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The Dedham Society December 01, 2007E-mail this story E-mail this story
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Horse Thieves
Back in the 19th century, there was a society in Dedham, Mass. for apprehending horse thieves. The entire mission was contained in the name, The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves. Horse thievery was a real problem back then and so these sturdy young men were out to do something about it. The society still exists to this day. In fact they're having their annual meeting on Dec. 4. Of course, horse thievery isn't that big a problem in Dedham anymore, there being no horses anymore to steal. So the obvious question is, why is this society still around? What do they do? What do they meet about? Weekend America's Sean Cole finds out.

- - -
by Sean Cole

There is one known recording of the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves. It's a worn-out reel-to-reel tape of the 1975 annual banquet. In fact, the tape is so worn out that some other recording sort of bleeds through at a different speed. So it sounds as though the proceedings are being haunted by a vengeful, horse thief ghost.

I got the recording from Robert Hanson, who has been clerk treasurer of the society for so long that his voice is on the tape, running down the membership numbers and accounts.

"We the undersigned have examined the accounts of the clerk and treasurer for the year 1974," he said in 1975, "And find them correctly kept properly vouched and fairly accurate."

Jovial, manly laughter filled the room. The society president at the time piped up and said, "I like that 'fairly accurate'."

Hanson took over the role of clerk treasurer for his father, who took over for his father who, long ago, denied membership to Robert Ripley of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not." The rejection letter read:

Dear Mr. Ripley:

Since you are not a resident of Dedham (or Norwood, or Westwood, or Dover, or Norfolk County, of Suffolk County), you cannot join our Society.

Believe it or not,
Charles M. Gibson.

That was back when there was a residency requirement to join the society. Now, but for the $10 enrollment fee, there is no requirement to join the society.

"You can be a two-day-old baby," said Hanson, "Or you can be a 97-year-old man. You can live in Dedham or you can live in Pango Pango. We don't care. Send us the $10."

And then he laughed a wheezy laugh that follows almost everything he says about the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves.

"What does the group do the rest of the year?" I asked.

"Nothing!" [Wheezy laugh.]

Back in 1810, however, Dedham had a serious problem. A cartel of horse thieves infected the area. The local police were incompetent. So a group of vigilantes gathered at Marsh Tavern swearing never to rest until all the town's horses were safe. Apparently, the very existence of the society helped keep the problem at bay, which is good because there's no record of their actually catching anybody, and only scant evidence that they tried. The last time a horse was stolen in Dedham, in 1906, a bunch of members went careering around the countryside. They found no thief, but they did submit a bill for expenses at the next meeting.

"Including the renting of a 20-mile-an-hour automobile," Hanson said, "and for something or other called Westwood Invigorator."

"Do you know what that did?" I asked.

"It was liquid," he said.

With no more drunken non-apprehending to do, the society almost faded away. But then, in 1912, a veterinarian named Edward Knobel took over as president of the society, and came up with the annual banquet idea.

"So from 1912 forward, the primary function of the society was to hold a dinner," Hanson said, "and this coincided with the roaring 20s and something of a boom in pleasure horses, as opposed to work horses in town of Dedham. And it took off."

Now, though, even the pleasure horses seem to have fled Dedham. I stood in front of Dedham Post Office for about an hour, stopping passers-by. No one could remember the last time they saw a horse in Dedham.

I called around to various horse farms in the area, explaining that I was doing a story about the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves and could I meet their horses. Only one horse farm called me back, North Gate Farm in Sudbury, Mass., about 20 miles north of Dedham.

"This is Happy," said owner Pam Lupo, as we walked past the wide, outdoor horse pens, sunshine bouncing off of their coats, "And that's Sassy. Happy's not happy. But Sassy's very sassy."

At the end of the path we came to a much smaller pen with a much smaller horse in it: Glow-E (Pronounced "Glowy"), a runty little stud with a Bon Jovi haircut. Apparently, he believes he's enormous. When Lupo let him out of his pen, he reared up and let out the loudest whinny I've ever heard.

Given his size, Glow-E would probably be easy to steal. But Lupo said none of these horses would be easy to steal. This isn't the Wild West, she said. You'd need a trailer. And it's not like these horses are nobodies.

"We just brought in two new ponies from Connecticut and one of the girls that's here actually knows one of the ponies," Lupo said, "because she's seen it out at the horse shows. So even though it seems like you'd be able to take a horse and bring it someplace else and keep it or whatever, you really can't because it's such a small world of horses."

I asked Pam Lupo if she might want to join the society. She said she'd look into it. They do accept women by the way. Still, she might feel out of place. She knows something about horses.

"I once rode a horse. I'm trying to think..." said Peter Zahka, a Dedham attorney and the current president of the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves.

Then he corrected himself.

"I am not a daily rider, let me put it that way. But I find that being president, I'm more in a supervisory capacity."

Each president serves for one year, a year filled with a staggering lack of responsibility.

"I've received no calls," Zahka said, "No letters. No postcards. No communications whatsoever. We've held no fundraising events. And there's something to be said about something that every year you go to."

That is, only once a year.

"And then people sort of nominate people for the $10, who might not even know they're being nominated," he said, "There are a number of famous people who may not know that they're members."

One of them is former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. When Robert Hanson read his name form the nominee list at that 1975 annual banquet, the crowd let out some vague vocalization of displeasure.

I emailed Dukakis to ask him if he knew he'd been nominated 32 years ago. He said he'd never heard of the society. But the crowd's reaction was telling. Any group of people that has been around this long becomes a little Greek chorus for the ages. Jane Fonda was expunged from the rolls after the "Hanoi Jane" incident. Every U.S. president since Kennedy has been enrolled, save Jimmy Carter. No one got excited enough about him.

But Hanson said the last thing the society is trying to be his relevant. "Any intimation that the society was conscious of representing any trend of any nature whatsoever is entirely illusory," he said. (Wheezy laugh.)

"I just love how delighted you are by all of this," I said.

"Trying to find logic in the heart of all this thing is difficult so the only thing you can do is laugh at it!" he said.

"I think that's what my problem is," I said. "I'm trying to find logic in all of it."

"Dreamer," he laughed.

Extra Audio

Listen as Robert Hanson reads the clerk and treasurer's reports at the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves annual banquet in 1975. The tape is pretty rough, with another recording bleeding through at a slower speed (2:28).

Listen as Pam Lupo of North Gate Farm explains the names of her horses to Weekend America reporter Sean Cole (2:58).