Ran across an interesting story while ferreting around the internet for info on the upcoming 75th Annual National Dog Week. It’s the story of “man’s best friend.”
To begin, the man credited with this phrase is Senator George Vest. While Vest got the credit, I see no mention of it in the following passages of his speech, so, well… you decide. The three words, “man’s,” “best,” and “friend” never appear together, but it can certainly be inferred from what Vest told the jury in court that day. Here’s what happened.
It’s 1870 in Pettis County, Missouri and attorney George Vest takes on the case of Charles Burden and “Old Drum,” his dog (known now in litigation lore as Burden v. Hornsby). As the story goes, Drum wandered onto the property of neighboring sheep farmer, Leonidas Hornsby – Burden’s brother-in-law?! – who had previously warned Burden that he “would shoot any dog found on his property.” A man of his word, and much to Burden’s displeasure, Hornsby shot Old Drum.
Burden did what any red-blooded American would do. No, he didn’t go after Hornsby with a gun of his own… instead, he slapped a massive lawsuit on him; $50, to be exact. Was that all that Old Drum was worth? Certainly not, but that was the maximum damages compensation allowed by law at the time. Note: If it makes you dog lovers feel any better, that $50, adjusted for 2015 inflation, comes to nearly $1000!
During the trial, Mr. Vest boasted that he would either “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.” Considering that there were tens of thousands of canines residing in Missouri at the time, Vest was pretty motivated to win his case. Which he did! How? Why, with this now-famous, “man’s best friend” closing argument, reprinted here for your reading pleasure:
“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 the 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 a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and 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 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 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 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.”
After losing the lawsuit, Hornsby appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, but to no avail. Old Drum is immortalized with a statue in front of the Warrensburg courthouse and a bust in the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Ironically, there are no statues of Senator Vest.
Footnote: In a 1964 episode of Death Valley Days called “Tribute to the Dog,” the character of George Vest was played by another dog lover and former US President, Ronald Reagan.