News From Terre Haute, Indiana


October 28, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Confession in Terre Haute by America’s most notorious horse thief

TERRE HAUTE — Once heralded as “America’s most prolific horse thief,” Alexander Arnold perpetrated a number of capers in Indiana and Illinois during 1881.

When questioned by law enforcement, Arnold usually convinced them of his innocence. He was an excellent actor, intelligent with sharp features, dark hair, a sandy mustache and steely blue eyes.

A native of Kentucky, “Smart Aleck,” as he became known, was a brakemen for the Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railroad for several years. His employment terminated, for whatever reason, in May 1881 and he went on the lam.

On Jan. 9, 1882, Arnold was arrested by Terre Haute Police Lt. Charles E. Vandever and officer Alexander Knight at Thomas J. Gist’s livery stable, 1132 Wabash Ave.

The police were alerted that morning to be on the lookout for a “slick horse thief.” Officer Knight was suspicious of Arnold, who was toting a handsome horse, and phoned headquarters to seek Lt. Vandever’s assistance.

Upon arriving at the scene, Lt. Vandever arrested the man, who claimed he was unable to read or write, for “drunkenness” and “suspicion.” In court the next day before Terre Haute Mayor James B. Lyne, he was fined $12.50 on the intoxication charge.

Unable to pay the fine, the defendant remained incarcerated. Suspicious that the prisoner was smarter than he pretended, Vandever took advantage. The ploy worked.

First, he tricked Arnold into contradicting himself regarding his ability to read. Once that was accomplished, Vandever befriended the captive by stroking his ego.

Treating Vandever as his “best pal,” Arnold acknowledged he had stolen two horses on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1882, at two different sites near Decatur, Ill., and brought them to Terre Haute. He sold one to well-known  liveryman George W. Carico, 24 N. Third St., for $40, and kept the other. Arnold even provided the names of the owners of the horses: Millard Russell and Frank Beall. Both men came to Terre Haute to identify and pick up their animals.

Once his secret was out, Arnold feared publicity. He was told that the length of his sentence and his notoriety would be based on his cooperation and truthfulness.

During the ensuing two weeks, Arnold provided details of nearly 40 horse thefts he committed after terminating his railroad job to Lieutenant Vandever and officer John Cain.

On June 4, 1881, Arnold confessed that he stole a horse owned by William G. Bain, Morgan County (Ind.) Auditor, of Martinsville. The thief passed through Terre Haute a few days later en route to Springfield, Ill., to sell Bain’s horse to a dealer named Meyers.

In early February 1882, Bain met with Arnold in Terre Haute and went to Springfield with Vandever. Traces of Bain’s animal were uncovered,  but he had been sold and the name of the last purchaser was lost. Arnold also detailed facts about a theft he made in Highland, Ill., during May 1881. Taken to Missouri, the horse was lost.

In early August 1881, Arnold stole a mare in Hume, Ill. and another in Tuscola, selling both to a man bound for Nebraska. On Aug. 6, he confiscated a brown horse with buggy at Danville, Ill., and, after traveling 30 miles southwest, traded the horse for a mare. The new mare kicked so furiously he was forced to abandon her.

On Sept. 1, Arnold stole a bay mare at Lincoln, Ill., during a fair from John Perry, a young farm hand, and rode the horse to Mt. Auburn where he traded it to a man named Isabel. With that meager information, Vandever returned the horse to Perry.

A few days after the Perry theft, Arnold was involved in the theft of four horses in Sullivan County, Ind., and accompanied his conspirators to St. Louis. Over his objection, the horses were sold to shippers and all trace of them was lost. On Sept. 7, 1881, Arnold stole a valuable gray mare in Jacksonville from Samuel Seymour and sold it in Casey, Ill., to Perry, the young farmer. The horse was recovered by Vandever and Cain. “Smart Aleck” confessed to stealing two horses and a wagon in Manhattan, Ill., on Sept. 8 and selling them in Aurora, Ill., to a livery stable.

Later in September, Arnold stole horses in Humboldt, Decatur, Jerseyville, Pana and Russellville, Ill. The theft in Jerseyville occurred while owner John R. Beatty was watching a circus. Beatty’s horse and buggy were hitched to a rack on the public square.

En route to Homer, Ill., with horse and buggy, Arnold confiscated a harness, too. While being pursued by the owner and a constable, he stopped for dinner at a farm.

When asked where he acquired the harness, he told them how he had overtaken a man who asked for a ride. He obliged but the man left his harness in his wagon.

Fearful that his story was not convincing, Arnold excused himself and disappeared, leaving his bounty with the constable. That night he stole a mare from H.D. Oliver in Russellville, Ill. , nd sold it in Knightsville, Ill. The next day he stole a roan mare from a man named Bernard in Pana, Ill. and sold it to a farmer in Waveland, Ind.

In the last months of 1881, Arnold stole a bay mare from ”H. Rothert” in Jasper, Ind., which was recovered in Oakland, Ill. The recovery resulted in praise from the owner and the Dubois County Sheriff. He also stole a mare from James C. Hicklin, 1135 N. Eighth St., Terre Haute. A young man named Owens, who slept in the stable, had been indicted,but after Aleck admitted his larceny, Owens was released.

In late November 1881, Arnold stole a mare from John Heeney, who lived two miles south of Terre Haute, and sold it in Ladoga. On Dec. 15, he stole a black horse owned by Dr. Morgan of Brazil, Ind., and traded it for a horse in Atwood, Ill.

On Dec. 31, Arnold stole a horse from Barney Dougherty, a resident of Terre Haute’s east side. The horse was recovered in Dewitt County, Ill. Unlike many horse thieves, Arnold preferred to operate alone. After regaling a Terre Haute Express reporter with romantic tales of his exploits, the master thief was chained to cattle rustler Peter McLoughlin and bade farewell to a crowd as he departed by rail to serve a two-year sentence at the Jeffersonville Penitentiary for the crime against Dougherty.

When Arnold was behind bars, it was discovered that he had been convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison after confessing to more than 300 horse thefts several years earlier. Illinois Gov. Shelby Moore Cullom pardoned him after he pleaded insanity while serving the long sentence.

Arnold was brought to Decatur, Ill., in December 1883 to serve a six-year sentence for the Russell and Beall thefts.

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