, homesteaders, small ranchers, and newspaper editors often invoked the threat of lynching as “the old system of justice” for dealing with thieves. They did this because a dearth of law enforcement, the sheer financial and utilitarian value of horses, and the almost non-existent borrowing market for acquiring new ones rendered them vulnerable to theft. Horse thieves became a bogeyman for all their problems as a result, and by the time people started stealing cars instead the horse thief figure had already entered Western mythology as a villain who, in the words of Nellie Snyder Yost, was “never caught twice.”

In this context, I wondered about the absence of anti-horse thief societies from Western Nebraska. They seemed ubiquitous farther east, and the loss of a horse was magnified on the Plains by the sod, aridity, long travel distances, and lack of cash, so why aren’t there more in that region? To answer this question, look to the Pine Bluff Detective Association, which was an anti-horse thief association based in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin.

Map data ©2020 Google

Pine Bluff was (and remains) a small hamlet about ten miles west of Madison. It was, in many ways, an idyllic, tranquil farm community. Industrious farmers made up the majority of the population and the town itself had a relatively low crime rate among its own citizenry. These conditions, however, did not guarantee citizens’ safety. For one, gangs of criminals were notorious for stealing horses in one community and then bringing them to another state for sale. Their actions precipitated an endless series of crime waves throughout the country that resulted in rising tensions among potential victims. Horse stealing was particularly feared – horses were essentially the most valuable pieces of property that farmers owned, with the exception of their house and land, and the horse market was so large and diverse that, depending on the time and place of the sale, thieves could usually sell their stolen goods for a high price. Fortunately for horse thieves, the high number of horses in agricultural areas such as Pine Bluff offered a steady supply.

In the spring of 1885, several horses were stolen in Middleton, a village between Pine Bluff and Madison. A series of thefts elsewhere in the area prompted Sheriff William Pierstorff to call for local communities to “organize for their own protection” in May. Apparently, the call was heeded. As panic began to grow within the farming communities of Dane County, the citizens of Pine Bluff and the surrounding villages united in June to form an anti-horse thief society, the Pine Bluff Detective Association. Anti-horse thief societies were generally nonviolent organizations that attempted to protect members’ property by facilitating local law enforcement and creating a “neighborhood watch” of sorts. “The people have become excited over the matter,” wrote William Dunn, the Pine Bluff correspondent for the Madison Democrat who would eventually become a member himself. He predicted, “Societies will be formed in nearly every town in this part of the county.” He also warned, “Suspicious characters traveling about will be roughly handled.” Although nobody from Pine Bluff seemed to have been directly affected by the outbreak of horse thefts, locals were already willing to mobilize and intimidate “suspicious characters” with vague threats.

Facing West along Mineral Point Road towards Pine Bluff. Google Maps, Map data ©2020 Google

What is more surprising is that these organizations were a common occurrence throughout the nation, especially the Midwest. Richard Maxwell Brown has hypothesized that hundreds of thousands of men and women were members of these societies during the latter half of the nineteenth century in an area stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes.

Before proceeding with the discussion of the P.B.D.A., however, it would be helpful to further frame it within the context of vigilantism. Consideration should be given to Wisconsin during the late nineteenth-century – was it a hotbed of vigilantism or a relatively quiet area? Although far from quiet, it was generally stable. Initially settled in the 1830s and granted statehood in 1848, Wisconsin had long ceased to be a frontier by 1880. In fact, in Brown’s lengthy catalog of the hundreds of known vigilante movements that have occurred throughout the United States, only one from Wisconsin made the list: the La Crosse Vigilance Committee of 1857, a short-lived organization created by the local population to help control a prostitution ring and other vices. Ultimately, an angry mob ended up burning down a local bordello. However, on the whole, Wisconsinites only lynched six men between 1882 and 1968, all of whom were white.

Despite these occurrences there was a much larger trend towards nonviolent, supplemental law enforcement in Wisconsin during the 1880s. Not only were horses extraordinarily valuable, but police were not yet technologically or institutionally able to proactively protect private property or investigate theft with forensic methods. This put the onus of private property protection on the private parties themselves. Between 1880 and 1890, anti-horse thief societies were founded in Waukesha (1881), Fulton (1884), Dayton (1884), Beloit (1887), Racine (1889), and Rock County (1890). Meanwhile, detective associations were founded in Dodge County (1881), Whitewater (1885), Palmyra (1888), and Ashland (1889). The Whitewater and Beloit societies had memberships numbering nearly 200, and the Ashland society published a polite, if stern, letter for a local murder suspect to leave the county. These, in fact, were only the larger societies and the ones that managed to file articles of incorporation, a procedure which actually gave these organizations the right to exercise constabulary powers and make arrests.

