Question: If a dog is man’s best friend, and diamonds are a girl’s best friend, which is the dumber sex?
Being of the male persuasion, I lean toward canines and thus appreciate the origin of the exalted title bestowed on them.
It all started at Warrensburg, Missouri, in 1869 when a dog named Old Drum was shot dead by one Dick Ferguson, ward of Leonidas Hornsby, a sheep farmer.
Hornsby had lost several sheep to dogs and let it be known that he would shoot the next dog that came on his property. That dog was Old Drum, a prized hound well known throughout Johnson County for his keen nose and hunting prowess.
Old Drum was owned by Charles Burden, brother-in-law and neighbor of Hornsby. Burden demanded recompense for the loss of his skilled animal. Hornsby refused, contending he was justified in protecting his valuable sheep.
Burden went to the local justice of the peace seeking redress. He was informed that the maximum damages allowed for a dog was $50 — about $200 in today’s money. Burden filed suit against Hornsby for that amount in Common Pleas Court.
There was no animosity between the two men — before or after a series of ensuing legal trials. Yet, the two men persisted in a costly battle to uphold their rights.
At trial, the judge found in favor of Hornsby. Burden appealed, lost, and appealed again.
Finally the case reached the State Circuit Court at Warrensburg for jury judgment on Sept. 23, 1870. Two prominent attorneys — well known for their persuasive skills — represented Hornsby.
Col. Wells Blodgett and his partner, local attorneys, represented Burden but was pessimistic about his chances against the high-powered defending team that had prevailed in the other trials. .
By chance that day, Vest was at the courthouse on another legal matter. He had been elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, but moved south to join the Confederacy during the Civil War a.k.a. War Between the States. After the war, Vest returned to lawyering and was recognized as an accomplished orator.
Burden implored Vest to come aboard as special counsel with his other two lawyers.
Vest, a dog owner himself, agreed. It is said that he vowed “to apologize to every dog in Missouri” if he did not vindicate Old Drum.
Blodgett spoke first. Then the two defense attorneys asserted it was “ridiculous to make such an ado about a dog of small value.” The jury seemed unimpressed with all arguments, pro or con.
Ignoring the plaintiff charges, and the defense testimony, Vest opened his summation with spontaneous remarks to the jury. It was comprised of men who probably had cherished hunting dogs also.
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“Gentlemen of the jury, the best friend a man has in the 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 stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.
“The one, absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.
“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 fiercely, 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 in an 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 him 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 the 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.”
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Thomas Crittenden, lead attorney for Hornsby and later governor of Missouri, recalled the courtroom scene.
“Vest seemed to recall from history all the instances where dogs had displayed intelligence and fidelity to man. He quoted more lines of poetry about dogs than I had supposed had ever been written.
“He capped the monument he had created 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.
“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 he had lost his dearest friend.
“I said to Hornsby and my partner that we had better get out of the courthouse or we would be hanged.”
The jury returned a unanimous verdict and recommended $550 in damages. When the judge collected his wits, he reduced the judgment to the legal limit of $50. Hornsby appealed the verdict to the Missouri Supreme Court but was denied.
It was Vest’s “Eulogy to Old Drum” that originated the saying, “A man’s best friend is his dog.” It propelled Vest to U.S. Senator, the four-legged plaintiff to immortality and the city of Warrensburg to a national shrine.