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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Elderly Horse Thief


By all accounts, Charles J. Agrelius (1831-1915) was quite a charmer. The son of a Swedish clergymen, Agrelius settled in southwestern Wisconsin about the time the Civil War broke out, and served with a cavalry unit in Kansas. After the war, he returned to Wisconsin and set up shop in Mount Vernon, Dane Co., as a harness maker -- a convenient front for his true vocation, which was stealing horses.

His contemporaries described him as "a good fellow, gifted, affable, magnetic." He was well-liked by his rural neighbors, whom he could entertain for hours at a time with amusing stories and an unusual skill as a ventriloquist.

But "occasionally he would absent himself for a week or two or more" during which reports would surface from Minnesota, Illinois, or other distant parts of the disappearance of fine horses. Agrelius was known to have a talent for altering the appearance of horses. His customers even occasionally asked him to dye a pair with matching markings to pull their carriages.

Agrelius once stole a pair of horses in Springdale, changed their markings, and took them into Madison to sell. That same day their owner was in Madison and saw them, but they were so skillfully disguised that he did not recognize them as his own. Agrelius claimed he even stole a horse from the mother of Robert La Follette while the future governor was working not far away on the family farm.

Authorities gradually put all these pieces together and eventually traced multiple horse thefts to him. He was convicted of stealing steeds in 1877, 1883, 1892 and 1903 but usually received only light sentences from his ability to challenge the courts on technicalities or establish reasonable doubt.

Despite repeated arrests, Agrelius could not seem to give up old habits. In 1904, when he was over 70, "extensive horsestealing operations in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were traced to a cave near the state line. Although an octogenarian, or near it," the press reported, "he was found to have been practicing his old trade after leaving prison." He was convicted once again and sent back to Waupun.

While there, he fashioned this remarkable walking stick from a steel rod wrapped ornately in fine leather (one of the hundreds of items viewable at the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database). Also, while in jail, he applied for his Civil War pension, which supported him in his final years at a soldiers' home in Kansas.

For more on Wisconsin horse thieves, see Matthew Luckett's article, "The 'Wide Awake Citizens': anti horse-thief associations in south central Wisconsin, 1865-1890," in the Winter 2007-2008 issue of our Wisconsin Magazine of History.

[Sources: "Aged Horsethief Applies for a Pardon." La Crosse Tribune, April 1, 1907; "Evidence of a Horse Thief." Past Times (newsletter, Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society, February 2006); "Horse Play in Mt. Vernon" in Pages of the Past, from the website of the Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society (viewed December 12, 2008)]
:: Posted in Odd Lives on January 14, 2009

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