The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves is "the oldest continually existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States, and one of Dedham’s most venerable social organizations. The club claims that since its founding there have been more than 10,000 members including Mikhail Gorbachev, Popes, George Armstrong Custer, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and every recent president of the United States save for Jimmy Carter. The membership has been described as "the pillars of society" and includes the "very flower and pick of the vigor, manhood and rising youth of the vicinity." It has also been said that "for sheer whimsy, the Society... is without peer."
Applications for membership in the Society must be approved by a majority vote by current members and a "controversial nomination years ago of Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran was not seconded." Today it is a tax exempt non profit organization.
The great number of horses stolen from amongst us and in our vicinity is truly alarming, and calls for the attention of every well-disposed Citizen. It is evident that there has been, and probably will continue, a combination of Villains through the northern states to carry into effect this malignant design, and their frequent escape from the hand of justice stimulates them to that atrocious practice. And as that kind of property is most liable to be carried out of our knowledge, it requires the utmost exertion of every good member of society, to baffle and suppress depredations of this kind...
In 1832 the Society opened a bank account at the Dedham Institution for Savings and the account remains open today, and the bank claims that the account "may be the oldest continuously active account in the United States."
Anyone may be nominated for membership so long as the $10 membership fee is paid. The person receiving honor of the membership in the society need not even know that they had been nominated. Robert Hanson, who has followed in the steps of his father and grandfather as clerk-treasurer of the Society, has said "I've always wondered what the reaction in the Vatican mail room is when they open the envelope and see the certificate." Former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis is a member, though when a reporter asked him he said he had never heard of the Society.
Membership was originally limited to residents of Dedham but restrictions were loosened over the years to limit membership to residents of Norfolk County; or to residents of Norfolk and Suffolk Counties; or to persons resident within a 20-mile radius of the Norfolk County Courthouse; or to residents of Dedham, Norwood, Westwood, or Dover. Eventually all residency restrictions were lifted. The club's website claims that Robert Ripley of Ripley's Believe It or Not! fame had applied for membership before this restriction was eliminated, and the clerk-treasurer returned his application with a note rejecting his application.
Dear Mr. Ripley:
Since you are not a resident of Dedham (or Norwood, or Westwood, or Dover, or Norfolk County, of Suffolk County), you cannot join our Society.
Believe it or not,
Charles M. Gibson.
Eventually the meetings moved to the old high school around the time of the First World War and then to the current high school when it was constructed in the 1960s. For at least one year, in 1956, it met at Memorial Hall, where the Police Station now stands. While alcohol was forbidden in the schools it was a convenient set up with both a cafeteria and an auditorium and surprise was expressed yearly at the variety of colors of "water" in glasses. Attendance steadily increased at the annual meeting and beginning in the 1970s the organization met at Moseley’s on the Charles.
The last time a horse was stolen in Dedham was in 1909, though a number of pranks between members set off false alarms after that. In 1906 another animal was stolen, the alarm was raised, fliers were distributed, and members set off in motor cars, but they failed to find the stolen horse. The clerk of the society reported at the annual meeting that though the animal was not recovered, it was not for a lack of trying:
"It is only fair to the Riders of this Society to state that the owner of the horse even consulted mediums in his efforts to find the horse. This only proves that our Riders did their full duty, as the horse could not be found.
The Society has spawned imitators, with The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity with the Devil having been formed in 1936 in direct response to learning about the Society in Dedham.