In the latest installment of an occasional series, we visit the office of Michael Roberts, a lecturer in Tufts’ Boston School of Occupational Therapy.
Its members include popes, most of the American presidents, George Armstrong Custer and Mikhail Gorbachev—and Michael Roberts, a lecturer in Tufts’ Boston School of Occupational Therapy. Roberts and his more famous brethren are members of the Society in Dedham (Mass.) for Apprehending Horse Thieves, and he has a certificate on his office wall to prove it. Founded in 1810, the organization bills itself as “the oldest existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States.”
How exactly was Roberts able to join such an august group? Anyone, it turns out, can apply. Membership, which over the years has numbered some 10,000 people, is approved by the majority of those attending the organization’s annual meeting—and it’s no problem if an applicant doesn’t even know that he or she has been nominated. “You can be admitted even if you have no idea the organization exists,” offers Roberts to explain how all those aforementioned notables got in.
A must for local politicians and business people, the annual get-togethers at a local restaurant are lively events. There are plenty of speeches and bad jokes, as well as generous amounts of food and drink.
Members are asked to pay $10 for a lifetime membership, with the money going into an account established in 1838 at the Dedham Savings Bank. The society uses the money for expenses and also makes charitable donations. It is believed to be the oldest private bank account used continuously in the United States.
Roberts, who is his department’s academic fieldwork coordinator, lives in Dedham and decided to join two years ago, thinking it would be a good way to get involved in the community.
While the annual dinners are now a humorous affair, the origins of the organization were quite serious. At the turn of the 19th century, Dedham struggled with a missing-horse problem, the modern equivalent of a rash of stolen motor vehicles. On June 4, 1810, “in an expression of public outrage,” according to the society’s website, a number of Dedham citizens assembled at Marsh’s Tavern to combat horse thievery.
If your horse was stolen 200 years ago, Roberts says, “you were in dire straits, as it could be crucial to your livelihood as a farmer or provide you access to trade. There hasn’t been a horse stolen in Dedham in 100 years, and I think the society is a big part of that.”
The society is very New England, he notes. “It’s got history and shows a community taking care of itself. I picture a bunch of village men in the early 1800s sitting around a tavern, pounding tankards on a table, demanding something be done.”
Despite allusions to “villains” who continued to perpetrate “the atrocious practice” of horse thievery, meetings were apparently quite dull until the turn of the 20th century, when a local veterinarian, Edward Knobel, took the reins of the organization and transformed its mission into a social event.
The society has turned down some applicants, most notably the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose name was put forth unsuccessfully by one member, and Robert Ripley, whose membership was suggested years ago at a time when there were geographical requirements. “Dear Mr. Ripley,” the clerk treasurer wrote then, “Since you are not a resident of Dedham (or Norwood or Westwood, or Dover or Norfolk County) you cannot join our Society. Believe it or not, Charles Gibson.”
Geographical constraints exist no longer, and Roberts says he hopes more of his friends and neighbors join, “because if a horse does get stolen in Dedham again, we’ll need as many hands on deck that we can get.”
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.