For the PBDA, historians can review its constitution and meeting record book at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Aside from the standard executive committee – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – it also allowed for the creation of a vigilance committee. This was the enforcement arm of the organization, and could be called upon in an emergency to assemble and hunt for any suspected thieves. However, the size of the organization probably allowed a great deal of informality among the members. If there was a situation, it was probably expected that most members would come to the aid of the victim and search for the thieves. At any rate, the vigilance committee and the president were responsible for the conduct of any searches. In  1887, a measure was passed allowing officers to draw $2 a day for expenses when conducting a search.

Pine Bluff Detective Association, Records (1885-1916), Wisconsin State Historical Society. Author photocopy

The members themselves reflected the diversity of the community’s social and economic strata. The P.B.D.A.’s first president, James Quigley, was born in Ireland in 1846. He settled in Springfield as a young man and learned the carpenter trade. His family, the Quigleys, were known at the Fourth of July picnic games for their brawn, which may or may not have helped James Quigley obtain his office as the leader of a vigilante group. He owned a farm of about 200 acres and had a wife with 2 children. However, he died in 1890 of appendicitis and was succeeded by James Bonner in 1891. Matt Anderson was perhaps the most prominent man to join the society. He served as a state assemblyman in 1871 and was a state senator from 1879- 1883. He owned a substantial dairy farm and, as mentioned above, retired fairly wealthy. Another prominent member was the Rev. Joseph Hausner, the pastor at St. Mary’s from 1905 until 1917. The latest in a long line of German priests dating back to the first mass at Johann Kalscheur’s home in 1852, Hausner continued to help hold his ethnically divided parish together. William Dunn had very positive things to say about him: “He was a good preacher . . . I can never forget his kindly Christian character and his exemplary life as a priest.” Like his predecessors, Hausner continued to help promote good relations in the community by refusing to condemn Protestantism, and he helped build a $5,000 parochial school during his first few years in the parish.

It is interesting that Hausner joined the P.B.D.A., especially since he did not hold property in the area or operate a farm. However, it is conceivable that he did so to promote crime awareness or facilitate, perhaps even join, what was at time a social organization. By promoting crime awareness, it is clear that his presence further distanced the organization from violence. Perhaps more importantly, priests in small villages such as Pine Bluff were active in building good community relations and promoting organizations that enabled farmers to get together with one another and socialize.

The most important source of information about the members comes from William Dunn, who wrote a memoir of his life in Pine Bluff. At 80, Dunn remembered a great deal about his past. Curiously, though, he mentions nothing of the P.B.D.A., despite describing the work of local pickpockets on three different occasions. Why wouldn’t he – or anyone else – have any reason not to mention or at least remember such a group, especially since it was clear that they were not a secret society? It is conceivable that it simply was not a big deal in the minds of the members.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Pine Bluff, WI. Photo by Corey Coyle (2009)

This hypothesis is especially interesting in light of the apparent inactivity of the organization. There is no record of the P.B.D.A. doing anything other than issuing a couple of $25 rewards in two separate years. For one thing, dairy farmers were exceedingly busy people. Add on the burdens of having a family, participating in church, and having other social, civic, and recreational preoccupations, one may ask just where the dairy farmers would have found the time to make patrols and hunt down criminals. The annual meetings did not meet their quota during certain years. This possible lack of interest may be related to the fact that there is no known evidence of any manhunts or captures during the society’s 31-year existence. It seems as though the executive board had little more to do than pass bylaws and call meetings.

This would all be irrelevant if their organization was something more than a sleight of hand trick to make gangs of horse thieves think that the countryside was more mobilized than otherwise thought. That’s what many locals later believed, anyway – according to a reporter who interviewed the P.B.D.A.’s only surviving member in the 1950s: “it is possible that the knowledge of such a body was enough to put the quietus on horse and cattle stealing.” Since horse thieves were well aware of what vigilance societies were capable of once riled up – note Dunn’s remark that “the people have become excited over the matter” – it would have served the P.B.D.A. well to have only created a caricature of vigilance, if not an actual instrument of such. Their use of rewards for the capture of thieves might have reinforced this system, though it is not known why the two rewards issued by the society were given.

Caricature or not, it lasted for 31 years. Towards the end of that span, it ceased to be useful, although it did amass 67 members by 1916. In the twentieth century, the organization often met at a tavern in Pine Bluff, in a building known for its entertainments as well as its political assemblies. There is not a whole lot to say about the organization between 1890 and 1916, although the seeds of its dissolution were sewn well before the turn of the century. By 1916, most of the founding members were either dead or too old to participate. The need for anti-horse thief societies had passed, as had their founders.

