Dec 7, 2009

Horse-thieving Used to Be a Hanging Offense

Why? How was horse theft equated with the loss of life? Why so serious?


There will be another question later.

Update: Okay, I like the answers so far!

2nd Question: is it still a hanging offense to steal a horse--let's call it someone's means of livelihood-- and if not, why?


hoosierboy said...

In the vast American wilderness to be left without means of transportation could be a matter of life and death. A thief could leave you hundreds of miles from the nearest water hole or civilization.

In some cases your horse was your means of livelyhood (imagine a trucker who has his rig stolen).

Joan of Argghh! said...

Okay, probable death aside, why is stealing someone's means of livelihood a hanging offense? Did taking their means away mean certain death, or just a penurious and uncomfortable life for the poor sap what was robbed?

Is that as bad a just pluggin' 'em with a .45 slug?

Yabu (EOTIS) said...

How would Bobo weigh in?

leeann said...

If you take away a person's horse, they might be restricted to the tiny, backwoods village they're stuck in, slaving away at a thankless job in a local liquor establishment or evil megastore, with little or no hope of escape, doomed to spend the rest of their lives in droneful drudgery, bemoaning the loss of the only transportation they've ever known and doubly-determined to wreak injury and frontier justice on the villains that took that from them.

Btw, H told me yesterday I take things too personally. The fool.
He will pay...oh yes, he will pay.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Yes, LeeAnn, he will pay. Why hasn't he bought you a pony yet?

pamibe said...

Not only a means of conveyance, the horses were also integral in means of production. Not everyone plowed with a mule or cow.

The horse meant survival in several different ways.

Mad William Flint said...

Well, to stop people from stealin' horses I reckon.

Joan of Argghh! said...

So, it was at one time, so morally reprehensible to steal someone's means of making a living that justice counted it worthy of death.

Death was certainly a deterrent, William!

Second question: is it still a hanging offense to steal a horse, no, let's call it someone's means of livelihood... and if not, why?

And what has changed?

And yes, class, there will be another question unless you can guess where this is going. And I'm not even sure I know. . .

julie said...

I think it wasn't only about livelihood - or rather, that livelihood back then really was a matter of life and death. If you couldn't farm, you could die. If you were stranded in the middle of nowhere, you could die. If you lived in an urban area, there were ways of getting by without a horse, but out on the frontier horses were life. Thus horse theft was perhaps seen as almost as bad as shooting someone in the gut and leaving them to slowly, painfully bleed out.

These days, of course, livelihood is much less often a true matter of life and death, and more often a matter of comfort. Speaking quite generally, of course. There are so many ways to get assistance that stealing someone's means of livelihood is not regarded in the same way. Heck, these days that's a quick way of getting people hooked on the government cheese, so from a certain viewpoint it's not really such a bad thing.

That's my completely uneducated 2¢, anyway.

Joan of Argghh! said...

So, would it appear that social policy has an effect on our sense of justice. No one would hang a man for thievery anymore. Would they?

And if stealing something from someone resulted in a loss of life, we can still prosecute them on that same basis, I would suppose.

It was never for certain that a man would die without his horse, but it was a certain jeopardy that could lead to death if no rescue appeared. Certain poverty, at the least.

With the assurance of rescue in any circumstance, with the promise of wealth no matter what, with the growth of the insurance industry to replace what is lost, how is it that we even throw thieves in jail nowadays? Is thievery being ameliorated to a social blight and inconvenience? Is it not a moral wrong to be a thief?

We let them run Congress, at any rate. Hmmm. . . sorry, I'm drifting a bit here.

mkfreeberg said...

Can't remember where I had read this. But if you recall the end of Braveheart, the actual punishment for drawing and quartering involved three deaths. The way they showed this in the movie it wasn't quite clear. First you hung the guy by the neck, and while he was dangling there struggilng for his next breath, you slit his belly open and let his entrails spill onto a fire so he could watch them roast. And then while the smell of his intestines filled the air, you groped around in his bowels, upward, and then if you did this right you'd grab his heart and yank it out of his chest so that he could watch it stop beating. The rationale here was that the villain should die three deaths, because treason was a triple crime: Against God, against the King, and against the people of the realm.

I read it in this article that Longshanks, the king in the movie, was the actual inventor. Wiliam Wallace was not the first culprit put down this way, he was among the first. The practice was used much more widely through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Now with hanging a horse thief, I think the rationale is similar. It is a crime against the victim, of course, for all of the reasons stated above. Horse == life. And then it is a crime against the community. There is no welfare; instead, there is charity. There already is a man of the cloth who must survive on the alms of the town. And then there are some widows and their children, along with some old and sick. To steal a man's horse was to unnecessarily add to this dole.

Nowadays, it is federalized and so it is much less personal. So the safety net has been made into a hammock. I wonder if this has something to do with where this train of thought is going?

Thing I Know #87. In the past few years I notice the people with the largest television sets are the ones we are supposed to call “poor”.

Mad William Flint said...

Sowell cogently makes an argument that I've held for some time (in a woefully ill-formed state) that certain ideologies spring forth from the root supposition that the absolute nature of man is "fundamentally good."

