Although known as a cave, Tinker's Cave is a rockshelter tucked between two ridges at the head of a valley near Shawnee Tower. It was carved by an ancient creek beneath overhanging rocks. In the hundreds of years since it was formed, many have undoubtedly taken shelter under the rock roof. It is said to be large enough to stable 20 horses - an attribute which won the cave a notorious place in history.
According to folklore, Shep Tinker was a horse thief who began stealing horses and hiding them in the cave in the 1840s. He pastured them in nearby meadows before herding them north to auctions in northern Ohio. On his way back from the auctions, Tinker would steal horses in northern Ohio to sell to farmers in southern Ohio.
It is said Shep was born of respectable parents in 1810. The family moved to Perry County, some 25 miles from Zanesville where his father operated a tavern. Shep was said to have been a very intelligent studious boy but a dare-devil and the ring leader in all sort of mischief as a boy. But he was reported to never be vicious. But he liked to tell a good tale, which got him in trouble in 1830. A local farmer named Hiram Flowers had a horse stolen from his barn near New Lexington. Later, in a tavern Shep regaled his bar-room friends with a story of how he'd stolen Flower's horse, committing daring deeds, and evaded capture. The story spread and he was arrested, tried on the spot and convicted to prison based on his own drunken story. He spent six years in prison though it was later proven that he was 25 miles away when the horse was stolen and could not have done the crime.
When he was released from prison, he declared that he had never stolen the horse, but since the law had labeled him a horse thief, that was the life he would lead. He was soon the terror of Ohio and bordering states and within four years had a gang and accomplices in every county. They only stole the finest horses and hid them in the ravines of Perry County. For the first several years, Tinker confined his criminal activities to horse stealing but then tried his hand at counterfeiting. In 1845 he was arrested in Zanesville for passing counterfeit coins. He was put in jail.
Shep was said to be a handsome man, a fine talker, and had a magnetism about him that drew people to him. The girl who served the prisoners their meals soon fell for Shep and stole the keys to free him. Shep quickly disappeared and was not seen for 10 years though his gang, led by Harry Rayner, continued to terrorize farmers. Tinker reappeared in 1855 in Zanesville. He said he had been in prison in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin but now wanted to run for Justice of the Peace. He thought he would be an ideal person to deal with criminals since he had been one. He was not elected so announced if he couldn't be a Justice of the Peace, he'd be a highwayman. After several daring exploits of stealing horses from prominent people he was again caught and sentenced to ten years in prison though he only served five.
He again ran for Justice of the Peace promising if elected to drive out the horse thieves. He was elected in 1862, though later it was determined he was ineligible to serve. But he kept his promise and drove the gangs from the state and reformed. He settled down on a modest farm. He claimed his gang stole over 4,000 horses but appeared to have no money left from his escapades.
Local accounts vary, however because some people say Tinker served as a Union soldier during the war. Others recall that Tinker stayed home and profited by the war, continuing to round up horses and peddle them to both Union and Confederate troops. One of his more famous customers was reportedly General John Morgan, who outfitted his cavalry from Tinker’s herds for his famous raids through southern Ohio.
On one occasion Tinker is said to have appropriated a horse belonging to Dr. James Dew. Dr. Dew leaped on a fresh horse and gave chase. As twilight overtook the two horsemen, Tinker realized his pursuer was narrowing the gap. To evade capture, he wrapped the nose of the stolen horse in white cloth, then turned the tired horse around and headed back down the road.
When Tinker drew abreast of Dr. Dew in the shadows of the dark road the doctor did not recognize his own horse with its white camouflaged nose. Instead he hailed Tinker and asked if he’d seen a rider heading west on a solid black horse. Tinker acknowledged that he had indeed, and that the rider was going "lickety-split" down the road in the other direction. The doctor thanked him and hurried on.
Local people claim that while the clever Shep Tinker usually escaped prosecution, he disappeared sometime after the Civil War. Some believe an irate horse owner, catching Tinker in the act of stealing his horses, killed him. Shep Tinker was never seen or heard from again, although legends and stories are still told of his exploits and this wondrous geologic formation still bears his name.
Although Tinker’s family is buried in a cemetery on Spencer Ridge in southeastern Perry County, his grave has never been found.
The photo below is of Tinkers Cave. The photo does not do justice to the size of this feature which stretches across the top of a drainage.
The Wayne National Forest is always looking for volunteers to collect local history related to areas of the Forest, do oral history interviews, or various other historical/archaeological projects.The information on Shep Tinker came from a former Postmaster at Murray City who wanted to share the version of the story as he had heard it. We have also reference newspaper reports on horse theives that reference Tinker's exploits. For information on volunteering, please call the Wayne National Forest, Athens Ranger District office.