This post is by Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Print Room Reference Assistant
In the autumn of 1815, a group of concerned citizens in Westchester County, New York banded together to put a stop to one of the most egregious crimes plaguing the region: horse stealing. Having identified a very real threat to their homes and communities, a committee of seven men set about drafting a constitution for a new society to protect themselves from the despicable acts of these thieves. Thus began the Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing.
The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing, whose original records are housed in the Society’s manuscript collections, was not the only organization of its kind to crop up in the 1800s, nor was New York the only region faced with this crime. Horse thieves freely roamed the countryside in much of nineteenth century America. Making off with another man’s animal was, of course, illegal, but law enforcement was often too ill-equipped or preoccupied to catch these bandits. Accordingly, in many places locals found the need to take the reins of justice into their own hands. For the price of a dollar or two, you could purchase peace of mind, resting easy in the knowledge that should any dastardly deviant try to steal your steed, a group of your neighbors would be in immediate pursuit.
For the first half of the century, the number of anti-theft organizations grew until it began to rival the number of horses available to be stolen. So, what sets the M.A.S.H.S. apart from the herd? It’s most famous member: Washington Irving.
At first glance, it may seem like a bad joke. The author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, who gave the Hudson Valley its most famous equestrian villain, is now looking for protection against marauding horsemen?
Though Irving was not a founding member of the Association, the organization’s early papers often read like one of his stories, conjuring dramatic imagery of terrorized villagers suffering from “the numerous depredations [which] have of late been committed, by persons unknown.” The language is consistently striking, detailing the manner in which suspected criminals were to be hunted down by a group of men known simply as the “Riders.” The Riders received their orders from an assemblage referred to in the papers as the “Committee of Vigilance,” which was set up as a watchdog for justice, detecting missing horses and dispatching any number of Riders in pursuit.
Washington Irving crossed the threshold into this thrilling world when he joined the Association in the early 1850s. Surprisingly, he came to the organization with a fair amount of expertise. Previous to settling in Westchester County in 1835, Irving had travelled extensively along America’s western frontier, where horse stealing was a part of daily life. He wrote in his journals about one particularly memorable adventure, in which he and his fellow travelers came across “a tall, red-haired, lank, leather faced settler with one eye habitually closed,” who was missing his horse. This man accused a member of the Osage Tribe, claiming they had been known to “steal horses and then bring them home, pretending to have found them and claiming a reward.” After riding out in search of the missing horse, Irving and his friends determined that the settler was not to be believed and returned in time to prevent this questionable individual from seeking out retribution on his own.
Whether these exploits influenced Irving’s actions as a member of the Mutual Association is unclear. The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing eventually disbanded in 1874, 15 years after Irving’s death. In 1903, The Tarrytown Argus remembered the group fondly as having stalwartly stood against the “evilly disposed persons from the outside world, who occasionally, quite too often we may infer, made predatory raids into this law abiding and peace-loving community.” It’s nice to know that after terrorizing Westchester residents with the idea of a headless horseman, Washington Irving was able to help bring some tranquility to the region.