Although a crime of passion, by now it would have faded forgotten into history but for the impassioned and eloquent words of a Freemason. The facts of the case were never in doubt. The killer admitted firing his gun in anger and leaving the body where it fell. The morning after the crime, the killer's neighbor, Charles Burden, found the body. Enraged, he began a year-long battle to bring Leonidas Hornsby to justice for killing Old Drum, Burden's hunting dog.
Leonidas Hornsby was an angry man. Something was killing his sheep and he wanted it stopped. Any of the predatory wildlife in the area around his Kingsville, Missouri farm could have killed the sheep but for some reason, Hornsby was certain dogs were responsible. "I've had it," Hornsby told a neighbor, "I'm going to kill the next dog I see on my property." Then, on the evening of October 28, 1869, Hornsby found Old Drum wandering on his farm and made good on his promise.
Hornsby's brother-in-law, Charles Burden, lived on the adjoining farm. On occasion, Burden and Hornsby had gone hunting together with Old Drum and Hornsby had even called him, "one of the best hunting dogs I have ever seen."
That October evening all of Burden's dogs came home except one, Old Drum. The next morning Burden went in search of his favorite hunting dog and discovered the body. Hornsby never denied shooting the dog and Burden did the only thing he could in order to gain some degree of justice: He sued Hornsby for damages.
The trial turned into one of the most convoluted circuses in Missouri legal history. Through the original trial and three appeals, the dispute finally reached the Missouri Supreme Court on September 23, 1870. Along the way, the case attracted a bevy of high-profile lawyers including David Nation, husband of temperance zealot Carrie Nation, and Brother Thomas Crittenden, a future Missouri Governor whose "dead-or-alive" reward led to the killing of Jesse James.
Burden's attorney throughout was Brother George Graham Vest, member of a Lodge in Frankfort, Kentucky and also a member of the York Rite in Sedalia, Missouri. Vest, a future US Senator from Missouri, easily got Hornsby to admit he did not see Old Drum doing any harm to his property, nor was he certain it was dogs that were killing his sheep.
Although the crime was vicious, it was nonetheless a misdemeanor. Its record was destined to fade unnoticed into history until Brother Vest stood for his closing argument. His inspired words now stand as legendary to dog lovers and have been cast in bronze on monuments to those faithful companions. What he said was so powerful that acclaimed author William Safire said it was one of the greatest speeches of the millennium, "[Vest's oratory] ranks with that of Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln and, maybe, God. "
Laying the facts and arguments of the case aside, Vest addressed the jury:
"The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have... the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.... He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert he remains.... 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."
History records that when Brother Vest returned to his seat "there was not a dry eye in the courtroom." The Supreme Court of Missouri later upheld the jury's verdict: Leonidas Hornsby was guilty of the killing of Old Drum, and was to pay Charles Burden damages amounting to the sum of $50, the maximum amount allowable.
In 1958, the area Chamber of Commerce, with backing from dog lovers across the country, erected a monument to Old Drum on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn in Warrensburg, Missouri, near the site of the crime. It pays tribute to Old Drum and George Graham Vest, a backwoods Missouri lawyer and Freemason who was the first ever to call a dog "man's best friend."
The following is the surviving text of Brother Vest's closing arguments. The final half of his speech has been lost to history. The same words are inscribed on the monument to Old Drum in Warrensburg, Missouri:
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 first 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 to death.
Denslow, William R. 10,000 Famous Freemasons. Vol. 1. Richmond, VA: Macoy & Masonic Supply, 1957. Print.
"Cedarcroft Farm Area Guide: The Story of Old Drum - A Man's Best Friend Is His Dog." Cedarcroft History Guide. Web. 26 Jan. 2012.
Safire, William. "Faithful, Even in Death." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Web. 26 Jan. 2012. <http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/millennium/m1/safire.html>.
Old Drum. Television documentary. Distributed by KSHB-TV, Kansas City, ~1985.
A court case in Johnson County Missouri brought us the phrase “Man’s best friend” to describe our canine companions.