Why People Say a Dog is Man’s Best Friend
“A man’s best friend is his dog.”
Dog lovers know this is true, but few know where the saying comes from.
The declaration dates to a court case in Missouri; the year was 1869. Southerners were trying to return to living normally after the hardships of life during the Civil War. Families were beginning to farm again and raise livestock. Leonidas Hornsby owned a farm in southeast Missouri near Big Creek, but he was struggling. That year alone he had lost almost one hundred sheep to prowling dogs and wolves. He was so frustrated that he vowed to shoot the next dog that came onto his land.
On October 28, a hound dog entered his property, and Hornsby’s nephew, Samuel “Dick” Ferguson, was eager to carry out his uncle’s threat. Hornsby must have had second thoughts about shooting what might have been a neighbor’s dog, so he told Dick to load the gun with corn instead of gun powder. Dick took the shot, seemingly wounding the dog; there was a yelp of pain and the dog ran off.
Charles Burden was brother-in-law and neighbor to Hornsby, and that night when he called his dogs, his favorite dog, Old Drum, failed to come in for the night. When the dog didn’t appear the next morning, Burden began searching for his dog and stopped to talk to Hornsby, asking what dog it was he had shot the day before. Hornsby replied that his nephew had only shot at a dog and that it was probably one belonging to another neighbor.
When Burden found Drum’s body along the banks of Big Creek later that morning, Burden was devastated at losing his favorite hunting dog. Burden went to town and filed a lawsuit for damages against Hornsby. Originally Burden asked for $100 in damages, but Hornsby’s attorney asked for dismissal of the suit as the amount was too great to be settled by a court presided over by a justice of the peace. Burden amended his filing to $50 and the trial was ultimately held in December of 1869.
At the December trial the jury was unable to resolve whether or not Hornsby should be held guilty for instructing his nephew to shoot the dog, so a new trial was scheduled. This one was held in January of 1870 and Hornsby was found guilty. The fine was $25 plus court costs.
Hornsby appealed, and both parties hired new lawyers. This time Hornsby and Ferguson presented lead bullets they said they had found in the body of Old Drum. Because this testimony cast doubt on whether the corn shots killed Drum, Hornsby won a favorable verdict and was to receive court costs.
By this time Missourians were quite caught up in the story. Charles Burden filed for a new trial alleging that his representatives had not had an opportunity to review newly available evidence. Burden hired John F. Philips and George G. Vest to represent him, facing off against Thomas Crittenden and Frances Cockrell who were representing Hornsby. These attorneys were what became known as Missouri’s Big Four; the case had become “big league.”
The fourth trial took place on September 21, 1870. The defense tried to indicate that Drum had been seen near Haymaker’s Mill and was probably shot there; they indicated another dog was shot at by Hornsby’s nephew though no other dog was found dead or injured around that time.
Burden’s defense was led by George Graham Vest, who said he was determined to “win [the appeal] or apologize to every dog in Missouri.”
When Vest stood to present closing arguments, he made no reference to any of the testimony in the trial and instead offered a eulogy to Old Drum. Only a part of the transcript survived, and the speech was not written down until later, but this is an excerpt from the speech attributed to Vest at that fourth trial: (To read the full speech and see related documents, see “The Old Drum Story” in the Missouri Digital Archives.)
“…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 poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only to 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 encounters 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 dries his master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege that that of accompanying him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when that last scene comes, and death takes his 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 in death.”
The jury sided in Burden’s favor, awarding him the requested $50 plus court costs.
Hornsby appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Missouri but in 1872 the court affirmed the prior verdict that sided with Burden.
Burden finally had justice for Old Drum; George Vest (1830-1904), whose nationality was given as American Indian (that will be another story), went on to serve as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1879-1903); and dog lovers had a new way of thinking of their pets: “as man’s best friend.”
Old Drum Monuments
The first memorial to Old Drum was erected on December 12, 1947 by Fred Ford who felt it was fitting to place the monument on the banks of Big Creek near the location where Drum was said to have been found. To create the monument, Ford received money and donations of rock from around the world. Ford designed a cement block base that could hold the donated rocks with name labels, which came from all over the United States and as far as the Great Wall of China. Unfortunately vandals destroyed the original base so a new memorial was created by the Indianola Memorial Works.
Now another monument stands in Warrensburg, Missouri and features George Vest’s eulogy. Dedicated on September 23, 1958, it is a sculpture of a hunting dog standing on all fours with tail lowered and head up, waiting for the next time he is needed.
To read about another dog that was faithful to his owner until the end, see “Shep, Faithful Dog of Montana.“