By Hillary Delaney
Ol’ Spinny was a special horse; a jet-black thoroughbred with four white socks and ice-blue eyes. She was reportedly so lovely that the toll-takers gave her a pass every time. The beautiful mare’s unusual name was an ironic tribute to a legendary horse thief who, along with his gang, pillaged the stock barns of the wealthy, up and down the Ohio River.
Marion “Spinny” Douglas was born about 1846 in Switzerland County, Indiana. He was part rogue, part Robin Hood, and always on the wrong side of the law. His uncle was reportedly the leader of the “Rittenhouse Gang,” counterfeiters who operated along the Ohio River from the 1870s to the early 1900s. Spinny took after that side of the family.
As Spinny grew into his own criminal career, it appears he stayed mainly close to home, though usually out of sight. A travelling Cincinnati salesman once discovered what appeared to be the legendary horse-thief’s secret hiding place, inside a large, hollowed out tree near Rising Sun, Indiana. There he found evidence of Douglas’ presence in the hide-out, and it appeared he had been living in the large stump, if only temporarily. With his base of operations so close to Boone County shores, it’s less than surprising that horse owners from Hebron to Rabbit Hash had been affected by Douglas’ crime wave.
The black mare who later carried his name was involved in one of his most dramatic events. After pilfering the beautiful thoroughbred from a Hebron farm, Spinny rode her into the waters of the Ohio River. As much a testament to his horsemanship as to the horse’s bravery, across she swam at Spinny’s urging, while a barrage of bullets whizzed past them. This was his second attempt at stealing this very same horse. Though she was eventually recovered, yet again, she lived long enough to carry the thief’s name as her own.
Douglas’ escapades captivated the public for many years. He was once credited with “giving” a pilfered, valuable horse to a down-and-out farmer who had shown him kindness. On another occasion, he disguised a recently stolen horse with paint and dye (to change the markings) then sold that same horse back to the original owner a fact which was undiscovered until Spinny was long-gone. With each escapade, his reputation grew.
No stranger to the power of the dollar, he sometimes relied on bribery to get him out of trouble. During one of his captures, right here in Boone County in 1879,he bribed the guard at the jail $50 to look the other way as he slipped away. His money was not well-spent, however. He was shot by another guard while making his escape, and captured.
Douglas was badly wounded, and his condition was determined to be too dire to stand trial. At one point, the jailer was so concerned with the man’s condition, he took the bandit into his own home, so he could convalesce in comfort. True to form, the injured Spinny both escaped death and won local sympathy. Either the local law saw his injury as punishment enough, or the public was so solidly in his corner, he was not prosecuted and soon, he was back at his work of running off with the livestock.
Over his career, the prolific bandit was credited with the theft of over 500 horses. His last reported crime in 1897 brought a sentence of 14 years in the Indiana State Prison; he disappeared from records after his conviction. Spinny’s fate remains a mystery, but his life was the stuff of legend.
Bentonville, Ohio has an anti-horse thief society, read about it here