Frontier Justice for a Horse Thief
By Diane Euston
Tucked away in the northwestern corner of New Santa Fe Cemetery off Santa Fe Trail and Belleview is a small granite marker that leaves visitors curious of its history. “The Horse Thief- 1898” can be read, and the imagination comes alive as to its origins.
Before we examine the legend of the Horse Thief at New Santa Fe Cemetery, we must understand the severity of this crime.
As western expansion pushed through sparsely populated areas such as rural Jackson County, “vigilante justice” was often used for crimes such as stealing a horse since modern policing wasn’t present. This act of frontier justice meant there was no trial or jury. A criminal, or a person even suspected of committing an unjust act, was oftentimes “tried” on the spot for their supposed crimes.
Usually, these trials ended with a shot in the back or a hanging.
Stealing of livestock was common and considered a severe crime. In December 1827, the first courthouse in Jackson County was constructed in Independence, and the first case was for “horse stealing” by a man named William Reed.
In Fort Scott, Ks. in 1859, the “Anti Horse Thief Association” was organized by private citizens in order to curb the immense problem of bandits, including Jayhawkers and Missouri border ruffians, who were taking advantage of the unsettled conditions in the area. By 1863, other Anti Horse Thief Associations popped up all around the Midwest, and local citizens “policed” when someone claimed livestock was missing.
But sometimes these organizations were unreachable on the outskirts of civilization, and men felt it necessary to use frontier justice. No one stopped them. Newspapers even reported on these cases of horse theft and “trials” of unjust means.
An example of this involving a well-respected member of the community of New Santa Fe can be found in May 1871. Col. Marcus Gill, a man who owned a large farm that now encompasses all of Verona Hills subdivision, was hot on the trails of a man whom he suspected of stealing one of his horses from his farm.
According to a newspaper article published in the Daily Missouri Democrat, a bright sorrel horse was stolen from Gill. In turn, Gill offered up “$50 for the recovery of the horse and $150 for the capture of the thief.”
Possibly going off a lead, Gill rode with two friends to Pleasant Hill in search of the thief. They surveyed the town and found him on the corner of one of the streets. They demanded that he tell of the whereabouts of the horse and “at the same time threatened to shoot him on the spot.” The circumstances of this encounter were rather unfavorable to the thief, so he complied and showed the men where the horse was.
Even after this honest confession of the horse thief, Gill and his friends weren’t done yet. They bound him up and headed for New Santa Fe. The article reasons that because Pleasant Hill had a “scarcity of timber” in town, they had to travel in order to deliver their frontier justice.
The horse thief was found suspended from the limb of a tree at the Little Blue River.
Events such as these were commonplace in the rural communities, especially in the earlier years. As the 20th century approached, criminals, such as horse thieves, were brought to justice in a more civilized manner. Local sheriffs were elected to keep the peace within communities and ensure that judgments were given in courts and not by citizens.
The Horse Thief buried at New Santa Fe Cemetery, however, reminds us that everyone’s day in court was not always granted. By the turn of the century, the town of New Santa Fe was a skeleton of its former glory, but many families including the Lawsons, McKinneys and other pioneer families remained. And these families were less than okay with a horse thief drifting through town.
The legend states that a man stole a horse from a local farmer. The man wasn’t able to get away, and members of the community stopped him. A quick “frontier trial” began and ended in agreement to hang the thief from a tree near the cemetery. After he met his demise, they cut him down and buried him on the spot under the tree.
They didn’t dare bury a criminal inside the cemetery, as it was sacred ground!
For many years, a small rock marked the spot where townspeople were reminded of the horse thief that met his end in New Santa Fe. O.P. McKinney (1876-1957) would, along with other residents of the area, decorate the cemetery with flowers on loved ones’ graves. McKinney would always make a special trip to the rock in the northeastern corner of the cemetery and put flowers on the horse thief’s grave, too.
In later years, families felt guilty for the hanging of the horse thief. Some even admitted that the date of the horse thief’s demise wasn’t 1898 after all – it was in the 1900s! Following in McKinney’s tradition, people would take the time to stop by the horse thief’s grave and place flowers. In later years, descendants of these guilt-ridden townspeople erected a proper stone – using the date 1898 “because it didn’t sound as bad being in the 1800s”- that has now been replaced with a lovely rust-colored granite marker.
Frontier justice is now frowned upon, but it was a pivotal part of pioneer life in Jackson County, Mo. The Horse Thief’s grave at New Santa Fe Cemetery, still decorated with flowers by visitors, is a reminder of a portion of American history long since smoothed over and forgotten.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com