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A Number One Horse Thief

Horse thieves have long been a staple in western movies and are notorious in Western lore. Stealing a horse on the western frontier very possibly doomed the owner to die, stranded in the wilderness. Consequently, the theft was a hanging offense. The hanging was often an impromptu affair, carried out without the benefit of a trial. The horse thief could count on justice that was swift and final.

On this date in 1906, the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean let readers know that there was one less horse thief in North Dakota. The newspaper had received word that Alex Laren was in the process of stealing horses from a pasture near Rolla when he was discovered by the farmer, who shot and killed him. According to the paper, “Detailed information as to the happening could not be procured.” Case closed.

The newspaper called Laren an “A-Number-One Horse Thief,” since his fatal encounter was not his first experience with stealing horses. He was wanted in four North Dakota counties on the charge. He had skipped out on a $4,000 bond in McLean County, only to continue his thieving ways.

The previous year the Grand Forks sheriff was holding Laren while awaiting transfer to Rolette. Laren was able to saw his way through the bars of the jail and make his escape.

It turned out that horse theft was not Laren’s only illegal activity. He was wanted in Canada on a charge of murder. Not too many people would be mourning the death of Mr. Laren.

Horse theft might be considered a crime of the past, but as recently as 2018, a case of horse theft came before the courts. In May of that year, a man was accused of stealing a horse worth $5,000. He was sentenced to 30 days in the Richland County jail, 80 hours of community service, and two years of probation. His crime came with serious consequences, but far less than a horse thief would have received in the Old West.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.


Devils Lake Inter-Ocean. “Notorious Criminal Caught Red Handed in Rolette County.” 5 July 1906. Grand Forks ND. Page 1.

North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. “News Articles.” http://ndstockmen.org/news/enderlin-man-sentenced-for-horse-theft/  Accessed 11 June 2019.

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