Vigilante Lore

There was a time when the Lower Merion Society for the Detection and Prosecution of Horse Thieves and the Recovery of Stolen Horses lived its mission day in and day out. That time is long gone, but the colorful history—not to mention the society itself—remains.

 

There was a time when the Lower Merion Society for the Detection and Prosecution of Horse Thieves and the Recovery of Stolen Horses lived its mission day in and day out. That time is long gone, but the colorful history—not to mention the society itself—remains.

The Lower Merion Society for the Detection and Prosecution of Horse Thieves and the Recovery of Stolen Horses. It’s a mouthful, but the name says it all. At the start of the organization’s annual November dinner, treasurer Roy Wolfe wields the society’s branding iron, providing a mock status report that goes something like this: “Of our 16 horses, none have been stolen. We’re doing our job.”

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If nothing else, the historical horse company—a bygone vigilante group, really—is so well reputed in horse thieves’ circles that they’ve “left our membership alone for many years,” says George Painter III, an attorney from Narberth who was the society’s vice-president from the early 1970s up until two years ago.

Actually, Painter isn’t sure there are 16 horses—or 10 or even six—that the company currently insures. In recent years, one by the name of Jasper, owned by member Jim Winsor (past president of the Bridlewild Trails Association), was invited to a dinner so a farrier could shoe him. “That’s as close to a farrier or a horse as many of our [current] members have ever been,” Painter says.

Just in case there is a new horse on the block, members can still rent the iron—which carries the society’s brand, the letters L&M—for 25 cents a day. That’s what dues, and the penalty for missing a meeting, once cost. This year, annual dues increased from $5 to $10 for the first time since 1964.

Wolfe keeps the branding iron, and no one’s quite sure what he’s tried it on. “It’s been in a fire and heated to a cherry-red glow,” Painter says.

What’s horseplay today was once serious society business. Members were all horse owners. Horse thieves were a real threat. When the current company meets for its 189th annual dinner Nov. 10—Painter’s 64th birthday—at the circa-1743 Brittingham’s Irish Pub & Restaurant in Lafayette
Hill, it’ll be more about the fraternal fellowship best exhibited in the nifty horsey mottos for officers. President Minshall Painter, George’s son, is the “Grand Reinsman.” Vice president Harvard Wood III is the “Chief Driver.” The secretary, Robert Ball, is the “Keeper of the Stud Book.” Wolfe is the “Keeper of the Feed Bag.” Board of Steards members like Painter and Lower Merion Historical Society president Jerry Francis are “Keepers of the Oat Bin.”

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As always, the gathering—often hailed as Lower Merion’s greatest tradition—will begin with its near 150 members marching in to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Then there’s a ritualistic toast to the confusion of horse thieves. The overarching slogan, aligned with every traditional element of the 1818 society, remains: “Let Horse Thieves Beware.”

There’s always a memorial tribute to those members who have died, special speakers confined to singular subject matter —man’s greatest servant, the horse—and entertainment. The enduring menu has always been fixed on oysters (fried, raw, stewed and scalloped) followed by turkey with oyster stuffing and trimmings, then desert and cigars.

“That’s a problem,” Jerry Francis says. “Very few people like oysters today.”

Painter eats oysters once a year—at the annual dinner. “That’s my whole allotment,” he says. “As a general rule, I don’t order them. But my dad loved oysters, and so did my granddad.”

His grandfather, George Painter, was living in what was then Bala when he was a member in the 1920s. “There was a sense of community in those days,” Painter says. “Men were active in local civic associations, neighborhood clubs and fire companies. The same sort of people met with all the different organizations.”

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His father, George Painter Jr., followed as a horse company member, as did he. Now, his 34-year-old son, Minshall, and 36-year-old daughter, Winnifred, are fourth-generation members. Minshall’s two sons, Tyler Painter and Brayden Painter, will be
eligible when they turn 18. Winnifred doesn’t have children.

“It’s one of those things that hung on through families,” says Painter, who has traced his family roots to Samuel Painter, a 1699 purchaser of a Penn land grant in Chester County where the Radley Run Country Club now sits along the Brandywine Creek. “But with oddball groups, it’s tough to
keep membership up.”

 

BEFORE 1818, there were a number of so-called agricultural societies, groups organized to allow farmers to exchange new information and techniques about farming and animal husbandry. Parcel to that interest arose the common need to protect a farmer’s horses—his chief possessions, means of transportation and “horsepower” for working farms.

