The Female Horse Thief
How did a lovestruck English heiress become a notorious American criminal? And why has history erased her identity?
In the early part of the 19th century, an extraordinary young English woman crossed the Atlantic on a desperate quest to find her exiled lover. She stole a horse, escaped pursuers, and survived a shipwreck, then arrived penniless and alone in America, where she embarked on a gender-swapping, multi-identity crime spree as a horse thief. Her crimes caused outrage and bewilderment, and newspapers spread her legend across the country. She was captured and brutally punished but, as she sat silently in jail, her true identity remained frustratingly unclear. This is the epic true story of America’s most notorious female horse thief…
PART I: GEORGE WILSON
In Baltimore in 1838, a youth named George Wilson was arrested for stealing a horse. Wilson rode into the city’s livestock marketplace on a frosty Saturday morning, February 17, on a well-groomed and well-fed steed. The young stranger was neatly dressed in a fustian frock coat, a velvet vest, blue pantaloons, and a fur cap. As later reported in the Baltimore Sun, a crowd quickly gathered around the horse and its rider, “some admiring the former, and others scrutinizing the latter.” Several of the horse traders and grooms sneered at the “comely” youth’s supposed effeminate appearance, with beardless chin and flowing ringlets, and it was considered that this was the fashion of a “modern fop.”
Wilson announced that the horse was for sale and quickly accepted an offer of $25. This represented a bargain for knowledgeable traders who recognized that it was worth at least $75 (equivalent to around $2,150 in 2021). However, as the purchaser was about to hand over his payment, another party arrived on the scene and breathlessly demanded that the sale was stopped. The new arrival identified himself as Mr. Magness, from Bel Air, Harford County, around 20 miles away. He said the horse belonged to him and had been stolen from his property at 2 a.m. that morning. Wilson, unable to dispute Magness’s claim, was apprehended by Officer Smith of the Baltimore Watchmen.
The prisoner was swiftly taken before a judge, Justice Keys, and was found guilty of horse theft and committed to the Maryland Penitentiary for two years’ hard labor. Wilson was placed among the male population in the east wing of the jail, until Magness mentioned to the prison warden, Joseph Owens, that the footprints left around his stable at the time of the theft appeared to be those of a woman. Warden Owens ordered that Wilson be subject to a “personal examination” by the prison matrons. The examination revealed, to the satisfaction of the matrons, that Wilson was “a bona fide woman.”
The thief was stripped of her frock coat and pantaloons, clothed in “the proper garments of her sex,” and removed to the jail’s female quarters. Prisoner number 3133 was recorded in the penitentiary ledger as “George Wilson (a female).” She refused to reveal her true name. Her crime was recorded as “stealing horses.”
According to the ledger, held in the Maryland State Archives, she was from Yorkshire, England. She was 22 years old and five feet three inches in height, with fair skin, black hair, and black eyes. She had no occupation, and her residence was given as “No Where.”
For the press, the emergence of a George Wilson was both enthralling and outrageous. “This female is certainly a very extraordinary individual,” noted the Baltimore Gazette. “But she is silent in almost every particular in relation to herself.” She did not reveal her wealthy background, or her criminal past, or that she had been shipwrecked while on a transatlantic quest to find her exiled lover. All of that would come later, but for now, she was simply the “Female Horse Thief,” made notorious by the press in Baltimore and beyond.
Horse theft was common in the 1830s, but female horse thieves were not. Horses were an essential and valuable commodity as an increasing number of pioneers and settlers pushed further west. Individuals and their communities relied on them for transport, agriculture, and cattle-drives. The loss of a horse was a hard-felt calamity, and the stealing of a horse was a potentially lucrative undertaking. Victims of horse theft placed notices in newspapers seeking the recovery of their animals, and specialist horse-theft detective agencies tracked thieves across the expanding country.
“HORSE STOLEN,” declared a notice placed by James Draughon of Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was seeking the return of a dun-colored horse with a black mane and tail, with a speck in its right eye “occasioned by the blow of a switch.” “I will give a reward of TEN DOLLARS for the recovery of the horse and the apprehension of the thief,” he announced.
Another victim, Henry Easterling of Bennettsville, South Carolina, offered $50 for his stolen bay horse and its thief — a suspicious-looking character who wore a large-brimmed black hat, smoked a finely-crafted imported pipe, “and might be judged by some to be a Frenchman.”
Organizations such as the Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves and the Norton Detecting Society for the Purpose of Detecting Horse Thieves and Recovering Horses, both in Massachusetts, attempted to crack down on the scourge. A national Horse Thief Detective Association was formed in the 1840s in Indiana and would expand to encompass 300 chapters across the country.
It was difficult for women to steal horses in the 1830s because it was difficult for women to ride them. The modest fashion of the day was for voluminous floor-length garments crafted from heavy fabrics, which made it impractical to straddle a horse. A riding habit, which usually consisted of a tailored coat and long draped skirt, was hardly liberating. In any case, it was considered entirely unbecoming for a woman to straddle a horse, and instead, she would be expected to ride sidesaddle. Riding aside rather than astride — in a cumbersome dress — was a precarious position for a high-speed abscondment. If a woman wanted to steal a horse, it made sense to wear trousers. To succeed as a horse thief, a woman needed to dress like a man — an outrageous proposition for the time.
