On that fall day in 1870 when country lawyer George Graham Vest stood up in judge Foster Wright's courtroom in Warrensburg, Mo., to defend a dog, few present could have imagined that what they were about to hear would become the most memorable tribute in modern history to man's best friend.
But 1st, the series of events that brought George Graham Vest into the courtroom as counsel on behalf of a dog's good name.
The canine in question was not an unknown mongrel. He was a foxhound named Old Drum, and around Johnson County he was held in high regard for his speed and dependability.
Old Drum's proud owner was Charles Burden.
One summer's morning in 1870, Old Drum was found dead from a bullet wound on or near the property of Leonidas Hornsby, who was one of Burden's neighbors. Investigating the untimely death of his hunter, the distressed Burden decided that circumstantial evidence clearly indicated Hornsby had killed the dog.
Seeking some kind of redress for his loss, Burden went to the justice of Peace Court in Warrensburg to file suit. Informed that $150 was the maximum amount for which he could sue in this kind of case, Burden immediately filed against Hornsby for that sum.
The case of Burden v. Hornsby was tried, and after a verdict was given for Hornsby, it was appealed, and then appealed again, until it reached the State Circuit Court for final judgment.
On the day of the last trial—a jury trial—Judge Wright presided. Considering that the issue was the value of one foxhound, a formidable array of legal talent had been assembled. Appearing upon behalf of the defendant, Hornsby, were attorneys who would one day become national figures. One was Francis Cockrell, who would later be elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri, and the other was Thomas Crittenden, who would later become governor of Missouri. Appearing on behalf of Charles Burden and the deceased Old Drum was Col. Wells Blodgett, a well-known local attorney.
As the court convened, Colonel Blodgett felt the odds were against his client and his client's, dog. The opposition had more manpower. The opposing lawyers had bigger reputations than his own. Even worse, Cockrell and Crittenden knew every member of the jury personally. The opposition exuded confidence.
Then, quite by accident, Colonel Blodgett learned that the only attorney in the area equal to the opposition in forensic skill happened to be in the courthouse that very afternoon. This was George Graham Vest, 'a one time senator in the Confederacy who, 8 years hence, would be elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri and serve in the Senate as one of its leading debaters from 1879 to 1903. Vest, who practiced in nearby Sedalia, happened to be visiting the courthouse on another legal matter. Colonel Blodgett went to Vest at once and implored him to come aboard as special counsel. Apparently because the elements in the case appealed to him, or perhaps because he was a dog fancier, Vest consented to assist in the case.
Judge Wright had a crowded calendar, and he did not get to Burden v. Hornsby until late in the afternoon. Determined to get the case to the jury that very day, judge Wright recessed the court for supper, and announced that the pleading would begin in the evening.
That night, when the court was called to order, the kerosene lamps revealed a gallery thick with people. Not an empty seat could be found. The word had gone out that George Graham Vest had joined Colonel Blodgett against Cockrell and Crittenden, and a real donnybrook was in the offing.
Judge Wright's gavel rapped, and Burden v. Hornsby, with the ghost of Old Drum in the wings, was under way.
Colonel Blodgett spoke 1st. No record exists of the effectiveness of his appeal to the jury.
Then it was the turn of the defendant's lawyers. Thomas Crittenden addressed the jury, followed by Francis Cockrell. Both spoke flippantly of the monetary worth of Burden's property loss, and they said "it was ridiculous to make so much ado about a dog of small value."
Confidently, they concluded their pleas, not realizing that they had given George Graham Vest exactly the opening he wanted.
Vest was on his feet for the final argument. The courtroom was hushed as he fixed his attention on the jurors. He was not interested in the evidence previously presented. He was not interested in the legalisms surrounding a $150 property loss. He was interested in only one thing. A man's beloved pet and companion, a dog, had been maligned.
Vest began to speak, addressing himself only to the subject of dogs and to all the Old Drums in history.
Even years after, when he had become governor of Missouri, Critt unselfish friend that man can enden could not forget Vest's speech. Remembering it, he said:
I have often heard him, but never had I heard from his lips, nor from the lips of any other man, so graceful, so impetuous and so eloquent a speech as this before the jury in that dog case. He seemed to recall from history all the instances where dogs had displayed intelligence and fidelity to man. He quoted more lines of history and poetry about dogs than I had supposed had been written. He capped the monument he had erected by quoting from the Bible about the dog which soothed the sores of the beggar Lazarus as he sat at the rich man's gate, and by giving Motley's graphic description of how the fidelity of a dog kept William of Orange from falling into the hands of the Duke of Alva.
"It was as perfect a piece of oratory as was ever heard from pulpit or bar. Court, jury, lawyers, and audience were entranced. I looked at the jury and saw all were in tears. The foreman wept like one who had just lost his dearest friend. The victory for the other side was complete. I said to Cockrell that we were defeated; that the dog, though dead, had won, and that we had better get out of the courthouse with our client or we would be hanged."
When Vest had finished, the jury was so mesmerized that it returned a unanimous judgment of $550 in damages instead of $150 for Charles Burden-actually, for Old Drum. When Judge Wright collected his wits, he reduced the judgment to the Court's legal limit of $150.
While no record was kept of the last half of George Graham Vest's tribute to a dog, the 1st portion has fortunately been preserved. It was this speech that originated the saying, "A man's best friend is his dog."
George Graham Vest speaking "Gentlemen of the jury, the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us-those whom we trust with our happiness and good name-may become traitors in their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man's reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the 1st to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world-the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous-is his dog."
"Gentlemen of the jury, a man's dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, If only he can be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun In its journey through the heavens."
"If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death."