The Vault

John F. Kennedy, Apprehender of Horse Thieves

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This document was found in a collection of membership certificates in John F. Kennedy’s papers. Amusing as it may be to picture the dapper president riding the woods at night rounding up evildoers, this particular membership was a strictly honorary one.

The Massachusetts organization that sent JFK this certificate was founded in 1810, when the town of Dedham had a real need of such vigilante justice. Horse thieves, if caught, were punished harshly and publicly—one, Isaac Cottrell, was jailed, whipped on the gallows on the town common, and forced to work to pay court costs and fines.

But despite the deterrents of the law, horses continued to disappear. Citizens pointed out that it was too easy for thieves to escape, given that they were stealing their getaway cars. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Society members assisted law enforcement in tracking down the miscreants.

The Society, which still exists, hasn’t been involved with the apprehension of an actual horse thief since 1909. It’s become a social club, with an annual meeting dedicated to dining, hobnobbing, and nominating new members (who can, like JFK, be inducted without their knowledge).

The Society’s website notes that most presidents of the United States of recent years have been extended membership, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, “who seems to have excited little interest” among Apprehenders.

You, too, can become a member for the low price of $10; a certificate just like this one is included in the lifetime membership.

Thanks to Stacey Chandler at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum, whose blog post contains more information on JFK’s honorary memberships.

JFK membership certificate

Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves membership certificate, December 6, 1961. President’s Office Files, Box 131, Folder: Memberships: 1962. [JFKPOF-131-003-p0017]. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.