DEDHAM — What do Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Billy Carter have in common?
They’re each on the membership rolls of The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves, an unlikely confraternity of characters — some long departed — that gather on the first Tuesday in December each year for the sole purpose of purposeless levity.
The society was founded on June 4, 1810, when a group of 35 Dedham residents met at Marsh’s Tavern on Court Street to form an association dedicated to recovering horses stolen from members and apprehending the thieves.
A handful of members are appointed to the position of “rider,” serving for one year, and are charged with the responsibility of answering the call when a member’s horse is reported stolen.
Society records indicate that riders were called out once a decade or so, with moderate success in apprehensions. As Dedham became more suburban, membership dwindled, and by the end of the 19th century, attendance at the annual meeting was so sparse it looked like the group might disband.
That was the case until Dr. Edward Knobel, a young veterinarian, joined in 1898 and soon afterward became president. It was Knobel who suggested that the annual meeting offer a social component — namely food and libation, especially the latter.
This year, 160 of the area’s finest horse thief apprehenders gathered at Moseley’s on the Charles in Dedham for the organization’s 202d annual meeting. Among them was James Alger, a 54-year-old Dedham musician, whose hulking frame could barely contain his enthusiasm for the group.
“This is not a club; it’s a society. It was here before any of us, and when we’re all dead it’ll still be here, man. It’s the greatest event in the history of Dedham, ever,” Alger said. “And the best part is, it has no redeeming value whatsoever, except for pointless fun and unbelievable camaraderie.”
Professional wrestler Ronald Snyder, 57, of Stoughton, also known as The Fabulous One, has been coming to the annual meeting in Dedham every year since 1982. He was among several members who spoke of failed plans to bring an actual horse to a meeting.
“It’s hard enough to find a horse, let alone get it into a restaurant,” Snyder said.
Third-generation society clerk Robert Hanson of Shirley, who organizes the event and serves as the group’s unofficial historian, says that some years, photos of horses are brought in “to acquaint riders who may never have seen one before.”
This year’s posse sat down to a family-style dinner at Moseley’s as the business of the evening was completed. Attendees voted in new members, last year’s riders were dismissed, and this year’s riders — including Margot Pyle, the first female rider in the history of the society — were sworn in and enjoined with this declaration by new president Robert Zahka:
“The Society in Dedham for Apprehending Horse Thieves welcomes you as Riders and exhorts you to stirrup no trouble unnecessarily, but to gallop in the paths of righteousness, for the cause in which we are mutually bound.”
Pyle, a longtime Dedham resident, said she was surprised by her appointment. “I found myself unknowingly being nominated,” she said. “It’s all very secretive.”
“Nothing is unusual here,” quipped her friend Fred Wofford of Dedham.
Zahka, of Dedham, a soft-spoken insurance agent and second-generation member who has been coming to these meetings for nearly 20 years, said he is proud of his service as a rider, jokingly asking, when calculating his stolen horse recovery success rate, “including sawhorses?”
In fact, the last time the group recovered a stolen horse was in 1909. These days the only function of the society is the annual meeting, although Hanson says it also makes periodic charitable contributions. “Last year, we gave $2,000 to the Dedham Historical Society,” he said.
In the beginning, only male horse-owning residents of Dedham were eligible for membership, but it's now open to all for a one-time fee of $10.
Over the years, the group has added presidents, and popes to its ranks, often without knowledge of the inductee. There have been 10,000 or so members in the history of the society, but active membership is difficult to ascertain since, as Hanson said with a wry smile, “deceased members stubbornly refuse to remove themselves from the rolls.”
The group has inspired other horse thief societies, as well as The Society in Hampton Beach for the Apprehension of Those Falsely Accusing Eunice (Goody) Cole of Having Familiarity with the Devil, and others. While there are other horse thief apprehension societies in the United States, the Dedham group is the oldest continuously operating one of its kind.
Chris Zizza, a hardwood-flooring distributor from Framingham who joined the society in 1997 at the suggestion of the late Andy Brown of Needham, came to this year’s meeting with Brown’s grandson, commercial loan officer Andy Rafter of Medfield, and sang “Twist and Shout” on stage, dedicating it to his old friend, Brown.
“Traditions should never die. Everyone marks the first Tuesday in December off on their calendar at the beginning of the year,” said Zizza. “When I got an e-mail saying, ‘You in for Horse Thieves this year?’ I was, like, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”
More information on the society can be found at: www.dedhamhorsethieves.org.