I hate the thought of anything to do with a mob or mob mentality, and our part of Texas has seen a lot of it throughout history. From my corner of the couch and with my laptop literally in my lap as I type, it is impossible for my 21st century mind to understand how it must have felt for citizens to feel forced to do for themselves what law enforcement could not or would not do for them.
Of course, there were those who just loved a good fight, a chance to let the adrenaline flow, and then there were those who (good citizen or not) were just mean. I have no insight into the hearts of the men who in 1884 formed the Anti-Horse Thief Association here in our part of the world of central Texas, but I assume they were desperate to save their property.
According to the 1938 autobiography of Benjamin Hardy Carlton, “In 1884 there was a gang of horse thieves that were well organized, their activities extending from Brownwood to Waco.”
The thieves had become so bold in their efforts that they actually had begun to steal in broad daylight, stealing along the way and then selling in Waco.
“This thievery became so prevalent the citizens were forced to take matters into their own hands…”
Up until this point, it had done no good to arrest the thieves because they always had plenty of people ready to give them an alibi for the time in question.
So what did they do?
They formed the association, and they waited. Finally, the sheriff arrested five thieves at once and put them all in the Hamilton County Jail even though he knew that when trial day came, they would all have airtight alibis.
I suppose the men in the association decided it was time to take action themselves, and they headed to the jail. Upon seeing what was about to happen, the sheriff suddenly felt a need to leave town, and according to Carlton, he headed his horse to the town of Carlton where he spent the night at their home.
All five of the horse thieves were taken from the jail and hanged in the same tree. Carlton does not say, but the norm was to leave men hanging for all to see as well as to send a message.
I can’t imagine a stronger message than the sight of five men swinging in the breeze, and apparently the horse thieves in the country understood this message loud and clear. Their back had been broken…at least in our part of the state.