Stop Thief; A Unique Society

Prepared by Michael J. Davis

“They have an odd society down in the quiet little village of North Bridgton, Me.” 

So ran the headline of a curious piece in the Boston Daily Globe of February 27th, 1899.  It was referring to a small but dedicated group of people which, at the time, the citizens of Bridgton and many other towns the whole country round would have known implicitly but which, today, almost everyone has forgotten.  They are an oddity in Maine’s history, part of a greater cultural movement throughout New England which in turn is an oddity in the history of America.  They were called the “North Bridgton Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime,” and together these dedicated citizens worked tirelessly to keep the peace in our neighborhood for exactly 100 years. 

This is their story.

It began with a problem you don’t much hear of nowadays.  Horse theft.   On the frontier, which Bridgton very much was at the time of the founding, money and resources were scarce.  There was always very little to go around, always just enough to get by, and so the crime of theft was much more dangerous than it is today.  The loss of few pounds, of a vital piece of cooking equipment, of a horse; these were things which could and did ruin families, and the worst part of it was that owing to a lack of centralized police such depredations most often happened on the frontier, exactly where these losses were the most financially ruinous to their victims.  To get a better idea of the serious fear our ancestors had of theft at the end of the Eighteenth Century, we need only look to their early records.  In 1799 Merchant Andrews barred the chimney of his trading post at North Bridgton with scythe blades to keep out burglars who might attempt to crawl down the chimney.  Meanwhile, in nearby Norway, “Wimble Betty,” an early settler noted for her cleverness, led a posse of women armed with pitchforks to run down a trader who had cheated them.  In 1792, just up the hill on the Ridge, David Kendrick fought to death with a Native who had attempted to steal his teakettle.  His wife was forced to abandon the farm.

These incidents were everywhere, and the only forces which existed to combat them were the county sheriffs.  But Bridgton was then a backwater, the farthest inland town in Cumberland County, and our remote interior meant that sheriffs did not typically patrol here unless called.  This left Bridgton and our surrounding rural communities exposed and consequently ripe for the picking.  The settlers feared it, and the thieves knew it.  There soon became a class of modern-day highwaymen; robbers, thieves, cheats, who patrolled the rural roads and made careers out of robbery.  One such thief, Henry Tufts, would even achieve something of a perverse fame over the course of his long and fruitful career.  Born in 1748, Tufts has been described as a “horse thief, bigamist, burglar, adulterer, con man, scoundrel, counterfeiter, deserter and common criminal,” though it must be said that many of his exploits were far from common.  Tufts began his life of crime at age fourteen with the theft of “apples, pears, cucumbers, and other fruits of the earth,” soon graduating to “paper money bills,” and later “livestock;” frequently horses, which he would disguise by coloring them with dyes.  This trick must have been effective, for he even managed to steal his father’s horse undetected.  Based in Newmarket, New Hampshire, he operated for over thirty years in a range which extended throughout northern Massachusetts and the western foothills of the District of Maine.  In Bridgton’s vicinity he frequently passed through Fryeburg, and also spent several years living in Bethel with Molly Ockett.  A notorious escape artist, on those few occasions when he was caught he would always manage to escape from prison through the use of lock picks, hidden sledge hammers, and once by burning a hole through his cell’s wooden wall.

In 1794 Tufts escaped a death sentence for theft in Marblehead, Mass. and fled back to Maine, becoming a farmer in Limington, where in 1807 he published a fantastic account of his life entitled A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts, Now Residing at Lemington, in the District of Maine. In Substance as Compiled from his own Mouth.  Owing to Tufts’ notoriety, the book quickly became a best seller.  Reprinted in 1930 as the Autobiography of a Criminal, it remains an interesting and highly enjoyable read today.

But for the citizens of Maine in the first part of the Nineteenth Century, Tufts’ book wasn’t humorous, it was worrisome.  As the Portsmouth Journal of Literature & Politics would later observe, “Of what use are such memoirs to the public?  The lives of Stephen Burrows, Henry Tufts, and some others, by instructing rogues in knavery, have done as much injury to the public, as the individuals spoken of were capable of performing in the height of their career.”  The theft of a horse, equivalent to the theft of a car today, could do significant damage to one’s livelihood, and Tufts showed just how simple it was to get away with.  Horse theft was one of the most damaging kinds of theft a struggling farmer could fall victim too; it was also, sadly, one of the easiest heists for a con-man to pull off.  It was everything farmers feared, damaging, hard to prosecute, and common.  It happened everywhere, and Bridgton was no less spared than her neighbors.  From Portland’s Eastern Herald of May 3rd, 1793 we draw the following report of the theft of a horse in Bridgton from Timothy Gates, one of North Bridgton’s earliest settlers.

Fraudulently Taken!

From the Subscriber, on the 20th of last month, a dark brown Mare, with a saddle and bridle.  The Mare was about seven years old, rather small and well built, a small white spot in her forehead, and some white on one of her hind feet, just above the hoof – The person who took said Mare appeared to be about thirty years old, very dark complexion, about five feet seven inches high, large eye brows, large black beard, and had on a striped bottle green surtout, lambskin coat and corduroy breeches.  He said his name was John Burnam; but there is since some reason to believe that his name was Parly Haynes, and that he is the same person who took a horse in the same manner in March last, from a gentleman in Standish – Whoever will take up said Mare, and return her to the subscriber, and will secure the person above described, shall receive ten Dollars reward, and all necessary charges paid by

