Group stooped thieves

Anti-Theif Association found its way to the county


There was an organization in Illinois several years ago dedicated to catching thieves.

Information posted on Facebook by Andrea Livingston Switzer about the Ant-Thief Association (ATF) prompted a look at the organization and its antecedents. Switzer’s material is likely from the 1920s because the ATF was an offshoot of a similar, but earlier group.

The Anti-Horse Thief Association (AHTA) started in 1853 in Clark County, Missouri, and became a chartered entity in 1854. The AHTA arose during the movement west in the 1850s when horses were vital and horse thieves seemed to run rampant in the developing states west of Illinois.

Major David McKee decided to do something about it. His fledgling organization was just starting to show some success when the Civil War began.

The war was quite a setback for the AHTA when McKee, and many of the men that made up the association, enlisted. At the same time, horse and cattle thievery increased because of the desperate need for those animals and the tough economic times.

In 1863, McKee was discharged from the Army with a disability and dedicated his efforts to the ATHA cause. His organization helped lawmen and the courts so well that it flourished in many states.

They were not vigilantes riding hot on the tail of a thief with the intent to hang him from a tree. ATHA members turned over apprehended suspects to the law and also worked with the court system for convictions.

One reason the organization grew so large and quickly was because it offered a way for law-abiding citizens to work along with the law and not just be helpless victims. It was supposed to be a secret society, but with so many people involved many served openly.

When a theft was committed the leader of an individual group gathered 10 men to immediately look for leads and begin trailing in earnest. When they saw they were getting close, but not quite able to make an arrest, two men and the owner of the stolen animal continued until the suspect was uncovered. The suspect was taken to the group, whose members made a determination if they had enough evidence to work with the sheriff and legal experts for a conviction. Some suspects were let go.

Group members were only paid for their expenses, but that did not deter them. In many cases, a $25 horse might cost as much as $150 dollars to reclaim, but the adage was to complete the case as a matter of principal. One reason contributing to successes was quickly spreading the word about the theft via the telegraph and later by telephone.

Oklahoma records from 1899 to 1909 show 400 perpetrators were caught and 252 were convicted.

World War I disrupted the AHTA again when many members enlisted. The Great Depression did not help matters as most people were struggling to survive and working to earn every penny and many older members had dropped out by the time the Depression was over. The organization changed its name to the Anti-Theft Association in order to keep the efforts it stood for alive.

The precepts of the Illinois ATF were similar to what the AHTA had used and outlined important reasons for the organization, such as: “Humanity, justice and charity ” and “protect the innocent, bring the guilty to justice.”

A mission statement for the ATF included: “this order is to co-operate with all civic organizations in the betterment of the country; teaching citizenship, love of the Flag, patriotism and charity to the needy.”

The official emblem was a horseshoe with the initials ATA and the scales of justice within the shoe.

Edgar County had members in the organization although no documents detailing when the group was active or its leaders are known to exist. One of the things the ATF did was patrolling the 4-H grounds and the fairgrounds during the county fair in the 1940s and ’50s.

I remember talking to a member when I was checking my show cattle in the middle of the night. He explained who he was and he told me he was looking after the show animals and the equipment during the long night hours. He also questioned what was I doing there at that time of night.

We have bits and pieces of a story about an organization that started in the 1850s and continued in some way, shape or form for 100 years.

is now an organization that helps in the tracking and identification of stolen horses. It is called Stolen Horse International (SHI), which uses modern technology and if an owner reports the theft immediately, the success rate in recovering the horse and arresting the suspect is very respectable.