Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

“A Man’s Best Friend is his Dog”: The Senator, the Dog, and the Trial

A high profile trial produces an emotional statement about dogs.


      Just about everyone has heard the old saying "A man's best friend is his dog," or some variation of that phrase. However I doubt that very many people know where that adage came from. It can be found in the transcript of a trial, and it was part of one of the most memorable closing arguments ever made by a lawyer. The trial was held in Missouri in September of 1870, and it concerned the killing of a dog.


      The case revolved around a black and tan hound named Old Drum, who was the favorite dog of a farmer named Charles Burden. A nearby neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, owned a considerable amount of livestock. Because Hornsby had lost some sheep, presumably due to attacks by local dogs, he swore to shoot any dog he found on his property. On October 28, 1869, Hornsby found Old Drum wandering near his yard and ordered one of his hired hands to shoot him. Burden immediately sued Hornsby for damages, and the trial quickly became one of the strangest in Missouri history. After several appeals following hearings in lower level courts, the case eventually ended in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

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     Both the plaintiff and the defendant were stubborn men and set their ways. In the end they hired the best lawyers available in the state. Old Drum's owner was represented by G. N. Elliott and John F. Phillips who both went on to distinguished careers as judges, and later by Wells H. Blodgett who became a State Senator, and George G. Vest who served in the United States Senate for 24 years. The dog's killer was represented by Francis M. Cockrell who was elected as the other United States Senator from Missouri and as served as such for 30 years. His partner, Thomas T. Crittenden, would go on to be elected to the U.S. Congress and later became Governor of Missouri.


      It was well understood that that Old Drum was a special hunting dog. He was Old Drum statue in Warrensburg Missouriquite famous in his local area and was much in demand for his tracking and trailing ability. A unique feature was his voice, which could be easily picked out of any pack. It had a deep regular sound, like that from the booming of a drum, which is why Burden gave him his odd name. The dog was fearless, strong, and persistent, and seldom failed to get his quarry. Even Crittenden (one Hornsby's own counsels), would admit some years after the case had been decided that Old Drum was an exceptional hound and that "the dog was known far and near as one of the fastest, best nosed and least uncertain, and as having the most singular bark."


     At the courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri the trial began with Judge Wright presiding. By this time the case had attracted considerable interest because of the emotional impact of a fine dog unnecessarily killed in its prime of life, the passion and hostility of the feelings between the individuals involved, and "dream team" of esteemed legal counsels representing the parties involved. The courtroom was crowded with lawyers, witnesses, the supporters of both sides, the press, and the merely curious. The judge was clearly annoyed about the degree of public interest, and the expressions of heat and rage, which seemed to go far beyond what should have been attracted by what he thought should have been a simple civil case. He demonstrated his impatience when he said that he "wanted this dog case fully tried and ended; it has already taken too much time." This is perhaps why, after the witnesses were heard, despite the esteemed array of lawyers representing both parties, Judge Wright allowed only two closing speeches for each side.


     The very last argument in the trial was to be made by George Vest on behalf of Old Drum's master. Vest had taken a deep personal interest in this case and had stated during the trial that he would "win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri." Vest's closing argument to the jury made no reference to any of the testimony offered during the trial, and instead offered a eulogy of sorts. Only a partial transcript has survived, but it is one of the most enduring and passionate bits of prose to come out of a court proceeding.


     When Vest stood those in the courtroom saw a slight forty year old man, only five feet six inches tall, weighing about 110 pounds. He had a large head on a short neck, broad shoulders, red hair, a freckled face, blue eyes with a tinge of grey. However his voice was clear and friendly, and his charm and ability to tell stories and paint pictures with words became clear when he began to speak.


      "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 that 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 our good name, may become traitors to 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 first to throw the stones of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, 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 in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fierce, if only he may 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 from 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 wing 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 his company to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in his 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 in death."


      The defendant's lawyers Crittenden and Cockrell fully expected to emerge victorious, but after Vest started speaking they realized that they had failed. People present at the trial reported that when Vest finished, there were few present in the courtroom, the jury included, whose eyes were dry. Some said that the jury's foreman appeared to lead the rest in weeping. Recognizing that their cause was lost, Crittenden is said to have whispered facetiously to his partner, "We had better get out of the courtroom with our client, else all might be hanged."


      In the end Burden won, and received a token award of fifty dollars. However much more than this was accomplished by the chord struck by Vest's words. If you ever go Warrensburg, Missouri, on the southeast corner of the current Johnson County Courthouse lawn, you will find a bronze statue of the much beloved black and tan hound, Old Drum. It was erected in 1958 with the help of contributions from dog lovers throughout the United States. The sculpture is of a hunting dog standing on all fours, with his tail relaxed and low and his head up. On the front of the concrete base is a bronze plaque on which you will find the words of George Vest's final argument which not only moved the jury to find in Burden's favor but also is the origin of the familiar and much believed summary of our relationship to canines, "A man's best friend is his dog."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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