The Lower Merion group was an outgrowth of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society (founded in 1785, then disbanded in 1811). It paid for advertising and posted signs when a member’s horse was stolen. Its posses would then systematically search for the horse. If it wasn’t recovered, the group reimbursed the owner after the animal’s value was appraised. In short, the society was an insurance company. At the time, the only other form of insurance was for fires.

The most authentic source of the society’s formation is a daily 40-year diary Joseph Price kept from 1788 to 1828 (visit lowermerionhistory.org for a full transcript). Born in Merion in 1753, Price died in Wynnewood in 1828. He was a solider in the Pennsylvania Line in 1777. He later rose to major of the dragoons (mounted military men), regularly drilling his troop in their resplendent red-and-blue uniforms cut by a “tailor at Darby.”

The troop met at the “Sign of the Buck” in Haverford. Price was also a farmer, a carpenter (with Nathan Lewis, he built the Lower Merion Benevolent School, which houses the historical society), a cabinetmaker, undertaker, tax collector, auctioneer and road builder charged with the construction of much of the Lancaster Turnpike from Philadelphia to Paoli in the mid 1790s.

The original society was divided three times, the last recorded at a meeting in 1869 at the Green Tree Hotel. There, the original society that encompassed Lower Merion, Radnor and Haverford split off into the Lower Merion branch (which
retained the original name and survives) and the Radnor and Haverford branch (the so-called Middle Merion Society, which folded by the fall of 1922).

At one time, there were at least 21 horse companies in Montgomery County, according to Jane Keplinger Burris, once the director of the Historical Society of Montgomery County. She wrote that they “did indeed accomplish [their] purpose and reduced horse stealing to a minimum.”

Often a cry of “Stop, thief!” prompted farmers to drop their implements, jump on a horse and join the chase “for the most feared and despised of all humans,” she wrote. Posted handbills served as warnings to would-be trespassers.

Branded once insured, horses were integral to the township’s development as a farming community. For 1887’s Lower Merion assessment of areas then known as the Ardmore District, Lower District, East District, Upper District and West District, there were 918 property owners and 1,653 horses valued at $72,090.

“It shows we were a farming community,” says Francis, a society member since 2003 and a retired librarian who patented one of the first software packages for online databases. “The horse was the key to your livelihood.”

Burris summed up the value: Without a horse, a man was “seriously handicapped, both from a physical and social standpoint. [Because of their value,] horse stealing was a lucrative business to certain outlawed members of society. The usual reward offered for a runaway servant or slave was from 1 to 6 cents. The reward for a strayed or stolen horse was from 20 to 80 dollars.”

The earliest record of money paid for the recovery of a horse was on Nov. 10, 1855, when a $7 reward went to a Mr. Boyd. From 1861 to 1868, three horses were stolen and not recovered; their owners were reimbursed. In 1883, the society refused to pay for the recovery of
Michael Neeson’s horse, which wasn’t stolen. Rather, it had wandered away before returning home.

The last request for a stolen horse was made in May 1911. John Dunn’s bay horse, harness and business wagon disappeared. Dunn ran a livery stable in Ardmore. After he’d been reimbursed, his horse was recovered in Cape May, N.J. However, upon inspection, a committee of the society deemed it was no longer “worth a damn” and did not seek a refund.

Horse theft was most prevalent before the region’s rural character began changing in the 1870s with the arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1875, the one-mile Belmont Driving Track (then located on Meetinghouse Lane between Montgomery Avenue and Manayunk Road) re-established the importance of horses (albeit for different purposes). But it also brought crime, alcohol abuse and gambling. “People made money, then walked home at night to get to the train stations,” Francis says. “They were easy targets.”

Before the turn of last century, rural townships or boroughs didn’t levy taxes, so they couldn’t provide police protection. Back then, there were only county sheriffs or locally elected and funded constables. “That’s why neighbors had to rely on vigilantes,” Francis says. “You needed neighbors. No one farmer could make it, so they joined societies.”

In 1900, townships for populations of 300-plus persons per square mile were formed. Elected commissioners levied taxes, which paid for policemen. Lower Merion’s first lockup dates to 1900. Meanwhile, many farms became mansions and estates. The horse was still king, but for different reasons: They stopped pulling plows and began running steeplechase and helping their masters hunt.

Parts of Bridlewild Trails, a continuous-easement steeplechase created by estate owners, still exist. But there’s increasingly less cooperation among those who aren’t horse people—and subdivision and residential development has evaporated most 400- and 500-acre estates.