Timothy Gates

The urgency of the matter can be seen in fact that Gates paid to run this advertisement for three consecutive weeks, and while there is no record of whether the horse was ever returned we suspect it wasn’t; later that year Gates removed to Ohio with his family, owing to financial difficulties.  These depredations continued un-arrested into the Nineteenth Century, and with the advent of the War of 1812 we have found it recorded that a general atmosphere of “confusion and unrest” prevailed in the district, which “coupled with the fact that the… region was a well-travelled one because of its lakes, brought many suspicious strangers into the area.”  The Town of Bridgton had no standing police force at this time, and in 1814 the sheriff’s office was woefully understaffed; all “Cumberland and Oxford county troops” being then mustered out for “the defense of Portland.”  In this uncertain environment, lawlessness reigned.  Horse theft, burglary, fraud; these losses pained the citizens of North Bridgton, and it was not long before people in the village began to say that something must be done about it.  If the government was incapable of protecting them, they would have to organize to do so themselves.  The incident, later presented in the Bridgton Reporter of January 14th, 1859, runs as follows; “Near the close of the year 1814, a number of individuals residing in Bridgton and the neighboring towns, considering the legal detective force usually employed for the apprehension of felons, as often insufficient, and not always reliable, formed a society for the mutual protection of themselves and families, both in person and property, against thieves and felons of every grade.”  To better explain their motivations, the society soon published a short descriptive article in the Portland Gazette of January 16th, 1815, which details in their own words how “a numerous and respectable meeting of the citizens of Bridgton, and the towns in the vicinity convened in the hall of Samuel Andrews, Esq. in said Bridgton, and took into serious consideration the increasing and alarming tendency of war and the consequent pressure of the times to sap the moral principles and unhinge the correct habits of the community.  Therefore, the citizens present resolved to form, and did form themselves into a society for the prevention, detection and suppressing of crimes, by the name of ‘The Bridgton Society for the prevention and detection of theft, &c.’”

And so, out of an abundance of necessity, was born the North Bridgton Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime, or “Stop-Thief!” society for short; a nickname taken from the cry which commonly headlined newspaper reports of stolen horses.  The name may also be a knowing nod to the career of Mr. Tufts, for his use of this cry as a distraction technique seems to have been a trick he was commonly known for.  We find a note in the Bellows Falls Gazette in 1839 that the name “Reminds us of an incident in the autobiography of Henry Tufts.  That rogue… had committed a theft, – and being hotly pursued, he contrived to mingle with his pursuers, among whom he cried ‘stop thief’ as lustily as the most honest man of the posse” and thereby escaped detection.  What better a name for a citizen’s watch directly designed to prevent fiends like Tufts from slipping away?  So determined, newfound body politic determined to elect and keep in readiness “some ten or twelve of the most shrewd and active members, whose duty it is, when properly informed by the [society] President, that a crime has been committed against any member of the society, or any of the family of a member, to start immediately in pursuit of the thief or felon, and to continue the search until the offender is brought to justice.  The expenses of the pursuit being drawn from the Treasury of the society, the funds of which are made up by the admission fees of members.”

Stop Thief was organized and founded by the Hon. Nathaniel Howe, a former State Representative and prominent member of the Cumberland County Bar Association, who held the first official meeting on December 31st, 1814 in Samuel Andrews’ Masonic Hall at North Bridgton.  At this meeting an official constitution was drafted, which one later historian remarked was “written in his unmistakable hand.”   Bearing “the impress of a legal mind,” it remained the document by which the organization governed for a full century.  The charter members who rose to answer Mr. Howe’s call comprised some of the most influential and respectable citizens of the region, representing six towns and two counties.  After adopting Howe’s constitution, a list of officers were chosen comprising of a President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, and five member Standing Committee, roughly the equivalent to a Board of Trustees.  These were Dr. Samuel Farnsworth of Bridgton, President; Eli Longley, Esq. of Waterford, Vice President; and Samuel Andrews, Esq., of No. Bridgton, Treasurer.  Mr. Howe served as Secretary, and the Standing Committee consisted of Aaron Beeman and Capt. Asa Ingalls, Jr. of Bridgton, Calvin Farrar, Esq. and Edward Andrews, Esq. of Waterford, and Capt. Benjamin Foster of Harrison.  In addition to these officers were twenty regular members, who from several sources we have recently been able to fully identify.  They were Messrs. Stephen Beeman, Ira Crocker, James Emerson, Jacob Hazen, Francis Ingalls, Benjamin Kimball, Nathaniel Kimball, Aaron Kimball, Joseph McIntosh, and Charles Smith of Bridgton, William Morse, Jr., Edward Baker, William Monroe, Ebenezer Cross, Jr., Stephen Been, David Brown, and William Brown of Waterford, Ahera Sampson and Jacob Emerson of Harrison, and George Fitch of Baldwin.  We have also found it noted that Seba Smith, editor of the Portland Daily Courier, was involved in the society in its very early years, and while one historian has called him a founding member it is much more likely that he was simply one of its earliest supporters.  While Smith was in Bridgton in 1814 he was then only a teenager, and then enrolled as a student at Bridgton Academy.  Smith graduated from the Academy in November following a noteworthy performance at the Exhibition on October 11th, and it is believed that he had already left for Bowdoin College by the time of the December 31st meeting.  Even if he was present for the inaugural meeting of Stop Thief, he could certainly not have been involved with its operation in 1815, for his classes started in early January and he would remain at Bowdoin until his graduation four years later.  Pending the discovery of further information, from 1814 to 1818 Seba Smith’s association with Stop Thief can only be considered partial.

