Early settlers of Miami County came to the area without many resources to spare. Generally, these settlers were poorer families, who moved to unsettled areas because the land was cheap and abundant. An arriving family would usually have food, one or two pairs of clothing per person, some farming and building supplies, a wagon or carriage, and a horse or two. Everything else could be made or traded from other nearby families after getting settled. With such sparse possessions and resources, everything the family owned became precious, particularly the horse. A horse would be used for transportation, agriculture, and keeping up the homestead; it was also typically the most expensive item a family owned, and difficult to replace. This made the crime of horse thievery particularly awful, as it impacted every part of the life and livelihood of the affected family.
Despite the seriousness of the crime, horse thieves were rampant in the Midwest in the 19th century. Law enforcement was ineffective at stopping these thieves because of jurisdictional issues. Police could not cross state or county lines to apprehend a criminal without going through a lengthy extradition process. Criminals would jump on horses, ride them across a county line, use a pre-arranged stash of materials to switch out its bridle, harness, and other identifiable items (collectively referred to as tacking), and then ride it further, periodically changing the tacking or painting over distinguishing marks. By the time the police figured out what the thief had done and filled out the proper paperwork, the thief and horse were long gone. The victims—poor farmers and their families—had no support to help cover their loss and no way to recover their horse.
To combat this seemingly hopeless situation, a number of vigilante groups sprang up, with the first known organizations starting in the 1850s. These groups were not affiliated with official law enforcement, and so did not need to stay within county or state lines when hunting down a suspect. They were generally touted as “secret” organizations, even though every man of good standing in the town was welcomed as a member. The groups had two basic purposes: to track down horse thieves and to protect farmers from the loss of a horse. Each member paid annual dues to be a part of the organization. These dues were primarily used to pay for the expense of tracking down wanted horse thieves. Money was also given to members that had their horse stolen if the organization could not find the thief, making the group a sort of early insurance policy for nervous farmers.
These early vigilante groups were wildly successful and popular, to the point that many states gave them legal authority, and helped counties start their own chapters. Article 3 of Chapter 24 of the Revised Statutes of Indiana in 1891 gave detective associations the power of constables, allowing them to track, arrest, and detain suspects; the “pursuit and arrest of horse thieves” is specifically singled out as a primary goal.
Horse thieves were active in every part of the Midwest, including Miami County. After Indiana formally legalized detective associations, several members of the community began mobilizing people and resources to start a local chapter. The Miami County Detective Association was officially established on September 18, 1900, largely due to the efforts of its first President, John W. Volpert. Volpert was a master blacksmith who specialized in making and fitting horseshoes, meaning that any horse theft in the county affected him personally through his business. He was also a skilled community organizer, gaining experience by founding and recruiting for the Master Horseshoer Protective Association of Indiana in 1889. The Miami County Detective Association was officially part of the National Horse Thief Detective Association network, but left the “horse thief” part out of their own title because they pursued other criminals, including chicken thieves, automobile/carriage thieves, runaway children, and kidnappers.
Exact statistics for the amount of thieves captured by the Miami County Detective Association have not been recorded, but their success as an organization is without question. Twenty-seven people signed on in the charter group, but the organization grew to hundreds of members within a few years. Volpert was repeatedly reelected as President of the group, and also became Sheriff of Miami County. Madison County, Indiana, formed its own Horse Thief Detective Association after Volpert and the Miami County group found a stolen horse for a Madison County farmer named Wade Windle in 1906. The National Horse Thief Detective Association held its annual meeting in Peru in 1908, recognizing the merit of the Miami County chapter. Beyond catching thieves, the organization had a social element, with regular picnics and get-togethers between members and the community.
The Miami County Detective Association gained national recognition in 1905 after catching one of the most wanted horse thieves in the country, a man named Charles Fundy. Fundy was a career horse thief, with his record stating simply “no limit to number of horses stolen.” He was in his late 70s by the time the Miami County detectives began following his case, but was still active. To start the case, Fundy stole two sorrel horses and a buggy from Lou Ward of Peru. This crime launched a massive undertaking. The Huntington Herald reported that “every sheriff in Indiana…hunted for [Fundy]” after the Miami County Detective Association sent “thousands of letters… [and] telephone and telegraph messages [out] in all directions.” The Association spent about $1000 in the pursuit, equivalent to around $26,000 in modern dollars. It was Volpert himself who finally tracked Fundy down, catching him in Wisconsin and hauling him back to Indiana. It appears Fundy died shortly afterwards in prison in Michigan City.
Horse thief detective associations like the one in Miami County were an important part of pioneer life in the Midwest in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The growing popularity and affordability of automobiles, combined with increasing industrialization and urbanization, eventually made the associations obsolete. The groups also gained a negative reputation after several chapters became little more than enforcers and bullies for the Ku Klux Klan during its second resurgence in the 1920s and 1930s. By the time the Great Depression hit, nearly all of the organizations had disbanded due to lack of interest, members, and available funds. The few that remained became either novelties or historical preservation societies, including several that persist to this day—no doubt to the chagrin of horse thieves everywhere.
Interested in learning more about the Miami County Detective Association? You can click the links below to see some additional materials related to the organization, or come visit the Museum to see our full collection!