Several years ago while I was at the courthouse doing research in the old deed record books, I ran across paperwork dealing with the organization of a group called the Horse Thief Detective Association.
My initial reaction (apart from being puzzled as to why a document like that was included with land transfers and plat maps) was that it sounded like something out of a Mel Brooks movie.
Actually, the HTDA was a very real thing.
In the 19th century, horse thieves were a big problem in this state. Some rings of thieves were so well organized they had spies, and agents who operated stations where stolen horses could be kept on their way to being sold out of state.
That was bad news for the farmers of that day whose livelihoods depended upon their horses. Without a horse, a farmer couldn’t easily plow his fields, and any crops he did manage to grow couldn’t be transported to market.
In 1845, the situation became so serious in Montgomery County that some farmers near the small town of Wingate banded together to fight back. Calling themselves the “Council Grove Minute Men,” the group set about retrieving stolen horses and other property, and apprehending the criminals responsible.
The success of that first horse thief detective organization led to the state legislature passing a bill that authorized the creation of other similar rural law enforcement companies. 
Members of these companies were granted constable status, which allowed them to make arrests, but unlike a sheriff whose authority was restricted to his own county, the HDTA could cross county lines to pursue the bad guys. They even carried badges. (The badges are considered collectible today.)
In the following years, many companies were established in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, and in 1860, an umbrella organization, the National Horse Thief Detective Association, was formed.
I’m not entirely sure when the first chapter appeared in Hamilton County, but I found references to the “White River (Township?) Horse Thief Detective company” and the “Poplar Ridge (Carmel area) Horse Thief Detective Association” in 1885, and the latter may be older than that.
Eventually, just about every township in this county had at least one HTDA at one time or another.
Each year the National Horse Thief Detective Association held a two day convention in a different city. These were usually in Indiana since most companies were located here.
Noblesville hosted the fifty-first session in 1911. Unfortunately, that’s one of the years missing from the library’s newspaper collection, so relatively few details are available beyond the fact they met at the Wild Opera House and were entertained by the Noblesville Military Band.
When cars began to replace horses in the early years of the 20th century, the HTDA redirected their efforts to tracking down other types of lawbreakers, such as car thieves, bootleggers and chicken thieves. (Those people LOVED their chicken dinners.) In 1919 they even recovered a stolen robe!
By that point, however, membership was declining. The organization was well on its way to fading into history in the early 1920s when it caught the attention of the newly reorganized Ku Klux Klan. Klan leaders realized that by infiltrating the HTDA, they could legally maintain a force of armed vigilantes that could be used to pursue their own policies.
After Klan Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson was convicted of murder and the KKK fell apart, the HTDA continued, but it was never able to escape the taint of having been associated with the Klan.
In 1933 the Indiana General Assembly took away the HTDA’s constable status, which basically turned the companies into mere social groups. They disappeared from this area completely a few years later.
Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears each Wednesday in The Times. Contact her at