The above mentioned names comprise the twenty-nine, or possibly thirty, original members of the Stop-Thief Society, a remarkable group of local citizens who, in the absence of law, fell back upon an ancient English custom to form an extra-judicial organization for their own protection.  Such societies are a unique feature of New England, owing to our connection with and early reliance upon British common-law.  In the Boston Daily Globe of February 27th, 1899, one reporter observed; “This society at North Bridgton is in character a survival of the spirit of that class of ancient English guilds, whose purpose was to cooperate for the better protection of the local community against violence and crime, especially when the regular statutory provisions were deemed inadequate to the end in view.”  Likewise did Isaac Bassett Choate, a former headmaster of Bridgton Academy, observe in 1903 in an essay on the subject of Town Guilds in New England, in which he states; “As an example of a modern guild arising here in New England to supplement the civil authorities in the primal purposes of municipal government, may be mentioned certain organizations for the suppression of crime.  Their office is in the line of police regulation.  The demand for them is felt in the more sparsely settled regions, where the protection which the town authorities can give to life and property is slight.  I have before me ‘The Constitution of the Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime, organized at North Bridgton, Me., Dec. 31, 1814.’  This society was formed under the laws of Massachusetts…  This constitution is particularly suggestive of the ancient guilds… [and] it is easy for us to trace the resemblance between this organization in Maine and the association of Guilds in and about London.  The likeness is too close for one to fail to find an intimate relationship… Not only were the members of those English guilds obliged to pursue and track out the thief, even in other districts than their own, but the injured person also received compensation for his loss from the common fund.”

In this tradition we have found record of 72 such organizations formed throughout New England from 1768 to 1881, though most founding dates are clumped in the forty year window surrounding the turn of the century.  This movement was so exclusively a New England phenomena that Ms. Joan Jenness, writing a college paper on the Society in 1967, makes note that “The only society known to exist outside of New England was started in 1886 in New Moorefield, Ohio,” a region which, notably, was mainly settled by New-Englanders.  While our own Stop Thief society was clearly part of a broader cultural movement, it is remarkable that the North Bridgton society remains the only such organization documented in the state of Maine.  The area under Stop Thief’s watch comprised the towns of Bridgton, Harrison, Waterford, Sweden, Denmark, Naples, and Otisfield, a territory spanning both Cumberland and Oxford Counties (though it must be said that Naples did not formally exist until 1834).  It is worth noting that the society would only mobilize to avenge crimes committed against its members, though as it cost an annual fee of only 25 cents to be a member, it is clear that it was not intended to be an exclusive venture.  Indeed, the earliest reports we have seen indicate the Secretary was constantly advocating for more people to join the society, with the only restriction on membership being for those “who could be expected of collusion with felons,” and the only cause for expulsion being “for grossly immoral conduct.”

These annual fees were collected and paid out of the Treasury to fund the expenses of the Detective Committee, a ten member “Board of Riders” chosen from amongst the members who would be sent out if any member of the society reported a crime.  Each rider was required to keep himself “constantly furnished with a good and effective horse, and at all times hold himself in readiness.”  Upon the completion of a hunt, they were to present the Standing committee with “a correct and just account of time spent,” and also any “charges and expenses arising from the acts and operations of the Society in pursuit and apprehension of any thief or felon, and protecting the property and persons of members, and families of members from their depredations.”  If the thief went unpunished, then the Society operated as something of an insurance policy for members, as in the case of failure the Treasury would pay the owner the assessed value of their stolen goods.  A proviso is also made that if these expenses should ever exceed the funds of the Treasury, a poll charge would be assessed on members dependent on the value of their personal property, but in all the history of the Society it was never necessary to resort to this provision, as the membership fees were always sufficient to meet all bills.

This economy was mostly due to the fact that, for the first thirty years of Stop Thief’s existence, its very presence seems to have warded off the crimes it was formed to guard against.  Quite simply, after it was founded and the matter of its existence publically advertised, crime in our area largely dried up, and the degradation of morals they feared the war would bring never materialized.  And so for the period of an entire generation North Bridgton and all our surrounding country-side enjoyed the silent protection of the Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime; an organization clearly acting more in its role of Prevention than in any real Detection.  Perhaps in response to this dry spell, starting in the 1830’s the society, which had grown to 120 members, began to focus their public efforts on defending and justifying the need for their existence.  On March 14th, 1831 Moses Gould, Samuel Farnsworth, and Samuel Andrews published a letter in Seba Smith’s Daily Courier, writing “Mr. Smith – Sir, by publishing the following, it is believed you will aid the cause of Justice…  It is well understood that there is an organized gang of robbers, thieves, and rogues – that they have a regular line of communication throughout the United States and extending into the British American Provinces.  That there are many privy to the secret operations of this gang who would pass for honest persons.  Then why not let honest men have their Society, have their line of communication and concerted plan of operations for affording aid to those who suffer from the depredations of these midnight marauders?  By increasing the facilities for detecting crimes we may thereby render them less frequent, the perpetrators of them being kept in awe by the vigilance used for their apprehension… ”  We have also found a report in the Portland Weekly Advertiser of June 21st, 1836 which declares, in no uncertain terms, that at this time the Sherriff’s deputy assigned to cover the Bridgton region was both less than effective and politically corrupt.  While this was not a Society publication, the lack of public trust in the official arm of the law doubtless influenced the steady growth of Stop Thief’s patrons.  The following year, the Weekly Eastern Argus reports on June 16th that the Society had grown to “about one hundred and twenty men,” gathered together “to guard against any innovations upon their peace and prosperity… As evidence of the influence of this society, and of the good order that has prevailed among its members, I am informed that although some twenty years have passed away since their organization, not a rider has been called upon by any of the Society to saddle his pony and ride in pursuit of a violator of the laws.”

This peace held for another seven years, during which time it began to seem like the Society was hardly needed; but then, in mid-summer of 1844, it happened.  A pair of Eli Longley’s oxen were stolen from his farm in Waterford, and the Bridgton Riders were called for the first time.  This was a gala day for the society; its first robbery since the founding, and committed against none other than their first Vice President himself!  For as terrible as the occurrence of this crime was, it is clear that at least some of their members were inwardly grateful, for we find a sense of profound excitement in their later reporting on the event.  This was their big chance, and the Standing Committee knew it.  Rider Sumner Burnham was dispatched at once, and throwing down the cares of his daily life he marshalled his horse and rode pell-mell for Waterford, certain of a long days chase ahead of him…only to intercept the thief, one William Witts, leading the team along the road back towards Harrison. 

