September 23, 2014

The story, the man – and the dog – behind the phrase “man’s best friend”


September 23rd is the anniversary of what is said to be the origin of a dog-related saying that’s as or more famous than “Love me, love my dog.”

The saying is generally heard in the form “A dog is a man’s best friend.”

Sometimes it’s given as “A man’s best friend is his dog.”

Either way, almost everyone knows the phrase “man’s best friend.”

The origin of those familiar words is traditionally credited to the closing arguments made by lawyer George Graham Vest in a trial at the Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri on September 23, 1870.

The case was about a dog named Old Drum.

Old Drum was an unlucky foxhound who crossed paths with a sheep farmer named Leonidas Hornsby in the fall of 1869.

Hornsby had lost some sheep to dogs and had recently vowed to his neighbors that he’d kill any canine he saw on his land. When Old Drum set paw on Hornsby’s property, the farmer kept his vow.

The next morning, Drum’s owner, Charles Burden, went looking for his missing hound dog.

He found him shot dead and figured he knew who did it. So, he filed a lawsuit against Hornsby, asking for compensation.

George Vest served as Burden’s attorney. In his final summation, Vest brought the jury to tears and won the case with these words:

“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 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.”

The first six words of that paragraph, combined with the last three — “The best friend a man has...is his dog” — is said to be the origin of the dog-lovers’ saying we know today.

It’s likely that “A man’s best friend is his dog” was in use before Vest gave his famous closing arguments in 1870. But the folks who live in the nice little city of Warrensburg, Missouri (population 16,000) have their own opinion.

On September 23, 1958, the 88th anniversary of Vest’s memorable words, a statue of Old Drum was placed with great ceremony in front of the Johnson County Courthouse in Warrensburg, where it can still be seen today.

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