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Horse Thieves!

The LaFayette Optimists, the LaFayette Community Council…there are lots of active groups contributing greatly to our community today. However, one less familiar group from the past was “The LaFayette Society for the Detection of Horse Thieves.” Organized in 1831, the thirty-five original members paid a one dollar fee and promised to personally search for horses stolen from other members. Eventually almost every horse owner in town joined the society, as the area was beset by horse thievery in the 1830s and 1840s.


Soff Winchell of Tully Valley was described as “the most notorious horse thief in the vicinity.” He apparently hid stolen horses in a cave somewhere near Cardiff before foisting the animals off on new buyers. The "Soff Winchell Gang," as his group of equine rustlers was known, were extremely audacious. The gang once stole a white horse, painted it with spots, and rode it right past the unsuspecting owner the next day.


The Society was a tremendous deterrent to local thieves, as the group was called into action only twice in the first forty years. First, some missing colts were found to have just gone astray. Second, a young boy who actually resided with a member took off on a family horse. The child and horse were found fifty miles away, but no prosecution was made as the boy was deemed unable to understand the crime. Apparently the Society also served a social purpose. In 1872 “the members, with their wives and sweethearts, [had] a jollification, with an oyster supper, at the hotel of G.W. McIntyre, in LaFayette, the expense to be paid out of the funds of the society.”


All information from J. Roy Dodge’s excellent “LaFayette, N. Y. A History of the Town and its people.” Manlius Publishing Corporation, Fayetteville, NY c. 1975 pp. 95-96. Used with permission.

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