Old Schlitz’s Tavern. Google Maps, Map data ©2020 Google

When I first researched the Pine Bluff Detective Association some 15 years ago for my MA, I gave the organization the benefit of the doubt. I was reluctant to accept that the group was more of a social organization than a neighborhood watch. And my research on horse stealing in Western Nebraska bolstered, if anything, the notion that horses were important enough to late-nineteenth century Americans that they felt the need to protect them by any means necessary. But something stands out for me now that did not stand out nearly as conspicuously 15 years ago: Pine Bluff was, by all indications, a stable community. People raised their families there, and now many of their descendants continue to live in the immediate area. Dunn, Quigley, and Anderson were invested in this place. So too was the priest, Hausner, who likely would not have joined an organization whose members intended to murder wrongdoers.

The comparative rarity of lynchings in Wisconsin in some ways justifies the idea that most anti-horse thief societies were non-violent. After all, it makes sense to think that a well-organized and disciplined group of community watchers could successfully reduce crime to a point where it would no longer justify more rash vigilante action. But perhaps it’s actually the opposite: maybe the large number of thriving, longstanding anti-horse thief societies actually led to fewer lynchings. The history of vigilante violence elsewhere in the country seems to suggest this. Southern lynchings were a byproduct of white terrorism, not vigilantism, while farther west the largest vigilante movements occurred in relatively new communities with immature and graft-prone civil institutions. Anti-horse thief societies in this respect may actually act as emotional sponges, places where horse owners could express their fears and organize an active response to a disastrous outcome, like the loss of a horse, that would otherwise lie beyond their ability to act. In other words, rage does not necessarily lead to helplessness, but helplessness can easily lead to rage. Anti-horse thief organizations may have preempted that rage by giving an outlet to that helplessness. They might have even facilitated community organization, thereby promoting stability and peace. The fact that many other anti-horse thief societies were modeled after the Freemasons, with initiation rites and sacred insignia, suggests as much.

Perry Yeast, State Complaint for Grand Larceny, Grant County District Court Files, Hyannis, NE. Author photo.

More research on these groups as community organizations, rather than as vigilante sleeper cells, is needed. In the meantime, my more recent research on western Nebraska can provide a brief counter-example. In this region, stockman’s associations, rather than anti-horse thief associations, were the primary organizational tool for locals wishing to combat horse and other livestock theft. These organizations were primarily formed and controlled by ranchers who not only excluded but sometimes acted in concert against Homesteaders, farmers, and small-herd owners. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s involvement in the Johnson County War is surely the famous and most notorious example, of this. But we see similar machinations within the Northwest Nebraska Stockman’s Association, a smaller, regional cattlemen’s association based in Hyannis. Not only did the organization preclude farmers, but one of its executive members, Perry Yeast, was accused of running a rustling operation in the early 1890s and later convicted of fencing public lands in the early twentieth-century. Local homesteaders, meanwhile, had a much more difficult time in western Nebraska proving their claims and creating economically viable farms than farmers further to the east. Many left within five or ten years. Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers both chronicle the instability of these farming communities on the Great Plains, and a growing historical literature, including David Wishart’s masterful Last Days of the Rainbelt, is deepening our awareness of what can only be described as a failed frontier.

The farmers who persisted did so in spite of these circumstances. And those who did seldom prospered. Communities, rather than building up and out, instead came and went. Civil institutions remained immature. Neighbors who could be relied upon to help in times of crisis might leave at the drop of a hat. Yet the need to protect their animals remained. If anything, the lack of generational wealth and only moderately rising property values magnified the losses farmers incurred whenever their horses were stolen. In this socially dystopian landscape, farmers organizations like the Anti-Horse Thief Association could not thrive. Instead, farmers felt their feels with little support, little help, and few people to whom they could complain at the local tavern.

When we imagine vigilante organizations, we tend to think of the ones with the highest body counts. Yet quantitatively they were in the minority. Most organizations might not have even been organizations at all. They were groups where, in the evening, after the many tasks of the day had been concluded, farmers could sit and commune over their anxieties which never seemed to go away. They could aggressively make plans against actionable threats that jeopardized their lives and communities, like horse thieves, while raging against those threats that – like locusts, drought, bad weather, railroads – only demonstrated their helplessness in the face of unending economic precarity and danger. By turning their helplessness into rage, and then their rage into bonding, they could learn how to explode.