The Sun blamed the shocking emergence of a female horse thief on the influence of androgynous “young exquisites” who were blurring the lines between the sexes. “You see from this case the effects of your attempts to unsex yourselves,” grumbled the newspaper’s leader. “Do, therefore, good sweet fellows, leave perfume to the muskrat, cease mincing your steps, shear off your ‘unlovely love-locks,’ and we shall no more be astonished by a woman turning horse thief and riding like a jockey 21 miles upon a cold frosty morning.”
For George Wilson, disguising her true identity might also have been an effort to escape punishment for previous crimes across the east coast — and over the Atlantic. In England in the early 1800s, the crime of horse theft was punishable by death. The country’s unforgiving “Bloody Code” of crime and punishment imposed the death penalty for more than two hundred offenses, including the theft of goods worth more than five shillings (equivalent to around £22 or $30 in 2021). Between the years 1800 and 1829, 159 people were hanged across England and Wales for horse theft. It would soon emerge that Wilson had fled from Yorkshire on a stolen horse — and was likely being pursued, with a large reward offered for her return to England.
Horse theft was not a capital offense in America. However, there was always the possibility that a horse thief might be shot or hanged by vigilante groups — or by horse theft detective agencies where the distinction between the two was blurred. (In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan would infiltrate the Horse Thief Detective Association to obtain what it regarded as state-sponsored vigilante powers.) But horse thieves were subject to severe punishments and would go to great lengths to disguise their identities, evade capture, and avoid extended sentences in brutal prisons.
For now, Wilson sat in the original Maryland Penitentiary, an imposing three-story brick and stone building with a domed tower, built above the east shore of the Jones Falls River. It was described by the New and Complete American Encyclopedia of 1806, shortly after its erection, as “a very handsome jail, which for its conveniency and healthiness is hardly exceeded by any in the union.” Edgar Allan Poe claimed to have been imprisoned for debt in the jail in the 1830s, although records suggest this was not true — unless, like George Wilson, he was held under an assumed name.
At the time of Wilson’s incarceration, the jail housed 375 prisoners, including 61 women. According to the directors’ report for 1838, Wilson was the only white woman admitted to the prison during that year, alongside 18 women of color. Those women of color would likely have been first-time offenders, as the report states that free people of color convicted of a second offense were sold into slavery.
All prisoners were subject to hard labor and were expected to work every day except Sundays and Christmas. The female prisoners’ jobs included sewing, knitting, washing, binding shoes, nursing the sick, and making soap. Items produced by the women were shipped out on covered wagons and steamboats and sold across the state and beyond. One dry goods store in Alexandria, Virginia, advertised linen handkerchiefs, woven blankets, and “Superior Maryland Penitentiary Plaids” — for 12 ½ cents each.
George Wilson’s allocated job was cotton spinning — twisting fibers into yarn — but newspapers reported that she refused to work. “She, of course, knows nothing of women’s work,” said the Gazette (which knew nothing of her background). “She can handle a needle with no further dexterity than will enable her to sew a button on her pantaloons.” Prison rules dictated that any prisoners who refused to work would be punished with the lash. The warden was permitted under state law to give up to 13 lashes in punishment, plus 10 days’ solitary confinement on bread and water.
Wilson’s determined refusal to work was a source of great anguish for Warden Owens, who was reluctant to inflict such a brutal punishment and attempted to convince her to comply using more sympathetic methods. But, the Gazette reported, he could not allow insubordination. In the face of continued defiance, he had no option but to apply the punishment that the institution’s rules demanded. Wilson was repeatedly lashed across her bare back, but she refused to relent.
“No punishment which has yet been inflicted, or kind persuasion that has been offered, can move her from her fixed resolution not to work while imprisoned,” said the Gazette. “Under the severest punishment, she shows not the slightest sign of anger or emotion, and will strip to receive the lash with as much apparent unconcern as though she was going to bed — nor does she cringe with the stroke.”
Wilson’s fierce resolve was echoed in her determination to conceal her identity. “Who this extraordinary female is, and what could be the motive for throwing aside the habiliments of her sex, remains a mystery,” said the Sun. But her story attracted the interest of several “Englishmen of rank,” who began to visit the jail. It was considered “highly probable” that some of these gentlemen knew her true identity. When visited by one particular English nobleman, Wilson threw herself to the ground and covered her face so she couldn’t be recognized — and perhaps so her secrets could not be revealed.
Gradually, as news of the female horse thief spread, clues to her past began to emerge. Reports suggested she had first surfaced in New York three or four years earlier, having sailed from Greenock, Scotland, disguised as a male sailor and calling herself David Bruce. She was said to have at least one previous conviction for horse theft and had already spent time in prison. The revelation that Wilson might be a repeat offender fueled press outrage.