This event, though admittedly less than dramatic, was nonetheless one of extreme importance for the organization.  At long last Stop Thief had proven its worth, and beyond that, the capture of Witts forever dispelled the pernicious rumor that the society was not really necessary.  No more would they need to rely on the untested and rather argument “That the society has always been a prevention of crime, as shown by the comparatively small amount that has been committed within its territory.”  While their support had remained amongst their members, after thirty years without being called out some more doubtful citizens looked at this dry-spell and later asked; “We should like to know if crime is less common in the district over which the ‘Bridgton riders’ keep watch.”  William Witts’ testimony laid these criticisms in their graves, for he “when captured, said that if had he known there was such an organization in the community, he would never have given them reason to follow him.  ‘For,’ said he, ‘I know of similar societies in New York State, and I’d as like be followed by a pack of Hellhounds.”  This testimony, quoted in full, was used in advertisements for the society as late as 1899, proudly offering as evidence how “Remarks made by some of the offenders it has captured, have shown that evil doers fear the prompt and vigorous exertions made by such organizations; and are weary of making attempts within their limits.”  The arrest of Witts vastly increased the number of subscribers to the society, to the extent that by 1849 it was voted that the society’s dues for new members be changed from 25 cents a year to a whole $1.00 a year.

Meanwhile Sumner Burnham, the rider who caught the thief, became the hero of the society.  Admittedly he was better trained for this field of work than an average Rider; incident to his becoming a member of Stop Thief he had been a Cumberland County deputy sheriff, and the pride with which the society championed Burnham is plainly felt in their advertisements from the 1840’s in which they specifically boast “we have six riders… one an ex Sherrif.”  Jenness also notes that “Mr. Burnham is frequently referred in records of the period as a ‘famous detective,’ but unfortunately none of the chroniclers saw fit to preserve details of his exploits.”  This lament is echoed in an 1897 observation that “It is much to be regretted that the society’s records have not entered more into the details of the cases in which it has taken part, for it has really done good detective work.”  Perhaps as a clue towards his achievements, the Centennial History of Harrison described Sumner Burnham as; “distinguished for his rare courage and alertness in the detection of crimes, and his adventures in remote localities of the backwoods towns on pursuit of counterfeiters and horse thieves were startling and perilous.”  This triumph greatly increased the public’s trust in the society, and by 1855 there were 134 members.

In 1857 a North Bridgton man named George E. Chadbourne joined the society, and a year later was elected as its Secretary, thus connecting with Stop Thief the person for whom it would ultimately owe its long life.  At the time Mr. Chadbourne, who was also a Bridgton Selectman, could not know that he was, ultimately, to spend the next 56 years in that position.  It is from his pen that we are able to relate several other instances in which Stop Thief saved the day during the 1840’s and 50’s; evidently the decades following Burnham’s case were much more active than the decades preceding it.  In “A Communication Designed for the Reporter” on January 14th, 1859 Mr. Chadbourne writes “Various crimes and depredations have been committed upon members of this society, during the long period of its existence, such as burglaries, larceny of horses, carriages, cattle, merchandise, money, &c., and in no single instance has the offender escaped apprehension, conviction and the State Prison; and in every case save one, that of a recent occurrence of store breaking, all of the stolen property has been recovered and restored to its lawful owners.  In the last instance a portion of the merchandise was destroyed with the vain hope of avoiding detection.  The burglar, however, is now doing the State some service at Thomaston, and has secured for himself, by the “aid” of this society, a permanent home for a term of years.  Other stolen property of no small account, found on captured felons, has also been restored to its lawful owners who were not members of the society.  Some of the most adroit villains that ever infested this region, have by the united and systematic endeavors of his organization been brought to condign punishment, under circumstances where an ordinary police, or a few unaided and unencouraged individuals would have given up in despair.”  Evidently these “despairing” police were thankful for the society’s operation; perhaps having ex-officers under their employ served to boost their legitimacy.  By the 1850’s, we learn that the county sheriff’s office was actively reimbursing Stop Thief for their expenses.  A history of the society, published in Bridgton Academy’s Stranger of November 25th, 1897, makes note that “In nearly all the cases with which the society has had to deal, the county has refunded the expenses incurred in the pursuit of criminals.”

On May 23nd, 1860, the Society was called to action in what would become the biggest case of its entire existence.  The Bridgton Reporter of May 25th, 1860 relates; “Robbery.  Last night (22nd inst.) was committed one of the boldest robberies in this village that ever happened here.  The jewelry shop of Messrs. F.B. & J.H. Caswell was entered and the best watches – some eighteen in number – a quantity of bracelets, watch chains, rings and various other articles of jewelry were taken, to the amount of some two or three hundred dollars, although the amount cannot yet be fully ascertained.  The entrance was effected through the barber-shop, by false keys, or by picking the lock and thence into the jewelry store – the next room – by cutting out a panel of the door and removing a small partition.  No stranger to the premises, could have done this so easily, and the tools found, were not those of the burglar, by profession.  The rogue or rogues next preceded to the stable of Mr. Benjamin Walker and stole his horse.  A watchman in the factory, says, that near midnight, he same some person leading a horse down the street.  Runners are out in all directions, but no trace of the property has yet been found.” 

