Jeremiah Buntin: If you’re tired of crime, join the club

With the recent uptick in criminal activity in the past few years, you can’t help but wonder “Was it ever this bad?” One solution to deterring thievery during the first part of the last century was to form chapters of the Anti-Horse Thief Association in Barry County.

The organization was originally founded in 1854 in Clark County by David McKee to stop bandits from stealing horses and then traveling across state lines. In addition to Missouri, lodges were established in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and across the Midwest with the motto “Protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice.”

Several chapters were started in Barry County, with Butterfield being the first to form in 1897. Shell Knob had one in 1905, and Hailey in 1906. A meeting was held in Cassville in 1906 to organize the county, with lodges from Monett, Purdy, McDowell, and Bricefield attending, and another meeting was held in 1915 to form a Cassville charter with John Sullivan elected president, J.C. Henry Vice president and John Ray secretary.

But, most of these efforts seemed short lived. The sub-orders located in Barry County with the most staying power were at Talbert, Kings Prairie, and Bethel. The Talbert sub-order formed in November of 1904 and lasted 40 years, with meetings held at the Talbert School.

The group had 355 members during its time. Charter member J.F. Mermoud would later become the Missouri President of the A.H.T.A.

The Bethel sub-order was organized on Jan. 5, 1905, and didn’t disband until the early 1940s. At its peak, the Bethel group had around 200 members from the area and held an annual picnic at Bethel Spring.

In 1912, the Missouri state convention for the Anit-Horse Thief Association was held in Monett, during Fred Mermoud’s term as president of the organization. In his address, he stated, “The A.H.T.A. is an organization for the enforcement of man’s laws, law-abiding citizens banded together for mutual protection, helping and aiding the civil authorities in the upholding of these laws.”

By this point the group had turned into somewhat of a fraternal organization, with dues, initiation rites, and women’s auxiliary groups. In 1912, there were over 41,000 members nationally in 1,113 chapters. According to a 1912 Monett paper, “Drunkards, debt-dodgers and loose mouth people are not eligible to membership.”

Most of the preventative work involved cataloging descriptions of horses owned in the county and compiling lists of known thieves and suspicious characters. A 1919 article in the Monett paper recounts how the Talbert Branch of the A.H.T.A. recovered W.E. Spilman’s stolen car in under four hours through the use of the telephone.

The thieves were later caught in Pierce City attempting to board a train. In an effort to stay relevant in the age of the automobile the organization changed its name to the Anti-Thief Association in 1926, but nevertheless the cumulative effects of changing times, great-depression, dwindling rural populations, as well as improvements in law-enforcement, lead to shrinking membership in the A.H.T.A.

Groups frequently seem to form to supplement government deficiencies, whether charitable or vigilance in nature. But these groups tend to deal with the symptoms rather that root causes.

Barry County A.H.T.A chairman J.F. Mermoud once stated in a 1921 Cassville newspaper that “Laws cannot create righteousness nor impart virtue, but respect for law is an aid to righteousness and a promoter of virtue. This respect of lawful authority must be taught in the homes, schools and churches, which are primary in the up-building of good citizenship.”

These crimes are not merely the natural result of inflation, economic inequalities, or drug addiction, but rather the consequence of historic foundational values set decades ago.

The goal cannot be merely to stem the tide of the current crime wave, but rather we must also endeavor to prevent future crime waves through the “up-building of good citizenship” in our homes and communities.

Inevitably, tomorrow’s societies are built upon today’s values.

Jeremiah Buntin is a historian at the Barry County Museum. He may be reached at jbuntin@barrycomuseum. org.