“She is a singular and hardened creature,” said the Gazette, “utterly setting at naught all the regulations of law, and following the bent of her warped disposition, regardless of her smiles or frowns for the whole world.”
Still, though, her real identity remained unknown. What had she given up her identity to escape? Perhaps more would be revealed if it was true that she had “intimated her intention of having her life written out and published.” Until then, her life story would be told by other parties — not all of them reliable narrators. While the female horse thief sat silently in her cell in the Maryland Penitentiary, her legend grew at the pace of a four-beat gallop.
PART II: CHARLOTTE BRUCE
It was a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun who first promised to “throw some light upon the history of the extraordinary individual calling herself George Wilson.” The correspondent gave his name as Peter Paragraph, a nom de plume that appeared regularly in the pages of the Sun and was taken from the comedic plays of the British dramatist Samuel Foote. Although his true identity is not recorded, it seems Paragraph was a member of the secretive Baltimore literary circle known as the Delphian Club.
The Delphians met every Saturday evening over bread, cheese, and beer at an eccentric little iconic-columned dwelling known as the Tusculum, a short way down the Jones Falls River from the Maryland Penitentiary. Known club members included Francis Scott Key (writer of the lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner), John Neal (editor of the club’s literary magazine The Portico), and John Pierpont (poet, theologian, and grandfather of financier J.P. Morgan). But no one used their real names at the Tusculum. Members were always to address each other using “clubicular” pseudonyms, such as Quizzifer Wuggs, Baron Brobdignag, and Stoffle von Plump, or else were penalized with a fine. The gentleman known as Peter Paragraph is recorded in the club minutes as one of the Delphian Club’s most frequent visitors.
“The circumstance of a female being now confined within the walls of the Maryland Penitentiary for the offense of horse stealing, committed while she was in the garb of a man, brings to my mind a circumstance related to me by an English gentleman,” wrote Paragraph, in an account published in the Sun in March 1838 — a little over three weeks after George Wilson had been committed to the penitentiary. The story, told by one alias about another, was extraordinary. Still, the Sun believed Paragraph “made out a pretty good case” for Wilson’s true identity and, although it was “somewhat lengthy,” saw fit to print his account in full across its front page.
According to Paragraph, the individual known as George Wilson was the daughter of a gentleman named Tom Bruce, a wealthy horse trader from the West Riding of Yorkshire, a bygone district in Northern England that encompassed bucolic rural landscapes and the major cities of York, Sheffield, and Leeds. Bruce was a widower who doted upon his only child and often took her to horse fairs, auctions, and races. “Tom Bruce was seldom seen without the chubby face of his daughter smiling by her side,” wrote Paragraph. The daughter’s name was Charlotte Bruce.
Charlotte grew up among grooms and jockeys and was “educated in the stable.” By the age of 12, she was considered almost as knowledgeable about horses as her father. She was an excellent rider, and she rode and won several “hotly-contested” races for her father’s racing club. Female jockeys were scarce — and would remain so for more than a century — and, by her request, Charlotte dressed and rode like a man.
Her closest friends were her father’s stable boys, and Charlotte’s favorite was a “cute Yorkshire lad” named Jack Wilson. According to Paragraph, Jack Wilson won the affection of the soon-to-be George Wilson, who regarded the well-built young horseman as her “beau-ideal of perfection.”
When Charlotte was 17, her father purchased a country estate and decided his daughter, the estate’s young heiress, required some polishing of her manners, “which had become somewhat rough.” So her father sent her to a fashionable boarding school, where she was placed under the supervision of a French governess. “Miss Charlotte was here entirely out of her element,” wrote Paragraph, “and completely astounded the young ladies with her knowledge of the slang dictionary.”
Shortly after her arrival, she “shocked all sense of propriety” by leaping on an old coach horse and riding bareback to a nearby racecourse, where she sold the horse then lost the proceeds on a bet. She was promptly expelled from the boarding school, and she returned to her father’s estate to renew her relationship with Jack.
According to Paragraph, although Tom Bruce admired Jack as an employee, he did not approve of him as a potential son-in-law. As Charlotte was now almost 18, and “often attired in the close-fitting dress of a jockey,” Bruce thought it prudent to separate the young lovers “and thus prevent any disagreeable incidents.” Jack was sent to North America — possibly Canada — to look after a team of hunting horses Bruce had sold to some “Yankee Nimrods” and was never to return.
However, according to Tom Bruce himself, “the stable door was locked after the horse had been stolen.” Charlotte was pregnant. A few months later, she made her father a grandfather and — as a single mother with a baby born out of wedlock — made herself something of a pariah in puritanical Georgian-era English society. Charlotte’s father was furious. “His rage was unbounded,” wrote Paragraph, “and he punished his child [by] inflicting upon her the most severe personal chastisement.”
Curiously, Paragraph’s story never again mentions Charlotte’s baby, and it’s unknown if the baby survived, or perhaps was taken into the care of another party. Infant mortality rates were high, and “illegitimate” children born to unmarried mothers could be placed with relatives — or in orphanages — to protect both mother and child from discrimination. Certainly, the baby does not seem to have remained in Charlotte’s care. According to Paragraph, Charlotte focused her attention on the loss of her lover, Jack, and she was determined to get him back.
