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The Trial of Old Drum: A Tale of Missouri History

Published on Tue, 08/27/2019 - 08:26am
old drum

Everyone knows the saying that a dog is “man’s best friend”—even if the cat people of the world don’t necessarily agree! However, not everyone knows that the phrase became popular because of a trial that took place right here in Missouri.

On October 18, 1869, Leonidas Hornsby’s nephew and ward shot and killed a dog that appeared on his property. In the days before the incident, Hornsby had complained of dogs killing his sheep and announced that he would shoot the next dog to come onto his property. However, the next dog that appeared happened to be his brother-in-law’s favorite companion, Old Drum.

Charles Burden, the owner of the ill-fated Old Drum, took Hornsby to court three times in the next year. The final trial, which took place in Warrensburg on September 23, 1870, was where the lawyer George Graham Vest made his now-celebrated speech about the loyalty of dogs:

“The one absolutely unselfish friend that 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,” Vest appealed. “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 the 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.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vest was not the first person to express this kind of bond between man and dog. One study found that domesticated dogs migrated with humans across the globe, possibly as far back as 33,000 years ago. Frederick the Great of Prussia was also said to have referred to his Italian Greyhound as his best friend in 1789. So while the sentiment certainly did not originate in Missouri, Vest’s speech brought a new and enduring popularity to a phrase we all know today.

The speech also won the trial in favor of Old Drum and his owner; Burden ultimately received $50 for the loss of his loyal friend. He and Hornsby then put the matter to rest; the two allegedly maintained a good family relationship following the events of the trial. Vest’s victory in the trial earned him considerable acclaim, and he would go on to sit on the U.S. Senate from 1879 to 1903.

As for Old Drum himself, his legacy has endured in many forms. A statue of the dog was erected with a plaque of Vest’s full speech in 1958, which can be found today in front of the Johnson County Courthouse. More recently, a film inspired by the events premiered in 2000, but the fictionalized version is a little more family-friendly: in the movie, Old Drum is the companion of an 11-year old Charlie Burden, and members of their hometown rally behind the dog when he is put on trial for the attack on the sheep.

If you’re more interested in the real story of man’s best friend, you can read all about it at the Library’s Midwest Genealogy Center. For more stories about dogs and their relationship with humans, search the MCPL online catalog.

Sam A.
Blue Springs North Branch

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