If you were to start from that perspective then the very notion of thievery (to say nothing of ownership) indeed becomes a social inconvenience.

The logical extension of that would seem to bring motivation to wear away the societal structures in place for contending with those 'unenlightened social mores'.

But that's just a blog comment's worth of thought.

Joan of Argghh! said...

motivation to wear away the societal structures in place for contending with those 'unenlightened social mores'.

Hmmm. . . and a wise Latina may serve to enhance such a dangerous, silly notion.

Now, why would the accumulated minds of all the best choose to not see what a bunch of us just sitting around asking reasonable questions and having a discussion can see?

Why, we do it for free.

And for freedom.

I'm tired of being robbed of my means to a livelihood.

What will be the end result when a majority have been so robbed, and thrown into poverty, or even death panels, in order to line the pockets of the powerful?

That's right. . .

We'll start hanging horse thieves again.

ZZMike said...

Simple. Code of the West.

There are two really good answers:

pamibe: "The horse meant survival in several different ways."

Mad Will: "Well, to stop people from stealin' horses I reckon."

"is it still a hanging offense to steal a horse, no, let's call it someone's means of livelihood... and if not, why?"

Now cut that out!! We wuz just gettin' settled in.

Let's say that today's equivalent of a horse is a car. Grand Theft Auto is considered a fairly major crime, but not up there with axe-murder. So we lock 'em up for a decade or so.

Like Will, I reckon it was to keep people honest. They'd hang you for other things, too, and purty quick, compared to nowadays.

The Law was more spread out (at least, West of the Mississippi), and I think the fear of gettin' hanged kept most people honest.

"... with the growth of the insurance industry to replace what is lost, how is it that we even throw thieves in jail nowadays?"

Whoa Nellie!! You're barkin' down the wrong road. I'd say the answer is so obvious it ain't worth sayin'.

"We let them run Congress, at any rate."

OK, I see now that you do get it.

So why in tarnation do we keep electin' horse-thieves to Congress?

diamond dave said...

Not much I can add that hasn't already been said. Back then, robbing someone's livelihood often condemned the poor victim's family to some extremely tough times, if not fatal to the whole family. There just wasn't a social safety net in place to help people back then, other than the good grace of neighbors. Also back then, choices and consequences thereof were simpler concepts to the average folk, who tended to enforce them ruthlessly. Why? Because it served as an effective deterrent to most people from making unwise choices. Also personal responsibility was taken a lot more seriously then, since it could really be a matter of life or death (you don't work, you don't eat, and nobody's going to drag your worthless ass around for you).

Van said...

"Why? How was horse theft equated with the loss of life? Why so serious?"

For the same reason it was justifiable homicide to shoot someone cheating at cards - once upon a time people understood that not only was stealing wrong, but that all of your rights rested upon the principle of property rights (1776 comes to mind for some reason). Once upon a time rights weren't just spun as talkin' head fodder, but of central importance to your life. Theft wasn't looked at as merely stuff removed from your possession, it was looked at as a severe assault upon your life, it meant an attack on not only your rights, but those of the entire community, upon the peace, upon the law and the prosperity of all.

Now true, Joe Cowboy didn't necessarily run all that through his head when he caught up with a horse thief... more than likely he just tot'd it up as
"This mangy excuse for a person is civilly defective and a danger to us all. And he stole my damn horse! String em' up. "
... which amounts to the same.

2nd Question: is it still a hanging offense to steal a horse--let's call it someone's means of livelihood-- and if not, why?

Oh... I really like where ya'll are goin' with this one, ma'am.

Ex-Dissident said...

Joan, I will approach this answer from a different angle. Think of how attached someone becomes to their car today. Now imagine if this car had to be trained, had feelings, and was really more like the member of a family. The attachment many had to their horses was very emotional and probably much more intense than one would have to their dogs; I mean no disrespect to Pepper. I imagine some judges also felt that way. This law was based on emotion. When the car was born, we slowly distanced ourselves from these animals.

GUYK said...

Hanging a horse thief was a matter of self defense...insuring that the next horse stolen was not your least by this thief

Joan of Argghh! said...

Okay, horse thieving used to equal inhuman hardship on a physical and as ExD pointed out, an emotional level as well. It was considered a dangerous and evil thing to do. Out in the Wild West.

In New York City it likely wasn't a hanging offense to steal one's horse, was it? Cars and trolleys were coming online. Horse theft may have sent a man to the poor house, took food out of his child's mouth, but he could possibly recover because resources and jobs were more plentiful and at hand. So resources and external circumstances may have an effect on our sense of equal justice. Sorta.

Moral equivalency matters, don't you think? We've come from having pity on a man for stealing a crust of bread to feed his starving family, to having pity on a man for stealing a horse for his own profit or survival or whatever self-interest. We don't hang them under those external circumstances, but we still recognize it as a moral wrong.

Now, our external circumstances have continue to change dramatically and our corporate safety net has expanded so far as to make thieving for survival almost a thing of the past.

Is this progress?

Mad William Flint said...