Horse Thief Detective Agencies


Seymour Detective Association No. 320. Seymour, Jackson County, Indiana. June 18, 1923. “The object of this corporation shall be for the purpose of detecting and apprehending horse thieves and other felons, and for mutual protection and indemnity against the acts of thieves and felons.” This was a “fill in the blanks” form letter that also described the organization of the Company as containing a captain, lieutenants, and constables. There were ten signatures on the second page of this document, which I believe was the minimum membership for a company. Also, the Horse Thief Agency Association was only formed in the state of Indiana.

According to the Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of Indiana for companies incorporated in Indiana there were 123 of these vigilante companies formed between November 1, 1906 and September 30, 1908. In comparison there were only nine new Detective Association companies in 1918, according to the Journal of the Fifty-Eighth Annual Session of the National Horse Thief Detective Association held in Richmond, Indiana on October 1-2, 1918. This Journal also claimed there were 8,810 members of the Association at that date, and that 5  horses, 14 autos, 18 sheep, and 1 robe [?] had been recovered that year. Some of the Companies had descriptive names such as the Good Intent Horse Thief Detective Association No. 159, the Invincible Detective Association  of Koscuisco County, Ind. No. 29, and the Young America Detective Association.

The Association’s 1918 Annual Journal also chronicled a large get-together which included a patriotic speech and an appreciation of participation in the meeting by a twelve-year old girl. With a membership of 8,810 and only 38 recoveries made by them in 1918, one wonders if the Association wasn’t more of a social association than a detection and apprehension organization.

There is discussion about whether and when this Association, formed in Indiana in the decade before the Civil War, morphed into a white supremacy group.  When the KKK became dominant in Indiana politics in the 1920s, they infiltrated the HTDA. An Indiana state law allowed members of the Association to travel across state lines to chase and apprehend felons, including “nomadic band[s] of gypsies” and those who “live in idleness, having no visible or known means of earning a fair, honest and reputable livelihood”. This phrase could be broadly interpreted and I can see why the KKK would want to participate in this organization.

There were a few Horse Thief Detective Agencies formed in the early 1930s for some reason, but the organization had died out by then.

by Robert F. Gilyeat, an Indiana State Archives volunteer



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