Why were the penalties for horse thievery so harsh in the 1800s?

During the 1800’s I’ve always heard that stealing a horse was pretty much an automatic death sentence. I understand a lot of people made their living with their horses, but why were they so important as to impose a death penalty if stolen?

Weren’t they like tractor to a farmer compared to nowadays? That would seem pretty ridiculous to get death for stealing a tractor. Or am I just plain wrong in my assumptions?

I don’t believe it was universally, or even usually, a capital offense, in actuality.

However, unlike a car, a horse is not equipped with an ignition lock. In the absence of physical mechanisms to make it difficult for somebody to steal your horse, severe penalties probably arose as a deterrent.

Can’t speak as such to the whole matter, but I would suggest that in a land with vast distances, limited travel, hostile peoples and issues of food and water, a horse isn’t just a tractor or a car, it’s survival.

Oh, and before modern days, the penalty for a great many things was Death, so it’s not like the penalty is all that unusual.

For instance, Harry Longabaugh, AKA The Sundance Kid, drew an 18 month sentence in the Sundance, Wyoming jail for horse theft in 1887. I suspect that many cases where the “death penalty” was applied for horse theft were the result of illegal lynchings.

The death penalty in the 1800s was very different state to state, so while horse stealing had a death penalty in Texas, in most other states that was not true. Out of 15,000 known official death penalty sentences, only 51 were for horse stealing ( http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/2144 ). There is a spreadsheet (registration required) that lists every single sentence (follow epsy link on that page). Of course many more people probably got lynched or shot for horse stealing but that is another story.

I think someone once asked here why there was a special category of crime called “grand theft auto” (as opposed to grand theft jewelry, etc.), and the general opinion was that the car is an essential part of person’s means of making a living, so stealing one was especially egregious.

Maybe the horse fit that category too.

I think you also have to factor in the lack of a legal system. Without cops, judges, juries, jails etc. the choice was basically shooting them or smacking them upside the head and letting them go.

First offense might be overlooked, but a ‘Ree-peet O-fender’ was probably dun-fer.

To give an example for chronological perspective, the California Penal Code currently in use, with revisions, came into force in 1872. I’m pretty sure that even then, horse stealing was simply theft of property according to the value of the animal, and in some cases might even have been misdemeanor petty theft. The monetary value split between petty and grand theft was much higher given the price levels of the time.

Having said that, most of California was pretty rough in those days, and if the San Francisco Committee Of Vigilance didn’t get you for stealing horses, the mob in Los Angeles probably would. Justice was informal, swift, and rough.