One day, while her father was at a fox hunt, Charlotte put on his best suit, stole his fastest horse, and rode to the “nearest seaport” — perhaps Hull or Liverpool. She sold the horse at the port and, still disguised as a man, bought a ticket for passage on the next ship. Tom Bruce pursued his daughter to the port, but was too late and was unable to ascertain the name of the ship or its destination. That destination was not America. According to Paragraph, Charlotte was “totally ignorant” of geography, and the vessel she had boarded was bound for the Mediterranean island of Malta. It was an almost fatal mistake.
A few days later, a British navy cruiser encountered a wrecked ship drifting off the coast of Spain. At first, it appeared that the wreck was abandoned, but on boarding, the navy crew found “the apparently lifeless body of a youth” lashed to the stump of the broken mast, likely in an effort to survive a deadly storm. The youth — thought to be a young man — was revived “with difficulty” by the ship’s surgeon, and it was found, of course, that she was a woman. She was provided with “proper” clothing by the navy captain’s wife but refused to give her name or answer any questions about her circumstances.
The cruiser returned to England, to Portsmouth, and the young woman was provided with lodgings at an inn. When news of the shipwreck reached Tom Bruce, he realized from the description of the survivor that she must be his daughter. He raced on his two-horse curricle to Portsmouth — a 275-mile journey — and reached the inn just as Charlotte was preparing to leave for London. She quietly agreed to return home with her father and sat on his carriage while he went inside to settle the bill. As soon as he was out of sight, Charlotte grabbed the reins, stirred the horses, and raced away, leaving the inn’s hostlers and grooms — and her father — “transfixed with amazement.”
Once he recovered his senses, Tom Bruce traced his daughter to London, where he found she had sold the horses and curricle and had shipped as a cabin boy to Greenock, Scotland. He followed her there and was told a youth answering her description had sailed on a brig bound for New York. “This was the last he heard of his daughter,” wrote Paragraph, “and though several years have elapsed since then, he still continues his search of her, and offers the reward of £2,000 [almost $250,000 in 2021] to whoever will induce her to return home.”
By Peter Paragraph’s admission, his story was an “imperfect sketch.” Several details (the origin in Yorkshire, the names Bruce and Wilson, the arrival from Greenock) matched fragments that had previously been reported. But the story was — and remains — difficult to fact-check. National civil records were not kept in England until 1837, after Charlotte had supposedly sailed to America. Earlier parish records are incomplete and no suitable match can be found for Charlotte Bruce, daughter of Tom Bruce, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Shipwrecks were common and were recorded almost daily in newspapers, but, despite it being “much talked of at the time,” Charlotte’s shipwreck and survival does not seem to have been reported. Neither Charlotte Bruce nor David Bruce can be found in available U.S. immigration records from the time.
It seems likely that at least some of the details in Paragraph’s second-hand tale are incorrect, and it’s possible Paragraph or his English source got the names wrong. The Sun was convinced the story was true, although the burgeoning penny press often placed the value of a good yarn above editorial accuracy. Tales of romance, crime, and adventure were crammed into their plate-set columns and churned through their steam-powered printing presses. Charlotte Bruce arrived in America at around the same time as the penny press, and her remarkable story was particularly ink-worthy.
Inspired by British publications such as the Penny Magazine, the first popular American penny paper was the New York Sun, founded by publisher Benjamin Day in 1833. Most newspapers cost six cents, which Day realized was too expensive for the working classes. He reckoned a one-cent paper could find a mass audience, particularly if it placed a focus on stories that could excite or reflect the lives of the average reader. His New York Sun, sold on street corners by America’s first newsboys, was an instant success and inspired multiple similar publications across the east coast, including the Baltimore Sun, which was launched in 1837 — the year before George Wilson was arrested at the marketplace.
Several penny papers outside of Maryland republished the Charlotte Bruce story, indicating its popular appeal and establishing Peter Paragraph as a popular writer. The Baltimore Sun gave Paragraph a regular column, titled “Notes and Annotations about Town,” in which he covered issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and money scams designed to “fleece the poor.” In writing for the penny press, Paragraph might not have become as well regarded as some of his Delphian Club peers, but it’s likely he was substantially more widely read.
The broad reach of the penny press allowed unreliable narratives to become accepted as fact. None of the papers that republished the Charlotte Bruce story, from Ohio to Mississippi, sought to verify it. It might be tempting to dismiss Paragraph’s story as wholly unreliable and accuse the papers that printed it of myth-making. But the extraordinary story can be shown to be at least partially true. After her arrival in America, it is possible — thanks to the attention of the penny press — to locate the female horse thief and follow her crooked trail.
PART III: CATHARINE DINGWALL
In October 1834, a young English woman was arrested on a steamboat at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. She was dressed in men’s clothing and initially gave her name as Charles Stewart. She was charged with stealing a pair of horses from the township of Kingston, south of New Brunswick. According to the New Brunswick Times, “she came through this city very deliberately, riding one of the horses en cavaliero.” On December 20, a day of heavy snow, she was tried at the Court of Quarter Sessions in New Brunswick under the name Catharine Dingwall.
