You run a terrible risk when you welcome a dog into your life. We know they will only be with us a short while, and yet we fling our heart wide open to them anyway. Even if we tried to resist, we couldn’t: they would wiggle their way inside anyhow. And when the time comes that we must say goodbye, it hurts like a thousand darts hitting your soul.
The day I’d dreaded finally arrived last week. Our beloved family dog Sally was quietly put to sleep late Friday afternoon. She was 13-years-old, the equivalent of a 93 year-old person. She’d been in declining health; it was time to end her pain. And so we did.
I wish you could have met Sally. You would have liked her. Everybody did. I could tell you many stories, funny and touching, about our time together. But I won’t, because they’re the same stories you shared with your dog. Dogs can’t help it – they just have to be dogs. Which is why we love them.
It started with a rifle shot in rural Johnson County, Missouri, southeast of Kansas City, on the night of October 28, 1869.
Leonidas Hornsby was struggling to eke out a meager living on a little farm. He was especially having trouble with his sheep. Wolves and dogs love mutton, and after losing more than 100 head (a very expensive financial hit), he vowed to kill the next dog that turned up on his property.
About 8:00 p.m. that October evening, a black and tan hound wandered into Hornsby’s yard. His young nephew wanted to shoot it. Hornsby thought it might be a neighbor’s dog and only wanted to scare it away. So he told the nephew to load his gun with corn kernels and fire.
A mile away, Hornsby’s brother-in-law Charles Burden heard the gunshot and immediately feared the worst. He called for his favorite hunting dog, Old Drum. Nothing. Burden went looking for Old Drum the next morning. When he couldn’t find him, he marched over to his brother-in-law’s farm and demanded, “What dog did you shoot last night?” Hornsby said his nephew had shot at a dog he thought belonged to their neighbor, a Mr. Davenport.
Burden didn’t buy it. He said, “I’ll go and see. It may not be my dog. But if it is, I’ll have satisfaction at the cost of my life.”
Later that morning, Burden found Old Drum dead, lying with his head in the water on the banks of Big Creek just below Haymaker’s Mill. He appeared to have died from multiple shots. Old Drum had been carried or dragged to the creek bank; there was mud on his left side, the fur on his ear and side were roughed up the wrong way, and evidence of sorrel horse hairs were on his body. (Hornsby owned a sorrel mule.) To Burden, the evidence was overwhelming.
So he sued Hornsby, seeking $100 in damages. (He later lowered it to $50, the legal limit; more than $800 in today’s dollars and a big pile of money at the time.) The jury couldn’t agree whether Hornsby was guilty for instructing his nephew to shoot the dog.
Hornsby appealed to the Johnson County Court of Common Pleas in Warrensburg. And he brought in some heavy legal firepower (his new attorneys included a future Missouri Governor and a future U.S. Senator) to represent him this time around. The case was turning ugly.
The next trial began on March 30, 1870. This time, there was doubt whether Hornsby directly caused Old Drum’s death. With no burden of proof established, jurors ruled in Hornsby’s favor and awarded him court costs.
Vest had served in the Confederate Army. He was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives in 1862, and was appointed to the Confederate Senate in January 1865 – a job lasting as long as the Confederacy itself did, another 90 days.
Back home, Vest started practicing law, and quickly became known as a lawyer who won victories where other attorneys had failed. Vest took Burden’s case, saying he would either win it, “or apologize to every dog in Missouri.”
The small, simple matter involving a dog’s murder was now front page news, with the state’s so-called Big Four lawyers representing each side. The Old Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg was packed when the next trial (the fourth, if you’re keeping count) began on September 21, 1870.
Opening arguments were made. The defense showed Old Drum was sighted at Haymaker’s Mill and shot there around the same time a different dog was shot at Hornsby’s farm. Things were looking good for Hornsby.
It was time for Vest to make his closing summation. He totally ignored the evidence and merits of the defense, ending instead with what historians consider the most eloquent purple prose ever spoken in a courtroom. He played on the juror’s emotions by praising dogs in general. Here’s what he told them:
“Gentlemen of the jury (because women weren’t allowed to serve at the time): 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. The money that a man has, he may lose. 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.
“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.”
The result: Vest’s closing comments won over the jury. It quickly decided in favor of Burden: $50 and court costs. The speech tugged at Victorian heartstrings. It was printed as “Eulogy of the Dog” and appeared in newspapers all around the country.
This led to a widespread (and erroneous) belief that Vest coined the phrase, “A dog is man’s best friend.” Not true; Prussia’s Frederick the Great said it in the 1700s. But Vest’s speech certainly popularized it.
Hornsby’s lawyers refused to give up. They appealed all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with Burden in 1872, settling the matter once and for all.
Vest rode his popularity to the U.S. Senate, where he served with distinction for 24 years. His chief claim to fame: learning that railroad special interests wanted to corner the market on lucrative concession stands in Yellowstone National Park, he won the passage of legislation stopping it, and winning him the nickname “The Protector of Yellowstone.”
Even the late, lamented Old Drum had his post-mortem day in the sun. A statute of him stands outside the Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg. There’s also a bust of him inside the Missouri Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City. Not bad for an animal who gained fame simply by wandering onto a neighbor’s farm.
What does all this have to do with our losing Sally, you ask? Nothing, really. It just reminds me yet again that dogs are truly special creatures that fill a place in our hearts carved out just for them. I’m no theologian, and I refuse to jump into the debate over whether animals go to Heaven. But permit me to close with this: if they do go to Heaven, and if I make it there myself, a certain brown-eyed golden retriever/chow mutt will be standing beside St. Peter and wagging her tail in welcome one day.
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