Likely owing to the increased public response throughout the 1850’s, it happened that both F.B. Caswell and Benjamin Walker were dues-paying members of Stop Thief, and better yet, the pair were also both members of the ten man Detective Committee; the so-called ‘runners’ which the Reporter tells were sent out.  From the records of the Society, we find the riders on that night were Messrs. Caswell and Walker (probably on a borrowed horse), together with L.C. Nelson, Alvin Davis, and William Cross.  These five set out in hot pursuit, following the typical operating procedure of each taking a separate highway out of town; “summoned into immediate service, detachments start out in private teams, and radiate in all directions, along the several highways.”  An update on the Reporter’s article, issued just before publication, soon reported their findings to the town; “This Wednesday evening, we learn that the horse was found in Raymond feeding by the roadside, and one of the watches found in the road.” 

Walker’s horse had been recovered; a partial success, but the watches had in the main been lost, together with the culprit.  The society despaired for a time, but Stop Thief had builder better than they knew, as the saying goes, as less than a year later a boy, digging in a sandbank in Windham, discovered a cache of watches and jewelry which soon proved to be Mr. Caswell’s stolen goods.  Evidently the thief, fearful of the riders bearing down upon him, had abandoned his horse on the Raymond/Windham town line and, making for the nearest brook, hastily secreted his plunder and fled on foot, never to return.  While the culprit had escaped, Stop Thief had done its job once again.  The goods were safe, and their swift action in the hours after the theft was widely credited with having forced the culprit’s hand.  Doubtless this incident was among the few referred to when the above quoted 1897 history states “its riders have had many interesting adventures; though that have not always had the honor of capturing their quarry, they have, in almost every instance, been the means direct or indirect, of bringing about the desired result.”  Commenting on their Society’s manifest successes, George Chadbourne once wrote: “This society is now regarded by its members as one of the “Permanent Institutions,” and considered as necessary and useful in its peculiar sphere of operation, as Mutual Insurance, or any other association formed upon the interchangeable principle.  It has thus far worked well, and given entire satisfaction to all.”

As an example of a Stop Thief! advertisement from this era, we here present a notice from the Bridgton Reporter of December 28th, 1860;

The “Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime,” will hold their Annual Meeting for the choice of Officers, to hear Reports, and attend to other usual business, on Saturday, the fifth day of January, 1861, at six o’clock, P.M., at the Brick School House, North Bridgton Village.  A general attendance is desired.

This Society is an old and successful organization, of more than forty years standing, having for its object the mutual protection of its Members, their Families, Persons and Property, against Thieves, Burglars and Felons of every grade.

Any Citizen of Bridgton, Harrison, Waterford, Sweden, Denmark, Naples and Otisfield may become a member of this Society by paying into the Treasurer one dollar and subscribing his name to the Constitution or causing the Secretary to do so.

The Board of Standing Committee (viz: T.H. Mead, E.K. Morse, Geo. Pierce, J.C. Gerry and Mial Davis) are especially requested to attend.

Geo. E. Chadbourne, Sec’y.

North Bridgton, Dec 20, 1860

During the Civil War period Chadbourne and Jacob Hazen, Treasurer, continued to hold the annual meetings of the Society, though mustering a quorum of riders proved difficult as many of its members were off serving in the war.  Though we will not speculate on the circumstances surrounding this, the Bridgton United Methodist Church Bulletin of January 1985 tells us that during this less-active period, “In January, 1863, it is recorded, no less a personage than Jacob Hazen was elected President of the Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime.”  Despite his previous position as Treasurer, it is evident that Mr. Hazen was nonetheless a capable president, for at the close of the war the Society once more became active, having in 1865 almost two hundred members.  In the Maine Farmer of January 4th, 1866 we find a the society has begun actively promoting its system as a model for other towns to follow, with Sec. Chadbourne writing that he wished to have “all the towns of the State organize the same or similar associations in districts of suitable size, so that by communication from one to the other, and the cooperation of neighboring societies, it would be almost impossible for an offender to escape.”  We also learn more regarding the terms of the State’s payment plan, for he writes “Criminal offenders are pursued by an active Detective Committee at the expenses of the Society, or of the State if said criminals are caught.

To better promote themselves, over the summer of 1866 the society “caused to have printed copies of its constitution to serve as annual meeting notices when posted in various locations within the several towns.”  These announcements, printed as 15x24” broadsides, feature the entire constitution of the society together with a curious official emblem, that of a rampant elephant bearing the banner “Stop Thief!”  While the choice of elephant may seem strange for an organization which billed itself as both “shrewd and active,” the records of the society, as quoted in the History of Bridgton, reveal the humorous explanation.  It seems that the members wanted to use a cut of a galloping horse, but it happened that the printer, one B. Thurston of Portland, had no woodcut of a horse with a banner, so as substitute he chose and printed the elephant in its place.  On the broad blanket draped over the elephant’s back is written “the familiar inscription: ‘Who steals my purse, steals trash; but he that filches from me my good name, takes that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed.”  The society, though initially displeased with the surprise, seems to have taken it in stride with time, for when the constitutions were reprinted a second time in 1880, they again went with the now familiar and locally beloved Stop Thief Elephant.

But the Society did not take every disappointment so lightly.  At their 1868 annual meeting, President Hazen faced something of an internal dispute after Rider E.R. Brown presented the Standing Committee with a bill of “expense in pursuit of Thief and recovery of Property” in the extraordinary amount of $94.33.  The Standing Committee, constitutionally entrusted with auditing the bills of time and expenses of each rider, had never done otherwise than simply attest and submit them to the Treasurer for payment, but in this case Mr. Brown’s rather extravagant receipt incited heated debate.  The motion was tabled for a special meeting held on April 4th, whereat the Committee decided that Brown would be paid only $27.90 for his labors.  Some members must have been dissatisfied with this, however, for the Bridgton History tells us that the bill was returned to the committee for reconsideration, and at a meeting a week later, Brown was allowed $61.50.  Perhaps as a result of this controversy E.R. was not re-elected to the Detective Committee the following year, and a special committee was also formed to draft “Rules and Regulations for the Riders.”