Dingwall was represented pro bono by Joseph Warren Scott, a respected army colonel and member of the bar who was known for his philanthropy. According to the New Brunswick Fredonian, Scott presented a defense with such “extraordinary ability” that he moved the court to tears. “The story of this poor girl is pathetic and singularly romantic,” said the Fredonian. It was also somewhat familiar.
According to Scott, Dingwall was from Yorkshire, where she had “formed an attachment” with a young man who worked for her father. The young man was named Charles Stewart (not Jack Wilson), and it was his name Dingwall had used as an alias. Stewart — the young man — was sent to America by the disapproving father, and the distraught Dingwall set off after him. Dingwall disguised herself in male attire and traveled to Liverpool, from where she “engaged as a common sailor and sailed in search of her lover.” (There was no suggestion she had accidentally sailed for Malta or been shipwrecked.)
Dingwall landed in New York and scoured the streets for Stewart before moving on to New Jersey. In Kingston, between New Brunswick and Princeton, she stopped for a night in a barn and, “wearied, broken-hearted, dejected and in a foreign land,” decided upon — in Scott’s words — the “horrible idea” of suicide. However, the sight of two horses in a field by the barn caused Dingwall to consider an alternative plan and set her on her path to notoriety.
She stole two horses and rode one to New Brunswick, with the other following behind. Detectives tracked her to Perth Amboy and apprehended her on board the steamship Napoleon, bound for New York. According to Scott, Dingwall knew horse stealing was punishable by death back in England, under the “Bloody Code,” and she was prepared to accept that fate as “an end to her sufferings and sorrows.”
She insisted on pleading guilty and refused to be persuaded otherwise, but Scott, as her counsel, was permitted to enter a plea of not guilty on her behalf. “No one appeared against her,” said the Fredonian, “such was the sympathy excited in her case, and so strong was the belief that the act she committed was one of phrenzy [sic], and not of deliberate intention.” It was decided this “noble and warm-hearted girl” should be allowed to return home to her father. Dingwall was acquitted.
What happened over the next few months is unclear, but Dingwall did not go home. According to the New York Herald, she went to Boston, where she stole a horse while dressed as a man, then changed into a woman’s clothing to avoid detection. Reports out of Lowell, Massachusetts, around 20 miles north of Boston, described a “modest-looking” female horse thief who stole a horse and chaise and fled up through Vermont toward Canada before disappearing. “We incline to the opinion that this female horse thief will turn out to be a gentleman in petticoats,” commented the National Eagle, perhaps naively. What is certain is by the summer of 1835, the female horse thief had returned to New York.
Record of her return can be found in reports from the New York Court of Sessions. On July 17, 1835, a “genteel-looking young person” named Charles Stewart, wearing a blue jacket and trousers, was charged with stealing a horse worth $150 from a Mr. Cope of Hurl Gate in Queens. The prisoner was found guilty. However, before sentencing, defense attorney Thomas Brady stood and submitted to the court that the verdict should be set aside, “as the prisoner, Charles Stewart, was A FEMALE.”
“The greatest excitement prevailed at this announcement,” reported the New York Courier, “and the most intense feeling was exerted in the audience to obtain a sight of the prisoner.” For the past six months, the court heard, the prisoner had worked as a horse-drawn cab driver in “the Park” — now City Hall Park — “without the least suspicion entertained of her being other than of the masculine gender.”
“The Woman Horse Thief Again,” proclaimed a headline over a report from the New Brunswick Times. According to the newspaper, this was the “same damsel” who had stolen two horses from Kingston in the previous year — Catharine Dingwall. But, unlike in New Brunswick, the New York court showed little sympathy. After “animadverting on the impropriety of her conduct,” the judge declared the guilty party’s sex was “a matter of indifference” and sentenced her to two years in the New York state prison at Sing Sing.
Sing Sing — a then newly-built stone-block prison at Ossining on the Hudson River’s east bank — was a model institution for the controversial Auburn penal system, which required prisoners to be kept in solitary confinement at night and to remain silent during the day while occupied with hard labor. The prison’s one thousand low-ceilinged cells were so small that prisoners could lie on the floor and touch all four walls with their head, toes, and outstretched fingers.
During her first few days in Sing Sing, further confusion arose regarding the prisoner’s identity. According to the New York court reports, she was tried as Charles Stewart and did not reveal her real name. During the New Brunswick trial, Catharine Dingwall’s attorney stated she was from Yorkshire, England, which matched other reports. But multiple reports from the New York trial said she was from Scotland, not from England. According to New York’s Mercantile Advertiser, the prisoner stated after her conviction that she was from the Scottish Highlands.
