The Vagabond – The good doctor and the horse thief


By Danny Crownover

In 1898 there was what was called at that time an epidemic of horse thievery, so frequent and so general as to arouse the entire district.
An old newspaper article told of the capture by a local man of what was probably the South’s most successful horse thief.

The thief entered the barn of Dr. J.C. Slack at Slackland (which was located on the border of Cherokee and Etowah counties) and rode off with the good doctor’s fine saddlehorse. The theft was not discovered until the next morning.

As one of the owners of the Day & Slack Drug Store, Dr. Slack was a leading physician in Gadsden for many years. His medical office was located in the building once occupied by Bob’s Sandwich Shop on Chestnut Street.

Aided by a Mr. Wood, Dr. Slack found tracks leading from his plantation toward Gadsden and followed the tracks to Gadsden. They recognized the horse from its description and were able to give a good description of the thief.

They soon headed for Marshall County while following the tracks of the doctor’s horse.

The horse tracks, which by that time was quite definite, eventually led through Brindlee Mountain to Arab to Joppa to Baileyton to Holly Pond to Cullman, where Slack and Wood were told that the horse and its rider had stopped for a short time and then headed into Winston County. The pursuers were getting closer to the thief every hour and they finally caught him in Marion County.

Dr. Slack was determined to have his fine horse back, and he and Wood rode day and night in pursuit. The thief had stolen another horse in Cullman which slowed him down through Winston and Marion counties.

The horse thief gave his name as Jim Foster and his place of residence as Ohio. On his person was found a notebook listing 500 post offices from South Carolina to Texas along with a list of the hundreds of horses he had stolen. The thief was eventually brought back to Cherokee County for prosecution.

Horse thieves presented a serious problem in those days. When a farmer lost a mule or horse to theft, he was in a bad way to carry on farm operations and very frequently did not have the money or credit to replace an animal. Some men made such stealing a business, while others stole because they wanted to skip the country. They were quick to spot a jaded horse that had been ridden too hard and quick to place a man who was in too big a hurry to pass through a given community.

There were no rural telephones and very few telegraph offices back then to aid in a chase, which had to be conducted by the owners of the stolen animals, usually farmers.

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