It was also at this meeting that the first new by-law was added to the society’s constitution, and this is an event which begins to show that cracks were evidently forming in the guild’s social structure.  While the constitution had been amended twice before, once to allow the admittance of women as members, (though they were not required to act as Riders), and later to stipulate that, should a member die while a crime was being investigated, the property of the deceased member be afforded the same protection as had they still been alive to prosecute, these earlier amendments were strictly procedural.  But this new by-law was different.  Put forth by Secretary Chadbourne, it simply stated “Any seven members of this society shall constitute a quorum for the transaction of business, and a less number may adjourn.”  This motion was accepted nigh-unanimously, and doubtless with little thought at the time, but the historian looking back on this decision sees something of a fearful note in George Chadbourne’s motivations.  For a society of what was then over two hundred members, why should such a low number be selected for establishing a legal quorum?  Why, even, was he considering the notion that there might ever not be enough members present to conduct legal business?  It seems that even at this early date, to those familiar with the society’s structure, the writing was on the wall that their glory days were fading.  Though they did not then recognize it, the 1840’s and 50’s had been Stop Thief’s peak.  The advent of the Civil War had changed the way Maine citizens thought about law, and also the way the State thought about pseudo-militias.  Not to mention the fact that after the war closed the police forces of Maine received a fresh infusion of trained, patriotic veterans.  In short, Stop Thief had begun to feel the pressure of outside forces.

Efforts had been made to combat this change already, dating back to 1831 we find a report advocating the wider spread of such societies in the Christian Mirror; “We deem it expedient to solicit the formation of other similar societies… In the case of cooperation of societies, when a man in pursuit of a rogue arrives in the limits of another society tired and exhausted, such society will immediately continue the pursuit at the expense of the society in which the felony was committed.  Thus the pursuit may be continued without interruption, and without destroying horses and exhausting men.”  In 1859, Sec. Chadbourne also promoted the society’s benefits, writing in the Bridgton Reporter “In these days of increasing crime, when murder, highway robberies, burglaries, incendiaries, larcenies, assaults, &c., have become a matter of daily record in nearly every part of the union; a little brief information in regard to a Detective Society, organized more than forty years ago, and still existing in increased vigor and usefulness, may be interesting to the public, and serve as an incentive to the formation of similar organizations…  The Constitution of this society is soon to be printed in pamphlet for the accommodation of its members.  Those desirous of forming similar societies can be furnished with a copy (if desired) at the original cost, by sending their names to the President of the society, at North Bridgton, or to the office of the Bridgton Reporter.  A similarity in the Constitutions and regulations of all such societies intending to co-operate would seem to be desirable.”  This is mirrored in his statement of 1866 calling for the development “of neighboring societies,” and again in the Farmer of May 8th, 1869, when we find the now weary notice; “The Secretary, Mr. Geo. E. Chadbourne of North Bridgton, will furnish information, copies of constitution, &c., to those who apply.”  But despite all these pleas, and the detailed description which each advertisement gave of their organization and its manifest successes, there was no response to their letters.  The North Bridgton Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime was to remain a singularity in Maine, never to be imitated or duplicated.

In 1873 one Mr. “S.C. Smith” was elected president; not Seba Smith, for he died in 1868, but possibly a member of his family.  We have found note that it was under Mr. Smith’s leadership that the last major operation of the society took place, and drawing on newspaper reports from that year we here present the likely contender.  It is worth noting that in this case, the bust seems to have been accomplished largely in cooperation with local law enforcement.  The Oxford Democrat brings us the story, dated October 7th, 1873.  “A Gang of Burglars Broken Up.  For a long time past, the officers of the law have been on the lookout for the perpetrators of an extensive series of burglaries in Oxford and Cumberland counties.  It was surmised, and very justly it has been proved, that these unlawful acts were committed by an organized gang.  Recently the leaders of this gag have been arrested, and a portion of the plunder recovered.  Their names are James Stanton and George Brown, of Hiram.  The first is a shoemaker with a fair reputation, and the second a deserter from the United States Navy.  The brother of Stanton was also arrested, charged with receiving the stolen property.  Two boys, named Gray and Davis, employed in the Corn Factory at Bridgton, were arrested for aiding in secreting the goods.  On the confession of the boys, the goods secreted by them in a pond were recovered though in a damaged condition.  The goods recovered were taken from the store of Sampson & Son, of Harrison, in August last.”

In 1876 the Portland Daily Press reports a change in leadership to J.S. Webb, who instituted a Financial Committee and selected 16 Riders.  This Financial Committee, a spiritual successor to the special committee which drafted the Rider’s rules after the E.R. Brown debacle, made a change in the structure of the payment policy by removing the reimbursement of receipts and replacing it with a flat rate of “$1.50 a day while thus on duty.”  We have no record of the Rider’s thoughts on this change, but it is likely they did not have cause to use it often; the 1880’s and early 1890’s see a steady decline in the society’s activity, though its membership continues to grow.  Sometime in the 1880’s it passes the 300 member mark, and a fairly complete roster of new members and elected officers exists throughout this time period.  From these papers, which are on file at the Bridgton Historical Society, we see clear evidence of Stop Thief’s waning utility; 1890 sees the addition of only one new member, 1893 brings three more, 1894 only one.  In 1895 the society receives a brief reprieve resultant from the activities of a ring of burglars then operating in the Bridgton vicinity, whose presence spurred many in the region to once again look to Stop Thief for protection.  The Boston Sunday Globe’s Bridgton correspondent, likely Charles O. Stickney, reports on December 22nd, 1895 that the society “has taken a new lease on life lately and added 32 persons to its membership.  A new set of blanks, the first for 30 years, are being printed.  The marked increase of burglaries in this vicinity is the principal cause for the unusual interest which is being shown in this time-honored society.  Some of the most prominent men in town are members, and an ex-sheriff of Cumberland County is president.”