The New York State Archives does not hold inmate records for Sing Sing prior to 1860, and it’s not possible to confirm which name the prisoner was held under, or whether she served her full sentence. According to the Baltimore Gazette, she refused to do any labor in Sing Sing and, as in Maryland, was punished with the lash. The punishments increased in severity until a prison physician felt the need to intervene. The Gazette said she spent 15 months in solitary confinement. If she did serve her full sentence, she would have been released in the summer of 1837.
After her release from Sing Sing, the Baltimore Sun said, the female horse thief demanded the return of her male clothing and found work as a laborer, although the newspaper also suggested that “when dressed in her proper clothing” she had “generally been the inmate of a brothel.” Then, in the months leading up to February 1838, she made her way from New York to Baltimore.
There are no known reports of female horse thieves during this period, although horse theft remained a popular news topic. In September 1837, the Sun reported that a male horse thief was shot dead while attempting to escape with a steed belonging to a Mr. Kreamer. In October, the same paper noted the capture and imprisonment of the suitably-named John Stallions, “a horse thief (of course).” Then, in February 1838, the Sun reported the arrival in Baltimore and the arrest and imprisonment of the female horse thief known as George Wilson, which is where this horse-drawn tale began.
After a little over 15 weeks in the Maryland Penitentiary, on June 20, 1838, George Wilson was pardoned by the Maryland Executive. After her release, “an English lady of high standing” paid for her passage on a ship back to England and sent her $20 for sea stores and $30 for clothing. The prisoner accepted the money but refused to board the ship and disappeared.
“Whither she has gone, no one can tell,” said the Sun. “Her conduct at times gave reason to suppose she was insane. That, however, might have been the effects of the entire loss of the finest feelings of her sex, and her abandonment of modesty of thought and action. But, be she who she may, she is an extraordinary being and seems determined to set all law and order at defiance. Her life and adventures would be a curiosity, and we hope will be given to the world before long.”
PART IV: JOSEPHINE PERKINS
Eleven months later, in May 1839, an inmate of the Madison County Jail in Kentucky published a slender autobiographical pamphlet called The Female Prisoner. The title page featured an etching of a rather angelic-looking figure bound at the wrists with rope. Its introductory text described a young woman who had been “deservedly esteemed for her exemplary behavior” but for the past three years, “friendless and unprotected,” had been “unhappily addicted to criminal propensity more singular and surprising in nature (for one of her sex) than can be found on record.”
According to the pamphlet, the author was an infamous female horse thief who was serving a two-year sentence in Kentucky. She was aware of sensationalist newspaper coverage of her story presented under various aliases and now wanted to set the record straight. “I feel no longer unwilling to disclose to the world my real name,” she wrote, “which is that of Josephine Amelia Perkins.”
Josephine Perkins’ story was similar to that of George Wilson, Charlotte Bruce, and Catharine Dingwall, with several distinct differences. According to Perkins, she was born in 1818 in the English county of Devonshire, not Yorkshire, and her lover was a low-ranking naval officer, not a stable boy. The couple were separated when the (unnamed) officer received unexpected orders to sail for the British Navy’s North American station at Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada. Perkins believed she would never see him again.
She formulated a plan. Perkins would — “in as secret manner as possible” — steal one of her father’s fastest horses and follow her lover to the Navy yard at Portsmouth, where she would accompany him, disguised as a male volunteer, across the Atlantic. There, “without any to forbid the bands,” the couple would be married. “This indeed would prove a bold and somewhat hazardous adventure,” she wrote, “but however hazardous, it was the only one that could be adopted.”
On the morning of her elopement, Perkins woke before daybreak, hurried to the stable, saddled and bridled her chosen horse, then galloped more than a hundred miles to Portsmouth. She was pursued by her father, who was determined to ruin her plan: “Here, then was a scene that would have well afforded a subject for the pencil of an artist — a race between a father and daughter!” Thanks to her “noble and faithful horse,” Perkins won the race but arrived just as her lover’s ship, its sails unfurled, was cruising clear of the harbor. Her hopes of future happiness, she wrote, were “completely and forever blasted.”
Two days later, Perkins set out for Canada on a merchant vessel that was wrecked in a violent storm and had to be abandoned. Perkins escaped in a lifeboat, which drifted for a day and a night before being spotted off Cape Lookout, North Carolina — several hundred miles south of her intended destination. She arrived in America “friendless and pennyless [sic]” with all of her possessions lost in the wreck. “Being destitute… unused to labor, and ashamed to beg,” she wrote, “I came to the wicked resolution that I would attempt a repetition of the crime of which I had once been guilty.”
Perkins admitted to stealing two horses and said she was twice apprehended and brought to court. On the first occasion, the judge said the prosecution of a female horse thief would be “both novel and without a precedent” and discharged her with a pardon. On the second occasion, Perkins’ court-appointed counsel gave a defense of insanity, arguing the “improbability” of any woman who would steal a horse being “in a proper state of mind.” The jury acquitted Perkins without deliberation.
By now, Perkins realized she had become notorious due to newspaper coverage of the “Female Horse Thief” and decided to head west, “beyond the circulation of such reports.” But she only got as far as Kentucky, and Madison County, where, “driven to extremities by poverty and want,” she stole another horse and was this time sentenced to two years in the county jail.
