Author examines Kansas’ horse-thief past

12/20/2013 12:00 AM

12/19/2013 5:46 PM

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Kansas was known for its open expanse of land, cattle trade and horse thievery. “Bullets, Bridles and Badges: Horse Thieves and the Societies that Pursued Them” examines the state’s seamier legacy – the theft of horses and the vigilante groups that surrounded them. The book’s author, John Burchill, a professor of history at Kansas Wesleyan University, will speak at Watermark Books and Cafe.

Soon to be released in paperback, the book digs into the underbelly of Kansas life through letters, pictures, ledgers, reports and oral accounts. Through painstaking research, Burchill uncovered never-before published information on this sometimes-brutal enterprise.

“This is the first attempt to do a comprehensive book on horse thieves,” Burchill said.

The horse was integral to the livelihood of pioneers.

“Horses for the pioneers were their tractor, equivalent to their car,” Burchill said.

Because horses were essential commodities to farmers and ranchers, they became valuable to thieves, and a black market developed. Thieves would steal the animals and hang out in the woods until the coast was clear. They would also transport horses across state borders in the hopes of avoiding arrest.

Burchill explains how, along with notifying the law, victims decided to take the law into their own hands. They formed organizations that hunted down the thieves.

Sometimes the lines between victim and criminal got blurry. Many pioneers were not complacent with the theft of their livelihood. Feeling violated, the farmers and ranchers wanted to teach the thief a lesson, and possibly deter future thefts.

“The majority of people being hung were hung for horse thievery,” Burchill said. “One newspaper account read, ‘We need to see some of our telephone poles decorated with these thieves.’ ”

Some towns, like Douglass, in Butler County, saw quite a bit of theft and quite a bit of vigilantism. One of the items Burchill used in his research was J. Mark Alley’s book, “The Violent Years: The Founding of a Kansas Town,” which was about Douglass.

“There was very little law enforcement from 1867-1871,” Alley said. “The violence all started from a ring of horse thieves.”

This violence led to several hangings and the state militia being called in.

“The story about Douglass’ early days is something I had heard about when I was a child,” Alley said.

After he retired, Alley decided he wanted to investigate the tales and put them in a book.

In addition to books such as Alley’s, Burchill also investigated newspaper accounts of thievery. At one point, horses were being burned inside barns, which baffled many Kansans. Eventually, someone decided to examine the deceased horses’ horseshoes. What they discovered was that counterfeit horses were being brought into the barns and burned. This made it look like the more expensive horses were being killed instead of stolen.

“It was like a modern day CSI,” Burchill said.

Burchill enjoys sprinkling in drama alongside facts and figures.

“You hear a little bit, and you want to know more,” he said. “It’s been a really intriguing journey.”

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