The Chicken Thief is Never Pardoned

Chicken stealing has a deep, lasting legacy. It has changed family trees and survives now in language, and in stereotypes.

In the pre-World War, Deep South, it was known as “doing the town.” Chicken thieves were both very talented and very resilient. One thief taught his dog to steal chickens for him. An experienced thief could steal hundreds of chickens in a year. One Georgia man caught in 1891 was known to have stolen 10,000 chickens.

To a poor farmer, the loss of his chickens at a quarter a piece was a sizable loss to his net worth. 

These farmers lived in ramshackle houses with flies on every surface, mattresses of full of corn shucks, bed bugs and fleas. Children slept without clothes, played without shoes, but with heads full of lice. Most every pot or brush or utensil in their possession had some broken part. Besides the gun and the mule, there was little else the farmer owned that had any actual worth besides his chickens. So, stealing his chickens was the biggest legal and criminal concern he ever had. 

Thus, in the South at the time, a thief caught in the act was fair game to shoot at. Neighbors would join in. Upon hearing shots in the night, a farmer’s neighbor would often hop out of bed, grab their gun, look to see which direction to shoot and jump into the action. One suspected chicken thief was shot and killed in Atlanta in 1907 by a random neighbor, knowing nothing more than there was likely a chicken thief about.

Chicken thieves were generally shot with shot guns, and injured but not killed. One thief who was killed was found to have bird shot in his digestive system from another shooting. One notorious thief was caught in 1912. He had collected 40 wounds from bullets and dog bites from all his years of thieving, but he was still alive. A doctor in 1874 picked out 80 shots from one dead thief.

Such a common problem produced a market of contraptions to assist farmers against thieves. Trap guns were a common solution. These booby traps were set up by farmers so that when a door to the chicken coop was opened, it triggered a gun or explosive by some connected wire. Woe to the thief or anyone in the way of the gun when it fired or misfired. There seem to be more stories of these trap guns going haywire and killing the person setting the gun, instead of any criminal. Many men died in such a way. One farmer in Dalton found a human thumb in his trap in 1880.

Drawing of an Animal Trap by J. A. Williams, photo from National Archives

Drawing of an Animal Trap by J. A. Williams, photo from National Archives

The killer of a thief seldom faced any consequence for these homicides, unless he shot the wrong person. One Gainesville man killed his brother in 1909 after thinking he was a thief. In fact, he was walking down the street with chickens he had purchased.

In the early 1900’s, it was a common complaint about how much time courts spent on this petty crime. “A … chicken thief is just as liable to engage the entire machinery of the Superior Court for a day as of any felony case, and cost the people of the county just as much as if his offense consisted of a diabolical crime.” 

The court system was cluttered with accused chicken thieves that wanted their day in court. 
The court system did move more swiftly then. Plea bargains were non-existent and all cases had to be admitted, dropped or tried. A court could try two murder jury trials on the same day, and still do other business. Still, trial days were limited and a judge and jury could spend all day trying a chicken thief. 

Prosecuting chicken thieves was a burden on the legal system. Since the stealing occurred at night, without witnesses, there was almost always a burden to the prosecution to put forward a very convincing, but circumstantial case. It was also common that the alleged chicken thief was often not the true culprit. Thus, there could be a lot of he said/they said, making the jury work hard in deliberation and sorting out the truth. 

The typical sentence was 6 months in the chain gang, 30 days in jail or $50 in fines. Yet it seemed to the merchant class, and town dweller, that chicken thieves were punished more severely than bank robbers. 

The authorities in one county lamented that a church treasurer that swindled $80,000 of the church’s money would get an easier sentence than a common chicken thief.
A treasurer of one of the largest railroads in Georgia stole $643,000 was given 6 years with parole. The local paper commented that a chicken thief in the wrong court at the wrong time would get a similar sentence. For instance, Henry Crosby, a convicted chicken thief, was sentenced to 20 years in the Dade Co coal mines for chicken thieving. The conditions in those mines was so miserable, that the state inspectors refused to enter them to do their state required inspections.