There, stuck in a solitary cell, on a straw bunk, with curious locals gazing at her through the iron bars on the window, she began to write her pamphlet. Appended to her story was a seven-page “Address to Parents and Children” that denounced criminal behavior and called on children to obey their parents and on parents to allow children to follow their “reasonable desires.” The female horse thief was repentant.
When news of Josephine Perkins reached Baltimore, in February 1840, the Baltimore Sun published a column titled “At Her Old Tricks.” Both the Sun and the New York Herald were convinced Perkins was the female horse thief who had been incarcerated in the Maryland Penitentiary and Sing Sing. “There is little doubt this is the same individual,” said the Sun, “and we have long been expecting to hear of her exploits.”
It seemed Perkins had taken ownership of her story. For the first time, the tale was being told from the horse thief’s mouth. However, while she admitted to being the notorious felon who had so excited the penny papers, Perkins made no mention in her account of New Jersey, New York, or Baltimore, where the thief had verifiably been detained. Either Josephine Perkins was a separate individual, or her story was a lie. It was soon admitted that the latter was the truth.
In 1842, Josephine Perkins issued a second pamphlet, this one titled A Demon in Female Apparel and subtitled Narrative of the Notorious Female Horse Thief. Her previous account, she admitted, had been “a tissue of falsehoods” written “with no other view than to excite the pity of the most sympathizing of my own sex.”
The details of her early life, she claimed, “were strictly correct,” as was her real name. It was true she had met a young naval officer and had stolen her father’s horse. She had then raced to Liverpool — not Portsmouth — where she found passage to America. “After many hair-breadth escapes,” although not specifically a shipwreck, she found herself in North Carolina. She stole three horses and faced three trials and was, in turn, discharged, then acquitted, then sentenced to two years in Madison County Jail.
Perkins was visited at the jail by several “respectable and influential” local women, who offered sympathy and Bible passages. She set out to convince them she was an only child from a decent family and had been driven to theft by “poverty and want.” So she wrote her first pamphlet, and a petition for her freedom began to be circulated. “In due time,” the petition was presented to the state authorities and Perkins was released.
Although she was free, Perkins was destitute and claimed to find it impossible to find honest work. She wrote in the second pamphlet: “I now began to view myself in no better condition than a public outlaw, and suspected by all whom I should happen to meet, and wherever I should sojourn, as no other than the infamous character, the notorious ‘Female Horse Thief!,’ and hence came to the conclusion that I might as well ‘enjoy the game as bear the name!’”
Perkins galloped across Kentucky, unable to resist the temptation of “at least borrowing for an unlimited time” horse after horse. She was apprehended and jailed in Washington County and bailed out by a wealthy young man who she had duped into being her fiancé. She stole another horse and rode toward the Ohio River, resting along the way at the home of a kindly family to whom she spun a sob story “in all which, I need not inform the reader, there was not a single word of truth.” In the morning, she stole the contents of the father’s pocketbook. The father called for the assistance of a law enforcement officer, who set off in pursuit.
At four p.m. that afternoon, around two miles from the Ohio River, the officer caught up with Perkins and grabbed her horse’s bridle. Perkins produced a pistol from her bosom and made a “true and effectual aim for his head.” Fortunately, her shot missed. “As soon as the daring attempt was made upon the life of the officer,” she recalled, “I was forced to dismount and taken into custody.”
Perkins was charged with stealing the horse and $150 in banknotes from the pocketbook, plus “various thefts and high-handed misdemeanors,” and an “unlawful and outrageous attempt made with a deadly weapon upon the life of an officer.” After what she regarded as “a mere form of a trial,” she was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to solitary imprisonment in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Frankfort for the term of her natural life.
“Thus, kind reader,” she wrote, “at the youthful age of but 28, my wild career attended oft by the commission of foul and unlawful deeds is thus brought to a close, and I am doomed to be shut out from all society and the world from henceforth to my dying day.”
It was a confusing mea culpa. Many of its new details raised more questions than answers. Was she born in 1818, as stated in the first pamphlet, or about 1814 (if she was 28 in 1842) as suggested in the second? Did she sail to America from Liverpool or Portsmouth — a difference on horseback of more than 200 miles? Was she shipwrecked or not? And why was there still no mention of New Jersey, New York, or Baltimore? Such discrepancies suggested the second pamphlet might also be a “tissue of falsehoods,” and the author might not be who she claimed.
There is no record of Josephine Perkins (or any of the female horse thief’s known aliases) in the Register of Prisoners from the State Penitentiary at Frankfort, held at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. Nor can she be found in the order books for the Madison County Jail. There are multiple reports of horse thieves in the Kentucky newspaper archives from the period, but none of them are women.
Both pamphlets were published in New York rather than Kentucky. The second was published by a bookbinder named Willis Root, who was later implicated in the 1845 case of the “Mackenzie pamphlet,” a controversial publication that included dubiously-acquired private papers relating to U.S. President Martin Van Buren. Root bound and sold the Mackenzie pamphlet under a false name. Was a similar deception involved in the publication of the Perkins pamphlets? Or were they knowingly fictional narratives that were wrongly accepted as fact?
