It all began in the autumn of 1869, in the farmlands of Missouri. Leonidas Hornsby was fed up with finding several of his sheep killed and warned his neighbours that the next dog he saw on his land would be shot.
Horsnby’s brother in law, Charles Burden, owned a black and tan foxhound called “Old Drum” which was found shot dead on 28th October 1869. It was a clear cut case and Burden filed a suit against Hornsby for the loss of the dog. The matter may have been forgotten by history were it not for Burden’s sense of loss resulting in him asking for $100 damages, which was more than the $50 maximum allowed for such a case. This resulted in three separate jury trials and an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
In the first trial the jury could not decide for either man. In the second trial the jury awarded Burden $25 and costs. Horsnby decided to appeal and hired new lawyers who would surely win the case. The appeal was successful and a third trial was to be held in September at the Old Courthouse in Warrensburg, Hornsby employed future senator Francis Cockrell and future Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden (later to become famous for offering a reward for the capture of Jesse James).
Burden’s lawyers managed to convince George Graham Vest (another future senator) and John Finis Philips (future US Representative) to help with their arguments and closing remarks.
On 23rd September 1870 Vest made his closing speech. He made no reference to the evidence or to Old Drum, but instead delivered a powerful tribute to all dogs and their masters which Crittenden later claimed reduced some of the jury to tears.
Following his summation, the jury spent little time in returning a unanimous verdict in favour of Burden, awarding him $50 and costs. This would later be appealed again by Horsnby, but it was this closing speech by Vest which would go down in history as the birth of “Man’s best friend”.
Unfortunately, this speech was not written down during the trial, and only the opening remarks have been preserved, but they still give an indication of the speech which moved a whole court:
“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 unto death.”
Years later, a statue was erected outside the very courthouse where this speech was made, in memory of Old Drum, the first dog to be called “Man’s best friend”.