All this work over chickens does seem wasteful. On the other hand, what the farmers lacked in social and cultural capital, they made up in sheer percentage of the voting public. Thus, the sheriff and judge and solicitor listened and spent a disproportionate amount of time tracking and prosecuting chicken thieves. There was a common saying at the time that “the chicken thief is never pardoned.”

Also, the police knew that if they didn’t punish the chicken thief, worse things would happen. As told before, small town papers from the time abound with these homicides of suspected chicken stealers. Poor and sometimes desperate farmers out in the country needed violent self-help to handle the threat of thieves, and society gave them that margin. 

As with most things in this era, there was a significant racial element with chicken thieving and how it was handled. Besides the accidental shootings, every story told so far involved the shooting of a black man.

Chicken thieving was disproportionately associated with young black men even though it was common among whites as well.  Likewise, the immunity from killing a chicken thief only applied to white men killing black men. 

One 1880 newspaper directed that “Hen roosts are visited nightly by the hungry d---y who is too lazy to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. Be on the look out, and if you can’t catch him, shoot him.”

Thus, white farmers were not prosecuted when killing a black man. On the other hand, when a black farmer killed a white chicken thief in Columbus, Georgia, he was charged with manslaughter with a $500 bond. A black farmer killing a black thief could also expect to be arrested, as happened in one case near Cedartown, Georgia.

The chicken thief as a black man was such a stereotype that the term “chicken thief” became a racial epithet. Similarly, raccoons as stealers of chicken evolved into an epithet against blacks.
Stereotypes combined. One lady enjoyed having a cemetery in her yard as she explained: “I don’t mind the tombstones or the graves. For one thing, they keep negroes away from our place. You see there is the chicken coop on one side of the yard and the watermelon patch on the other, and you couldn’t get a d—-y to go into either after sundown for any number of chickens or watermelons.”

These stereotypes also evolved into food stereotypes.
To even suggest some connection between a race and fried chicken or watermelon is hard to speak. In another place and time or context, this might seem a minor concern. However, it’s not that a group of people like particular foods; it’s the historical association that these foods were commonly stolen

There are other lasting things, too. Shortly after the Civil War, the Southern states set up the convict lease system. Wealthy men, usually politicians and large mining companies or railroads, would “lease” all the state’s convicts about at eight cents a day for a term of years. The prisoners were called slaves by the men renting them. 

This system was hell. One warden, who even supported the system, said it was demonstrably worse than the Siberian gulag.

A report by a Mississippi county described it as follows: prisoners “all baring on their persons marks of the most inhuman and brutal treatments. Most of them have their backs cut in great wales, scars and blisters, some with the skin peeling off in pieces as the result of severe beatings. We actually saw live vermin crawling over their faces, and the little bedding and clothing they have is in tatters and stiff with filth.”

A Georgia report was similar and included moral conditions where “men and women chained together and occupying the same sleeping bunks. The result is that there are now in the Penitentiary 25 bastard children, ranging from 3 months to five years of age.”

Historians have had to looked to Medieval torture and the death camps of WWII for comparisons.  

In one year in Arkansas, the death rate on the lease system was 25%. This was exceptional as the average yearly death rate for black prisoners was about 11%. This system required having enough prisoners.

The convicts were in these camps were 95-100% black, and they were often arrested as chicken thieves, or vagrants and other piddling matters. As one late 1800’s warden said “In the early days it was possible to send a negro to prison on almost any pretext, but difficult to get a white man there, unless he committed some very heinous crime.” Chicken thieving fueled this system and the disproportionate racial makeup of the system remains.

Chicken thieving and tenant farming are gone now. But some things don’t change. The chicken thief is never pardoned. As one young man resigned to his fate wrote:

Goin’ to my shack,
Goin’ have hump on my back;
Nobody’s business but mine.

Goin’ be hump on my back;
So many chickens in the sack.
Nobody’s business but mine.

Chickens in my sack,
Big hounds on my track,
Nobody’s business but mine.