Just over a week after this article appeared in print, the Society met again for their annual meeting on January 1st, 1896, for a celebration reported in the Portland Daily Press on the 13th following.  After so many slow decades the burglaries of 1895 had re-energized the society, and it is clear that they were then trying to capitalize on the increased interest.  New copies of their constitution were once again handed about, another plea defending their usefulness was submitted by Sec. Chadbourne, and a grand slate of officers were elected.  Byron Kimball as elected President, I.S. Webb Vice President, and Granville Cushman Treasurer, with George Chadbourne re-appointed yet again as faithful secretary.  The Standing Committee is appointed, followed by a full and likely over-stocked 20 man riding committee – the largest in Stop Thief’s history.  1896 dawned with an intense feeling of hope developing within Stop Thief; it is clear they were planning for a banner year.

Alas, it was not to be.  The burglaries which had driven over 30 new members into Stop Thief’s arms subsided that summer, the two culprits apprehended not by Society agents, but local law enforcement.  As the Bridgton News of August 14th told it, “Frank Walker and Henry Wood, young men of 17 and 21, under arrest in Norway charged with breaking and entering stores at Sweden and Waterford, are strongly suspected as being the fellows who perpetrated the sensational burglaries at Norway, South Paris, Waterford and Bridgton, in the season of burglarious raids.  The suspected men are found to have put out considerable money in Harrison, at Fogg’s, and elsewhere, and cigars were found with them known to have come from Morse’s store in Waterford.”  Evidently these two were the criminals in question, for the thefts cease following their apprehension.  While their capture by police was indeed a thing worth celebrating for the people of our region, one cannot help but regret Stop Thief’s lack of involvement in the case.  These new arrests served as clear evidence; the society was no longer necessary to keep the peace in the Bridgton region.  With this respite over, the year 1896 saw a return to their downward trend, with only one new member being admitted.

The following year, the weakness in the society was made yet clearer by their first recorded failure when a pair of robbers broke into several stores in Harrison at night, one belonging to Frank Ricker and the other to Marshall, Jordan & Sons, by blowing out the windows and drilling into the safes inside.  The News of November 12th, 1897 tells us the society was immediately called out; “one of the members of the firm being also a member of the Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime, the President, Byron Kimball, was promptly notified.  He at once took measures to call out a detachment of riders to start in quest of the offenders.  He authorized the Vice President, I.S. Webb, to act with the full power of President, and to “take to the road,” with his men; which was done.  Mr. Webb and Charles W. Hill started on the Portland road; Charles Scribner and Fred Gibbs towards Brownfield; Fred Knight, with Alpheus Richardson, towards Fryeburg; David Kneeland, of Harrison, towards Norway; and George E. Tarbox and another man on the road to Oxford.”  The society was just hours behind the men, and clues came in by telephone from residents who had seen or heard the robber’s pre-dawn flight.  These clues tracked the route of the criminals through North Bridgton and into Center Village, then down the road out of town all the way to Naples; but despite this assistance the society found itself over-extended, and as a result could not catch the fleeing men.  Somewhere in the vicinity of Steep Falls, Mr. Webb, who had led the only detachment along the route the robbers actually took, was forced to admit “the trail was practically lost.”  Meanwhile, in a sad but almost comedic display of miscommunication, the other detachments continued their frantic pursuits unaware that they were needed in Naples.  “Scribner and Gibbs went as far as Brownfield; Knight and Richardson to East Fryeburg; and Kneeland to North Paris, but none of them got any clue.”  Tarbox, who was following out “what seemed might be the right trail,” wandered as far afield as Lewiston, only to return emptyhanded days later from what was publically called “a fruitless pilgrimage.”  In a crushing commentary on the effectiveness of the society, the News closed their article with the observation; “the work appears to be that of professionals, and the prospect of their apprehension in this case is not remarkably encouraging at the present writing.”

From 1897 to 1906 only six new members join, and looking at public lists of members from this decade it becomes clear that the rolls of membership are no longer purging old members upon their deaths.  Regarding the seven new names, most are familiar to us – the children and grandchildren of earlier members upon whom membership seems conferred, likely in name only.  Public interest having almost wholly vanished, the 20th century dawned with little fanfare.  The final blow came in 1908 when, for the first time since its adoption forty years earlier, Chadbourne’s by-law at last came into effect.  Despite proudly describing itself as “A Terror to Evil-Doers,” and boasting a staggering 382 members on paper, the actual active portion of the society must have been very small, for at the January meeting interest had declined to the point that a seven-member quorum could not be mustered.  A short history of the society, now presented as a curio instead of news in the Boston Herald on December 20th, comments on this decline with the pithy remark; “The introduction of the telephone has been of great assistance to the “riders” of the society.”  This article comes as one in a long line of such pieces which had, since the 1890’s, increasingly presented the society as something closer to an oddity than any real necessity, and perhaps the best example of this change in public opinion comes from Lancaster. N.H.’s Coos County Democrat, which wrote the following in January of 1910; “The town of Bridgton, Me., under the shadow of the White Mountains, still maintains its old Stop Thief Society, organized in 1814.  But it is gratifying to be assured that the antiquarians, not the horse thieves, have kept it alive.” 