Whatever the truth, Josephine Amelia Perkins would enter the annals of American history as the country’s first female horse thief. Her first (disowned) pamphlet was serialized in newspapers through the 1850s. In 1921, more than a century after Perkins’ claimed year of birth, a widely-syndicated New York Herald article told her story in a eulogy for the dying art of horse stealing. In a 1929 edition of Vanity Fair, true-crime author Edmund Pearson wrote a feature about Perkins that regurgitated her pamphlets without scrutiny. A year later, the Baltimore Sun called Perkins “the first member of her sex to take up horse stealing” and said her pamphlets had “a tremendous circulation,” but failed to make any connection to the Baltimore exploits of George Wilson.
More recently, Perkins has been recorded as America’s first female horse thief in best-selling almanacs and encyclopedias, and her pamphlets have been cited in serious academic works. And, of course, Perkins has a Wikipedia page, calling her “the first woman convicted of horse stealing,” with the key reference sources being her own pamphlets. Josephine Perkins became famous, while “George Wilson” remained unknown. The legend of the female horse thief obscured her real story. Maybe that worked to her benefit. Perhaps, while the fictional horse thief was languishing in a jail cell, the real thief rode off into the sunset. Maybe she escaped into her own myth.
If the female horse thief was never in Kentucky, then her whereabouts following her release from the Maryland Penitentiary in 1838 are unknown. If she was not Josephine Perkins, then her real identity remains similarly unclear. She had used so many aliases and been the subject of so many stories that no one but herself could say who she really was. Maybe she did serve a life sentence in some miserable jail cell somewhere in America for the crimes described in the Perkins pamphlets. Or perhaps she was free to ride the horse trails and highways and continue her search for her exiled lover.
Trawls of two-century-old records and registers reveal many tantalizing threads, none of which, when pulled, can reveal definitive identification of the female horse thief. And lignin-yellowed newspaper archives provide a paper trail of female horse thieves, any or none of whom could be the individual who once called herself George Wilson.
Was she the “very coarse” female tobacco-chewer who was arrested for horse stealing at Charles, Missouri, in 1841? Or the young lady who stole a horse and wagon and ran over a boy — “fortunately not killing him” — at Dutch Kills, Long Island City, in 1845? What about the woman who escaped from custody having stolen a horse, buggy, and harness from Mr. Benjamin Buffington in Elizabethville, Pennsylvania, in 1850? How did her story — or any of their stories — end?
Here is one possibility: In 1858, a female horse thief in men’s clothing was apprehended near Kingston, Ontario, Canada. As she was being taken into custody, she put a handkerchief to her face. Her captors believed she was hiding her emotions, but she was actually swallowing a mixture of strychnine and chloroform. She was instantly “seized with spasms.” A doctor was called, but by the time he arrived, she was dead.
Another possible ending can be found hidden in the cursive-script ledgers of the Census of Canada, with that country thought to be the destination of the horse thief’s banished lover. Recorded in 1881, in the listings for the St. Lawrence Ward in downtown Toronto, is an elderly woman named Catharine Stewart. She lives with an English man, presumed to be her husband, named Charles Stewart. Charles is a shoemaker. He might once have been a stable boy. Is it possible Catharine might once have been a horse thief?
If so, she found what she was searching for — her exiled lover and her freedom. In the movie version of this story, a satisfying plotline would draw from Charlotte Bruce’s departure on a romantic quest from England, trace through Catharine Dingwall’s equine crime spree in New York and New Jersey, jump forward to George Wilson’s apprehension and brutal punishment in Baltimore, rattle through Josephine Perkins’ gun-toting escapades and comeuppance in Kentucky, and end with Catharine Stewart finding her lover in Canada. But perhaps the incomplete truth we can piece together is more intriguing than the fictional whole we cannot.
A tale so full of falsehoods and contradictions cannot have such a clear-cut ending. A woman who went to such lengths to disguise her identity cannot have such a readily-discoverable fate. Much of her tale was pieced together by unreliable third parties, but as a whole, it became a cloak that caused or allowed its wearer to conceal herself and disappear into the shadows of confusion. The second Perkins pamphlet is an untrustworthy narrative, but it contains a statement that can serve as a caveat for her entire story. “It was my greatest object to regain my liberty,” wrote the female horse thief, “and I was obliged to do it in some instances at the expense of the truth.”⬧
An expanded version of this story is available to read on Amazon Kindle.
This is a work of non-fiction. Everything in quotations comes from historical documents. A full list of sources can be found in the Amazon Kindle eBook.
With thanks to Oliver Franklin-Wallis, Seyward Darby, and Jennifer Patterson.
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An expanded version of this story is available to read on Amazon Kindle:
The Female Horse Thief
The Strange True Story of One of America’s Most Unusual Criminals
By Paul Brown
A Superelastic Single Shot: longer than a magazine article, shorter than a full-length book, 11,000 words = approx 60 mins reading time
Available on Amazon Kindle