November 1992

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Horse Thievery


J. Sheldon Fisher

The Horse with the Wiggly Ears

Some unusual things sometimes never make the newspapers. The horse with the wiggly ears did because it was stolen. The whole event, from the time of the theft to the recovery, made conversation for years afterwards.

Horse stealing was big business before the arrival of the automobile. The penalties were greater for stealing horses than automobiles because the livelihood of farm families depended upon horses. Professional criminals often organized to steal fine horses; horses stolen locally were often traced to distant cities.

The Fishers vigilantes were a good match for the horse thieves who dared to operate here—and many did. This organization was composed of most every person who owned horses. Dues collected would pay for a person's expenses to track down a stolen horse. The housewife was an important link in the organization. She usually had a good view of the horse pasture during the day, while the husband and hired men were alert during the night with the help of a good dog.

When horses were being stolen it was not always easy for one farmer to stop them, since the thieves often operated in a gang of three or four men. A signal system was designed which proved very effective. Each house had a dinner bell. Three strokes and a pause on a bell meant horse thieves. Each farm hearing the alarm bell would sound their own until all of the bells in the countryside were ringing. As many as could, would get well armed and wait along the roadside or at an intersection for the culprits to pass. When the thieves were intercepted, blasts on a conch horn or a bugle would give the location, and vigilantes from every direction would close in on the thieves. After the capture the robbers would be roughly hog-tied and taken to the Fishers Railroad Station and carted off to the Ontario County Jail.

Fishers Vigilantes in Action

On the Mendon Road, William Hill had a large farm where he raised excellent horses. One day his wife, Miranda Woolston Hill, discovered their horses being stolen. Being a good rifle shot, she wounded two of the horse thieves and stampeded their horse and buggy. She singlehandedly corraled the three horse thieves with her gun until help came.

Her sister's husband, George Washington Hill, who was also her husband's brother and lived at an adjoining farm at 7694 Main Street, Fishers, was not so lucky in saving his horses. It was a clean getaway with no traces. Sometime later Mr. Hill was in Buffalo on business and saw his favorite carriage horse being driven down the street. He had the driver arrested. The driver proved ownership to the judge, but Mr. Hill fought hard in claiming his ownership. He got the judge to agree to a novel idea: have the horse shipped back to Fishers station to see if the horse would go directly to its former home.

The stage was set and Hill's barn was left open. The situation attracted wide attention—the Fishers vigilantes gathered to meet the train containing the judge, jury, and interested lawyers from Buffalo. There was considerable doubt in the minds of the jury that the horse really did belong to Mr. Hill, and the lawyer for the defendant was planning to seek a penalty against Mr. Hill for false arrest, if his scheme did not work.

The horse was taken from the train and was headed in the opposite direction from the barn. The horse whirled around and headed through the gauntlet of people towards the Hill farm. The jury began complaining that the horse had no choice but to stay on the road and go in that direction because of the crowd of vehicles west of the station. The road was lined with spectators and tension grew as the horse got nearer the barn. The constable cleared the people back in order to give the horse a choice of direction. It turned down the Hill driveway, into the barn and into the correct stall. A great cheer arose from the audience, for the horse had vindicated George Washington Hill.

A victory dinner was served on the back lawn of the Fishers Hotel. The Fishers vigilantes had been so sure that Mr. Hill was right that they had planned and old-fashion social for all of the visitors, serving the food they had prepared. The hotel keeper, Homer J. Hill, exhibited some of his famous race horses outside of the livery stable.

Mr. Hill had recognized his horse on the Buffalo street by its unique manner of walking. When the horse's right foot went forward, the right ear would flop forward. The left ear was synchronized with the left front foot. When the horse speeded up, so would the ears flip-flop accordingly.

The horse became an instant celebrity and was exhibited at county fairs.

Mr. French's Horse

Shortly after the excitement about the stolen horse with the wiggly ears, Alexander Hamilton French on Malone Road had one of his valuable horses stolen. Photographs of the horse with its owner were posted in many places. Due to the conspicuous marking, the horse could be easily recognized and, therefore, hard to transport past watchful eyes. Because of this, it was reasoned that it had o be taken to a local hideout.

Wooded and rugged areas for miles around were searched by armed men on horseback. One area to search was a long wild, wooded ravine called the "Gulf." It was located on the far western end of the Stephen Van Voorhis farm on Fisher Road. That part of the Gulf, now a portion of a rest area on the New York State Thruway, was often referred to as "Rustler's Roost."

A posse of about 150 men on horseback from Mendon, Ionia, and Fishers formed a wide circle around the Gulf and worked towards the center. There in the natural amphitheatre were dozens of stolen horses. A ruckus arose from the stolen horses when they heard the posse's horses. They all began to whinny and six men came out of a shack with their hands up. There in this drove was the much sought for prize brown and white horse.

A crude attempt had been made to apply a brown dye to the white hair on the horse but rain had made the temporary coloring run.

The six men were hog-tied with ropes and loaded into a box car of a freight train headed for Canandaigua where they were put in jail. A spectacular trial put the men out of circulation for a long time.

This spectacular raid marked the end of organized horse rustling around Fishers. What happened to the horse thieves was well publicized, so the hazards were not worth it but because it was so isolated, the Gulf amphitheatre then became a center for illegal cock fights.

Reprinted by permission from The Groaning Tree and Other Stories Collected
by J. Sheldon Fisher
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