With the advent of the automobile, the telephone, an expanded insurance industry and organized law enforcement, the need for horse companies dwindled to almost nothing. They became obsolete everywhere, it seems, but on the Main Line. Only Lower Merion (whose member-ship sunk as low as 60 in 1945 and grew as high as 684 in 1969) and the Willistown Horse Company (with just four members) survive. “It’s kind of incredible,” Painter says. “We’re fortunate good people have kept them alive.”

In the first 100 years of Lower Merion’s organization, there were just six presidents. Perhaps the most noteworthy was Luther Parsons—”the Benjamin Franklin of Lower Merion Township,” Francis says—a blacksmith who owned a carriage shop at the corner of Montgomery and Parsons avenues. He led the society from 1915 to 1955 after joining in 1879, dying as president at the age of 97. His successor, Edward H. Snow, a 33-year principal of Ardmore Junior High School, was president from 1955 to 1972.

Today, members deny they belong to a secret society. “We’re not shy about telling people, and it’s both a show-stopper and conversation starter once you get the mouthful of a title out,” Painter says.

When Bala Cynwyd’s Francis joined, he was assigned to Class No. II, Posse “A,” and authorized that he shall go 60 miles in pursuit if necessary and “upon good information, may proceed as much farther as they may deem proper,” receiving “$1.50 per day traveling expenses.”

“It’s the equivalent today of having the Sloman Shield, but your neighbor doesn’t. The bad guys are going to rob the
neighbor,” Francis says. “In the old days, they met monthly, but now there aren’t any horses to be stolen, so there ain’t much to do.”


IN ITS annual dinner programs, the horse society’s aims are often outlined: insurance and protection against the “nefarious enemies of society known as horse thieves”; passing the society onto future generations “as a link in the chain of their American heritage”; and enabling members to be part of “an unusual group—without being responsible for anything other than showing up once a year for a congenial evening with old friends.”

The reservation-only dinners have been held at the General Wayne Inn, the Masonic Hall in Ardmore, the cafeterias at the old Ardmore Junior High, Bala Cynwyd Middle School and Lower Merion High, and more recently at Philadelphia Country Club. Costs—once troublesome at $1.25 a person—have soared to near $100 each.

“A lot of places don’t even want to mess with a three-course oyster meal,” Painter says.

The 175th event was held on the floor of the indoor polo rink at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne. The entertainment—a polo exhibition—was wonderful, but the women couldn’t navigate the dirt floor in high heels. “It was an interesting evening, but one we were not eager to repeat,” Painter admits.

Traditionally, men wear a tie with a horse on it; the ladies wear scarves adorned with a horse. As a door prize, men are given a cigar; the women receive a box of chocolates.

While women are always welcome, the men’s behavior at the annual dinner has tested their will. In 1857, Jane Rudolph and Mary Penn-Gaskill were the first females admitted, but their memberships didn’t last long, as was the case for other women in the 1870s and after World War I.

The horse company’s “Womanless Wedding” in 1931 was billed as the “biggest affair ever staged in Gladwyne.” Years later, society president Luther Parsons would admit that women always left the events because of “the loose talk, vulgarity and strong
tobacco smoke.”

In 1959, the constitution was actually revised to exclude women. But beginning in the late 1960s, again, wives were encouraged to join. It’s a trend that continues.

Some things have changed, though. “Today, they hand out cigars, but we’re in a non-smoking building,” Francis says. “We can’t get drunk because of DUIs. We can’t curse because women are present. In a sense, we’ve been emasculated. It’s a real bitch trying to smoke that cigar [outside] in November.”

The evening always concludes with a sung rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” after the awarding of the Blue Ribbon Vigilante Award (like a champion horse might wear) to members with 25 years of continuous service. There’s also a membership pin
after 10 years of loyalty.

Francis has a few years to wait for even a pin—but less, he hopes, for his Lower Merion Historical Society to assume control of the old horse company. “It belongs in Lower Merion like the dinner does,” he says.

The historical society already hosts some 70 events a year. Last year, it raised half a million dollars (mostly in grants). “I’d have a ball with it,” Francis pledges. “I want to make it grow. I want to sell ties with horses on them.”

The Painters remain noncommittal, but George doesn’t rule out the historical society’s long-term involvement.

“Jerry hasn’t been shy about letting me know he’s interested in grafting it into the Lower Merion Historical Society, and I think it may come to that,” he says. “But if a few of us left keep it going, I’d like to keep it as an independent organization. I’ve handed [the tradition] down to Minshall as my dad did with me—and as his dad was involved, too. Lots and lots of things have died and gone away—and they’re
never the same when we recreate them. The purpose we all serve is keeping this thing alive.”

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