Horse thieves, a deadly occupation

Sandy Vasko

    “Get your hands off of my horse or I'll shoot!”
    As a fan of John Wayne, Roy Rodgers and Mr. Dillon (not necessarily in that order) the above words were familiar to me. They were also familiar to 19th century folks who lived in these parts. Let's look at the worst criminals there ever was - the horse thief!
    Braidwood, although noted for its civil disobedience, had one good thing going for it - very few horses were stolen.  The reason being that the miners, in most cases, were way too poor to afford the luxury of a horse, and the horses and mules owned by the company usually had workers around them night and day. So for the most part, horse stealing took place in other parts of the county.
    After the Civil War the economy took a down turn. There weren't enough jobs for the returning veterans, war production was over. This, in turn, lead to a rise in the number of homeless men wandering the countryside, which in turn led to a rise in horse thieves.  
    You must remember that stealing a horse, especially for those in rural areas, meant not only a loss of transportation (akin to stealing a car today) but also their livelihood as horses were also used in the fields and to haul things such as manure, hay, etc., literally taking food out of a person's mouth.
    The first incident I found comes from the Aug. 5, 1871 People's Advocate, “Alleged horse stealing - At 9 o'clock on last evening, a desperate looking character calling himself Wm. Stone, was arraigned before Esquire Young, charged with being a horse thief. From evidence adduced, it appears that at half past 1 o'clock yesterday, Stone boldly unhitched a fine young team belonging to James O'Riley (who was temporarily absent for a few minutes) and deliberately drove off in the direction of the Joliet Road. Having arrived at the farm house of Mr. Thornburg, the alleged thief stopped, fed the horses, and proceeded in the direction of Channahon. Officer Whitson, however, was on his track and overtook him with the team and wagon near the bridge, in the vicinity of that place. From thence he was brought with the spoils to this city, and was examined as above stated, and held over for trial in the sum of $50 (about $1,000 today).”
    Soon reports of horse thievery were a weekly occurrence. South of Wesley farmers were especially hard hit. In response the locals turned to vigilance committees, and became vigilantes. We read in November of 1874, “A vigilance committee has been organized along the river towns above this city. Suspicious characters will find it exceedingly warm - say in the neighborhood of Ira Smith's (near what is Kankakee State Park now) - and above. On arrival of any suspicious looking character, the farmers are at once warned and put on the alert. Horse thieves and burglars had better make their peace - spiritually and temporally - before operating in the neighborhood indicated. It would be well for farmers elsewhere to form societies of a like character, and when they catch an offender drown him.”
    To those who think that the last sentence was written in jest, I assure you it wasn't. Editor Conley was dead serious.  His feelings were echoed all over Will County. Up in Frankfort that same month the citizens were of the same mind.
    We read, “The town hall in the village of Frankfort, Will Co., was filled to overflowing by the bone and sinew of the surrounding inhabitants, for the purpose of forming a Horse Thief Detective Association and Vigilance Committee. The meeting being called to order, the following were nominated and elected a officers for the ensuing year.
    Enrolling of members being next in order, the goodly number of 102 were soon booked, and each paid their $1 (about $20 today) as initiation fee.
    It was then moved that each member be appointed as a committee of one to receive and enlist members residing in the townships of Frankfort, New Lenox and Green Garden, and report to the Captain and Treasurer.
    In addition to the constitution and by-laws, it was further moved “That any three members of this society while in pursuit of a horse thief and in capturing the same, may have the right, if so disposed, to hang the culprit on the most convenient limb; and we pledge our honors and fortunes to stand by and maintain every member in the execution of such a deed.
    This amendment to the constitution was received with a unanimous consent and greeted by a vociferous outburst of enthusiasm.”
    To the credit of the Frankfort citizens, I have not read of a single instance where the thief was hung on the spot, for the most part they were beat up a little and then hauled in to stand trial.