Bill Caldwell: The beautiful horse thief

May Colvin gained international fame as a "beautiful horse thief." Her career took place in Eastern Kansas and Southwestern Missouri over two years beginning in 1892. At age 18 she began by stealing horses and buggies. Her good looks gave her favor and leniency in the eyes of lawmen of the time.Credit | San Francisco Chronicle, 1893

Desperadoes of all kinds were part and parcel of popular culture at the turn of the last century. Wild West Weekly, Buffalo Bill Stories and Jesse James Stories were filled with daring adventures.

As popular as the legendary figures were, there was little sympathy for real-life horse thieves.The Anti-Horse Thief Association was founded to round up horse thieves and turn them over to the law. Missouri and Kansas had active chapters that worked closely with sheriffs on both sides of the border.

In 1892 lawmen were presented with a dilemma — and a beautiful one, at that.

The beautiful horse thief

May Colvin was born in 1876. She grew up around Thayer, Missouri. In her late teens, her fascination with horses became more than idle interest.

"In early womanhood, she showed such a passionate desire to fondle and caress fine horses that the neighbors declared she was insane, and her father, evidently not a very wise father, resorted to hard whipping and close confinement. She was then 17 and took to thieving," according to one news story.

Piecing together accounts of her life from newspapers made me wonder if she didn't enjoy leading on the credulous. She was aware of her good looks and the novelty of her situation and used them to beguile her intended audience with whatever embellishments she thought useful.

Her mother had married three times and moved to Webb City. She attended Webb City schools. It may be the family moved to Webb City after the numerous thefts around Thayer. Stories conflict as a result of the multitude of her thefts.

One of her ruses began with the theft of a team and buggy from Hepler, Kansas, on a Sunday morning in January 1893. She drove to Nevada, where she had supper. Then she left the buggy and one pony at the stable, riding off in the direction of Sheldon. The marshall followed her after receiving a telegram seeking her arrest. It was a winding chase until he caught up with her at Irwin near the Barton County line. She was taken to the Lamar jail for transfer to Hepler. When asked why, she replied she "wanted to have a lark and knew no better way to have it."

She had just finished a six-month jail sentence for horse theft that Saturday, only 12 hours before. She said she "wanted five years in the pen" because she wanted "no truck with lawyers." She was released "on sympathy and good promises." Five months later, she was at it again.

On the run for a month

Her most celebrated excursion began May 1, 1893, when she and a friend from Webb City traveled to Pierce City. With recommendations, they hired a team and rig from Tobe Bear, owner of the largest livery in town, to drive to Joplin and back. When they never returned, Bear traced them to Joplin.

The women had fed the team but left town before he arrived. Their trail wound from Galena to Baxter Springs, Scammonville and Weir City in Southeast Kansas. By the time Bear reached Weir City, he was about an hour behind them. News put them on the road to Pittsburg, but upon arrival, Bear learned they had not stopped but kept going. He thought she would drop the horses off at a stable then trade for or steal another team. That was May 11.

By June 1, a Joplin liveryman discovered a horse in his possession, bought from a Galena horse trader, was in fact one stolen by Colvin and traded in Galena. By this time, she was with a man, and her female companion was nowhere to be found. She was arrested in Carterville and sent back to Fort Scott, where she was confined for two or three months awaiting trial.

Prosecutor E.R. Ware took pity on her, asked charges be dropped and that she be appointed counsel. Judge West appointed fellow Judge Ayers her attorney. She was released on Saturday and left Fort Scott on the southbound MK&T train.

"The next morning as Judge West was going to church he was quite surprised to hear a female voice salute him with the words 'Hello Judge.' Looking toward a buggy from whence the voice came he beheld the wayward girl whose liberty was due to his leniency the day before. Her flaxen curls were frolicing in the wind, and her tattered dress had been replaced by an improvised skirt, make of a horse blanket.

"She was riding behind a fast team, which, a few hours later, it was learned she had stolen at Hepler, Crawford County. She was caught this time in Bates County, Missouri, after exchanging the stolen Hepler team for a fresh one in Nevada. Again she escaped punishment in Kansas but was finally sent up from Carthage, after breaking jail once for the same offense which she had repeated in Kansas," reported the Fort Scott Weekly Tribune.

The Carthage jail break mentioned took place on June 19. She broke through a weakened jail wall. She led a posse on a merry chase until her horse dropped, exhausted, on the border of Indian Territory. The posse returned her to Carthage.

Four days later, the Joplin News reported: "May Colvin, the female horse thief, was arraigned in circuit court this morning, and in hopes of getting a light jail sentence or a short term in the reform school on account of her 'teens' pleaded guilty and threw herself on the mercy of the court. Judge Robinson questioned the 'dear girl' a few minutes and concluded that she would do the reform more harm than it would do her good, and sentenced her to two years in the penitentiary. When sentence was passed on her she gave the judge a $2 smile that made him wish he had made it 20 years.

"It is reported that 'Pea Ridge,' (Charlie Creech) who had entered a plea of not guilty to horse stealing, now desires to withdraw his plea and receive a sentence to the pen, as he is badly smitten with the Colvin girl, and 'wants to go where Tildy goes.' They make a beautiful pair, and the beauty of either one would compare favorably with the general cussedness of the other."

A St. Louis Republic reporter's interview with her the next year was carried nationally and internationally. He, too, was smitten by her good looks. "She has great blue eyes and a mass of touseled hair of Titian tint. Her form is luscious — well rounded and plump — and her cheeks are red with the vigorous life of the Ozarks, whence she came. Her mouth is one that an impressionable artist would go wild over, with its cherry red lips of sensuous curves, the whole forming the most perfect Cupid’s bow."

She said she would behave herself when out and concluded, "Nobody ever taught me any wrong. I’m not like other women, either, in blaming my downfall on any man.”

This time she kept her word and disappeared from public view upon completing her sentence.

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to wcaldwell@joplinglobe.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.

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