The end was very near at hand, and in the empty meeting hall at North Bridgton George Chadbourne knew it.  In December of that year, with the prospect of an empty annual meeting looming near on the horizon, he made a final appeal in the Bridgton News.  “Annual Meeting of Society for Prevention and Detection of Crime Next Month.  Shall it Disband?  It will be noticed that for well nigh a decade there has been but slight addition to membership, while the interest has abated to such an extent that it is with difficulty that a quorum is obtained to perform the regular routine of business… those who have proved loyal are well nigh discouraged and suggest that it would be in order to disband and award the amount of deposit of $300.00, in B.S. Bank, to some charitable purpose.  There has been but little cause for interest as no depredation on members or their families have occurred for many a day.  And with the improved facilities for apprehension of desperadoes, the organization may have performed its final service.  Shall we learn the views of the members by letter or attendance?”

The society struggled on, in name alone, for four more years, during which it never held a quorum again.  The members, though not investing the effort to voice their opinions in person, had nonetheless made their will painfully clear.  In 1914, at the January 3rd meeting which was no less than the Centennial of the founding of the society, George E. Chadbourne appended the following notation to his solemn “no quorum” report;  “By the unavailing effort of the Secretary to keep alive the interest in and for the welfare of the society shown in the foregoing records, together with his decision to resign after his 56 years of continuous service thereby leaving it to fate, he urged that measures be taken to dispose of the whole matter, while still there was regular chosen officers that have the Constitutional control of its financial interests in lieu of calling aid by Legislation, as there is no precedent to act thereon.”

With the resolve that the society should cease to be, the final legal meeting of the North Bridgton Society for the Prevention and Detection of Crime was held on September 15th, 1914, with all active members either present or sending their proxies.  It was voted that the remaining balance in the Treasury, in the amount of $359.26 be given to the newly founded North Bridgton Library Association. Then, with funeral spirit, the small group of faithful members voted their last and officially disbanded the society.  The elephant’s banner faltered, and fell, and Mr. Chadbourne at last closed the large, leather-bound volume in which he had taken a lifetime of notes.  The final minutes of this unusual institution are signed, rather poignantly, “Geo. E. Chadbourne, Secretary (for 56 years, perpetually.)”

There was no report made on the closure in any of the newspapers which had, for thirty years, made news-stories on the strangeness of Stop Thief’s very existence.  There was some regret expressed locally, but most seem to have agreed that the time had come, and looking through the annals of Bridgton’s later history we find that any calls for its return only appear after periods of local unrest surrounding theft; pleas which fade away as quickly as they were uttered whenever the perpetrators are finally caught.  The world was too different now, the law too effective to permit the existence of any extra-judicial branch.  In the Bridgton News of January 31st, 1919 we find a report that following the theft of Amos Osbourne’s automobile, some of his friends put up a cry for “reviving the old Stop Thief Society, which flourished some years ago, and sending out a detachment to hunt for his auto” instead of the horses they rescued of old, but any real effort never materialized.  Indeed, the News even commented on the discussion with the implication that it were better to rely on the proper mechanisms of law and order, than go after a criminal alone.  “It is the general opinion that anybody mean enough to steal from such a gentleman should be brought before Bridgton’s coming Municipal Court and given the full extent of the law.”  Likewise in the Bridgton News of October 6th, 1933 there is a plea “Why not resurrect the old “Thief Society” which flourished in this vicinity some years ago,” issued in response to a spate of chicken theft which ravaged the farms of South Bridgton.  Later reports laid the blame on wild animals, and once again any interest in the society died.

In 1982, in a report on the History of the North Bridgton Library, Irene Stewart, then head librarian, expanded on the circumstances surrounding the closure of the society; “Back in 1914, when the town decided to have a library building, various local groups were asked to make donations.  One of the groups asked for a donation was an organization whose official name was “The Detection and Prevention of Crime” society [sic]… better known as “The Old Horse Thief Society, which began in North Bridgton in 1814… By 1914, however, times were not what they had been 100 years before.  Crime was being taken care of by local law enforcement, and the old Horse Thief society had grown smaller and smaller.  So when the library Building Committee approached the society about a donation, it was decided to disband the society and give the whole amount remaining in the treasury… toward construction of the library.  And that was the end of the old horse thieves – except for those still lurking in the western novels on the library shelves.”  This report seems paraphrased in an advertisement for the library issued in 1986 which cited “In the past, sources of income have been as varied as 15-cent bean suppers and donations from a temperance society and a Stop Horse Thief society, when the 100 year old society ran out of thieves – and money!”

As for the official records of the society, in her 1967 report, Joan Jenness describes how the first volume of the Stop Thief’s records, comprising the years 1814-1854, “vanished… sometime during the latter part of the nineteenth century,” and regrettably the second volume seems to have suffered the same fate in the last few years.  In a strange coincidence, and likewise after 100 years of service, the North Bridgton Public Library closed in 2014 facing lack of funds and interest; a rather similar fate to that of the society which began its endowment a century earlier.  When this happened, Chadbourne’s record book comprising Stop Thief’s yearly minutes from 1855-1914, which had been stored for decades within the library’s special collections, disappeared, and recent inquiry with the last librarian there revealed that at that time they no longer even knew they had it.  “If we did, it probably went up for sale.  We sold so many of the old papers in the basement for one, two, five dollars each.”  We have found a note that Volume II was still in their archives in May of 1977, and we are lucky enough to have portions of it quoted in both the Bridgton News and Jenness’ 1967 paper, but for now we must content ourselves with these scant portions.  Work is presently being done towards determining its possible whereabouts.

In closing, we’d like to present as a moral lesson the words of one Bridgton Academy scholar who, writing about Stop Thief in 1899, made what we now consider an immortal observation;  “That the society has lived for so long a time, and is to-day considered one of the important institutions of the community, that it has proved a life-long source of “Prevention;” speedy and almost certain “Detection” of crime, illustrates well the practicability of the maxim, “Where bad conspire, good men must combine.”

Looking at what they made and sustained, and the reasons they had for organizing, we wholeheartedly agree. 

Good men they were.

© 2020 by the North Bridgton Historical Society