Horse stealing in the Old West was a serious offense. A man’s life often depended on his ability to get somewhere fast, and that usually was by horseback. To take a man’s horse from him in some cases was like putting a bullet through his head. Because of its seriousness the punishment for such crimes was always the same – swift and merciless. The thief was most often found hanging from a tall tree with a note pinned to his shirt identifying him as a horse thief. It was a warning to other would-be horse thieves to think twice before taking another man’s horse.
If he was lucky, a horse thief was shot full of holes by a rancher’s posse instead of being hung. Hanging was not a pleasant way to end one’s life, and it usually bore the stigma of wrong-doing.
There were those who were foolish enough to think they could get away with stealing horses. To them it seemed like a quick way to make money by selling the stolen horses. To their way of thinking, someone else might get caught, but not them. They were much too smart, much too bold, and much too mean to get caught – and would never be that stupid!
Take the example of Charles P Ford known as “One-armed” Charlie Smith, a horse thief who didn’t think he’d get caught. He and his brother Tom grew tired of their dull and boring life in Peoria, Illinois, and decided to come west. Little is known about their early life. They were thought to be the illegitimate sons of the then Illinois Governor Ford. Their pursuit of fun and adventure brought them to Kansas. For reasons unknown they dropped the name of Ford and became known as Tom and Charlie Smith. Charlie did not get the name of “One-arm” Charlie until 1871. In Topeka, Kansas, where he lost his right arm above the elbow in a shooting accident. Later he and his brother joined the Curly Marshall gang of outlaws and horse thieves. The gang operated around Topeka, Newton, and Wichita, Kansas.
In the spring of 1871, Charlie Smith established a small ranch on the Ninnescah River between Wichita and Caldwell, Kansas. The ranch was located near the route over which stolen horses were being taken into Indian Territory. Charlie’s involvement with known outlaws and the Marshal gang of horse thieves added greatly to his already bad reputation. It was not long until the ranchers and settlers in the area decided to organize to get rid of “One-arm” Charlie and his den of horse thieves. They came to his ranch and took Charlie and two friends away at gunpoint. They rode on horseback to a grove of large cottonwood trees along the nearby river, tossed a rope over a sturdy limb, and brought the outlaws to the tree, one at a time to be hung.
The first man to be hung was L. B. Hasbrouck, a young promising lawyer who had nothing to say and died quietly.
The second man to be hung was Billy “Bully” Brooks, a well-known gunfighter and the first town marshal of Dodge City, Kansas.
“One-arm” Charlie was the last to be hung. As he was led to the hanging tree, he felt it was all wrong that an eastern governor’s son was going to end his career of adventure by being hung. He felt now that he should have remained in Illinois and lived a peaceful life instead of the one he had chosen of fast horses, faster women, and damn swift justice. Charlie’s melancholy musings on his wasted life were cut short by a hard slap on the rump of his stolen horse. The horse galloped off leaving Charlie swinging through the air from the hanging tree with a broken neck. He would go down in history known as just another horse thief who died at the end of a rope.
The pages of western history are full of stories like Charlie’s – stories of men who stole and killed just for the fun of it, for profit, or for adventure. They, like “One-Armed-Charlie” often ended up at the end of a hanging rope, with a note pinned to their shirt telling about their offense.