atm-logoWas horse theft a capital offense during the Old West era?

Anthony Grizzell

Sacramento, California

American law doesn’t use capital punishment for property crimes like horse theft. Bob Palmquist, an attorney in Tucson, Arizona, says he doesn’t know of any territory or state where anyone was legally hanged for horse theft. Arizona and New Mexico, under pressure from the railroads, made train robbery a capital crime around 1890, but it was rescinded when juries refused to convict a train robber when he hadn’t killed anybody during the heist.

Stealing a man’s horse was a serious offense in a land where being left afoot could be fatal. Anti-horse theft associations worked through the legal system to prosecute horse thieves. But when the law did not bring a thief to justice, vigilantes often took charge and hanged thieves.



Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone.  If you have a question, write:  
Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at

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