Justifiable Larceny

I recall an interesting trial held at Morocco.

James Moore had missed several hogs, and he suspected one of his neighbors of having stolen them. On searching the premises of the suspected party, evidence was discovered which satisfied Mr. Moore that his suspicions were well founded. He then went to the justice of the peace, James Murphy, and swore out a warrant for the arrest of the suspected party. This warrant was placed in the hands of the constable, Thomas Starkey, who came to my house and asked me to go with him to assist in making the arrest. When we reached the home of the party we were to arrest we learned that he had gone away. Expecting to catch up with him in a short time, we rode on after him. We kept hearing of his passing certain houses along the road, so we kept on for some forty miles until we reached the town of Bradford. Here we caught up with him and arrested him just as he was getting on the train to go south. We stayed in Bradford overnight and the next morning started for home. We went through Rensselaer, where we stopped for dinner, and at this point the man under arrest made arrangements with David Snyder, a prominent attorney of that town, to go down with us to Morocco and defend him at the trial.

We reached Morocco after having been away two days, although we had not expected to be gone more than that number of hours. The court was soon in session and ready to dispose of the case. A jury was demanded and soon collected and accepted by the parties. Witnesses gave their testimony showing that the body of the missing hog had been found in the house of the accused and fully identified. It looked as though nothing could be said or done to prevent the speedy conviction of the prisoner. David Snyder commenced his plea to the jury by saying that in all new countries there were certain conditions and practices that every one recognized and accepted, the same being entirely different from the conditions existing in older settled portions of the country; that customs long practiced in a community became of higher authority in determining certain cases than the mere letter of the law, instancing the established custom of going to the woods and taking the timber freely from lands owned by non-residents, placing under the same rule the right of every person to take a hog wherever found running at large. ‘He said that custom made law and from time immemorial it had been the custom in this country to consider hogs as public property, and before a man could rightfully be punished for this offense there must be a public meeting of the citizens of the community to then and there declare that, from and after a certain date, hog-stealing in that community would constitute and be considered a crime.

Strange as it may seem to us now, the jury took the same view of the case that Mr. Snyder did and the prisoner was discharged.

About the year 1850 there was a great rush to buy up the timber lands of this part of the state. The idea then was that as soon as immigrants commenced the settlement of the prairie, the timber lands would become valuable and a source of great profit to those owning the same. With that idea in view, a great many non-residents rushed in and bought up large tracts of timber land, thereby, to some extent, at least, establishing a hindrance to the settlement of the country. Consequently it was not long until, by a law acted upon almost universally, residents had the right to go upon what was called “speculators’ lands” and take the necessary timber to improve their farms and erect their buildings, quieting the conscience by saying, “Others do it, and why not I?”

About the time the timber lands were bought up, quite a large number of Swedes settled about seven miles west of Morocco, across the state line in Illinois. I want to say they proved to be a very valuable class of citizens — honest, industrious and truthful. Although they had a hard time to make a living for the first three or four years after they settled there, it was not long until they had good farms and improvements, surrounded by many of the comforts of life, amply repaying them for the privations of the first few years. When the nation needed their help, no community, according to their number, furnished more or better soldiers during the civil war, many of them serving in Indiana regiments.

A few years after they located and the struggle for a livelihood became easier, they concluded they needed a church building, as they were a very religious people. So one winter day when there was snow on the ground and sledding was good, about twenty or more started for the woods with teams and sleds to cut logs and haul them to Morocco, where there was a saw-mill. There they could have the logs sawed up into lumber, to be used in building the church.

That same afternoon James Archibald went out to get some timber for his own use, and on arriving at a piece of timber land owned by him, north of Beaver Creek, he found some of these same Swedes busily felling trees. On reaching the point where they were at work he asked them what they were doing. They told him they were cutting logs and hauling them to the mill, as they were getting ready to build a church.

He said to them: “Do you know whose land this is that you’re cutting on?”

They replied that they did not.

“Well,” Archibald went on, “this is my land and I don’t want you to be cutting my timber.”

They immediately stopped work and called to their preacher, who was assisting them in the work. When he came up, one of the men told him what Mr. Archibald had said.

The preacher replied, “Well, men, you must stop cutting here at once.”

Then, turning to Mr. Archibald, he said, “We are very sorry, indeed, Mr. Archibald, to have disturbed your land, as we don’t want a stick of stolen timber put in our church, but we really thought this was ‘speculators’ land.’ ”

Source: Ade, John. Newton County: a collection of historical facts and personal recollections concerning Newton County, Indiana, from 1853 to 1911. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., c1911.

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