History or Hoax?: The Strange Tale of the Society for the Prevention of Fruit Stealing

“Whereby numerous depredations have been committed from time to time on the gardens & fields of this town, whereby individuals have been discouraged from raising fruit & disappointed in their expectations, whereby also, the morals of the community are infected.”  So begins the Constitution of the Society for the Prevention of Fruit Stealing of Northfield, Massachusetts.  The Constitution, part of Historic Deerfield’s Colton Family Papers, goes on to describe the officers of the group and their responsibilities.  Another document in the collection contains the meeting minutes as written by the Secretary, Alonzo Colton (1816-1890). At the first meeting, they elected officers and promptly adjourn. The second and third meeting, no officers were present, so they simply adjourned. Then, they finally meet again, and elect the same officers. After that, they adjourn. That is the extent of the minutes. 

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Minutes of the Society for the Prevention of Fruit Stealing

At first glance these curious documents appear to be a humorous attempt to parody legitimate civic organizations. After all, the name of the group is quite silly: the Society for the Prevention of Fruit Stealing. Stealing fruit seems such a petty crime, and hardly one that would inspire such a response, yet the opening paragraph of the constitution implies it is a serious epidemic.

Looking at the list of officers for the group, the first name listed, “Jonathan Belcher, President,” further calls into question the validity of the group. Jonathan Belcher was the well known governor of Massachusetts from 1730-1741. Surely he was dead in 1841, when this document was written. His family became Tories in the Revolution, and eventually settled in Canada. How could he have been elected President of the Fruit Stealing Society in 1841? It must be a hoax!

Alonzo Colton, the writer of these documents and Secretary of this group was 25 years old when they were written in 1841. Looking at other sources within the Colton Family Papers, Alonzo was known for his sense of humor. He may have thought to write these documents and create this Society for his own amusement or that of his friends. Two of other names listed on the documents were those of his two brothers-in-law, George and Charles Alexander.

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Further research into Northfield genealogy reveals some surprising results about the members of the Society.  The History of Northfield Massachusetts with Genealogies by Temple and Sheldon lists a Jonathan Belcher living in Northfield in 1841. He is 45 years old and the son of William Belcher. Both are said to be descended from Gov. Belcher.

Next, Otis Everett, listed as the Vice-President is a 63-year-old man who presented the first library to the town, and advocated for the upkeep of streets and burial grounds. He hardly seems like someone to be involved in an elaborate practical joke.

Mark Woodward, listed as part of the Committee of Vigilance, was 47-years-old and a veteran of the War of 1812. Once again, here is another upstanding citizen who would likely not be involved in such a joke.

Alonzo Colton becomes the anomaly here. He is the youngest member of this group, and probably the least accomplished, yet he is elected Secretary, over older and probably more qualified members.

Was this group legit? Was there really such concern in Northfield, Massachusetts, in the 1840s about fruit stealing that citizens came together to prevent it? Did they catch any fruit thieves, and if so, what was their punishment? The documents that survive are frustratingly unclear. What becomes of the Society? Did they disband due to lack of interest, or due to great success? Are there other documents out there that continue this story? Was any of this real or just an elaborate joke?

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Heather Harrington