The Anti-Horse Thief Association appears to be one of the very few vigilante groups that was truly interested in doing the right thing and catching the bad guys. Though it started as a vigilante group that primarily caught horse thieves, they later expanded their horizons and focused on all type of criminals and crimes. The Anti-Horse Thief Association or AHTA was a vigilant group that would catch criminals, gather evidence, work with local law enforcement and testify in court to make sure criminals got what was coming to them. They were about upholding the law. They didn’t want to break the law or take the law into their own hands.
The Anti-Horse Thief Association Takes Form
The AHTA was brought together by a farmer and live stock raiser named David Mckee in 1854 in Clark County Missouri. The vision of the organization was to protect horses and property that was being stolen by thieves living within the border area of Missouri, Iowa, Illinois where he had his home. It didn’t take much to get others on board with the program and the AHTA grew very quickly. In a short time they had chapters of the organization in several other states. Unlike many of the vigilante justice groups today, the AHTA was to bring criminals to justice through the court system, not vigilante judge and jury system that you have likely already read about.
Apparently because everyone including Mckee enlisted in the Army the AHTA was put on hold for nearly 10 years until Mckee’s disability allowed him to be discharged from the Army in 1863. In 1863 McKee revamped the AHTA with great support.
Anti-Horse Thief Association Memberships
The AHTA was a secret organization, however any man could join if you met requirements. The requirements stated that you be a citizen in good standing with the community and be over 18 years of age. Widows were apparently able to continue the membership after their husbands had passed away. Some chapters of the AHTA had lady Auxiliaries. These lady groups aided and assisted in social functions relating to the AHTA. No position within the vigilante group was a paid position however expenses were reimbursed. Everything done within the ATHA was voluntary. This kept membership expenses very low. The peak membership of the AHTA was 50,000 in 1916 which is quite astonishing.
How Did The AHTA Work?
The AHTA was fortunate to have such a large membership that allowed for them to essentially have a drag net of people and resources. If a horse was stolen from a member of the AHTA the president would assign over 10 members to hunt down the trail of the horse thief. If you were picked to help find the thief and declined you were fined $5.00 which I could imagine during the beginning of the association was no small amount of money. Once they located the trail of the thief, the members and owner of the horse would continue following the trail as long as it lasted.The interesting thing about this group is that they would not spare any expense in finding a horse thief even if the horse that was stolen didn’t amount to the cost of recovering the horse. So people believed it was about the principle. Criminals were not going to get away with it and they were going to be accountable for their actions.
If you requested the help of the AHTA to find a stolen horse and you were not a member of the organization then you would have to cover the cost incurred by the organization.
To give you an idea of how effective the AHTA was, from 1899 to 1909 the AHTA recovered live stock and horses valuing at $83,000. 272 individuals were convicted out of the 400 that were captured. These specific statistics only covered the state of Oklahoma.
As time passed and advancement in technology made life more modern for people in the United States horse thievery became less prone to happen. Then as World War I began to take a foothold so did the decline in membership. Just like the time during the Civil War, the association was having a difficult time keeping its members which put a strain on things. Then after the WWI completed, the association had to contend with the depression and poor rural areas which made it difficult to keep members. What made matters worse is that stealing became a misdemeanor offense which means they were punished less severely.
Trying to keep the association afloat they changed their name to the Anti-Thief Association with a mission of suppressing crime and finding it so it could be dealt with by the proper authorities. But with the depression, dust bowl and lack of members the association dwindled away. Apparently there are a couple of chapters that have an annual cookouts but it is more about keeping the history of the AHTA alive then anything (or so it would seem).
I believe that you will find that the AHTA is one of the few vigilante groups that carried out justice the right and proper way. They didn’t go above the law and didn’t take it in their own hands. They didn’t abuse their member numbers, their influence or power. It was about good people looking out for others without an agenda.