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Missouri’s Old Drum: Mankind’s Best Friend

In an episode of “Cesar Millan’s Dog Nation,” Cesar and Andre visit St. Louis Missouri, y Andre describes as being full of history. But there’s one story they didn’t have a chance to cover — the saga of a dog named Old Drum and what’s happening in the Missouri legislature right now.

 

“…le chien… c’est le meilleur ami que puisse avoir l’homme” — François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Dictionnaire philosophique, 1764 (“…the dog… is the best friend man can have.”)

 “A dog is man’s best friend” is an often-expressed sentiment and, nowadays, the expression is practically a cliché. Voltaire was ahead of his time when he was the first to express the idea in writing two hundred and fifty years ago, beating out a more famous statement of the same by King Frederick of Prussia 25 years later.

However, in a courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri in 1870, a lawyer gave an impassioned argument in a case involving the shooting of a dog, Old Drum, in which the expression became a part of the American vernacular. A statue of Old Drum by Ren Gastaldi was erected in the city on September 23, 1958. It quoted that lawyer’s speech, known as “Eulogy of the Dog,” in full and the entire memorial is titled “A Tribute to the Dog.”

At the same time, the people of Missouri have been trying to have Old Drum declared the state’s official historical dog. Although the Missouri State House passed a bill to that effect in May, 2013 and forwarded it to the Senate, it wasn’t until just now, March 2017, that the bill was finally passed to the Senate for approval.

The act reads, in full, as follows:

10.112 The dog known as ‘Old Drum’, whose death became the subject of an 1870 Missouri Supreme Court case and the delivery of a famous speech as the closing argument to the case known as the ‘Eulogy to Old Drum’, is designated as the historical dog of the state of Missouri.

The Prescott Evening Courier of June 3, 1957, gives the details of the original case in the fundraising run-up to erecting the memorial. Old Drum was a dog owned by Charles Burden and shot by another local, Lon Hornsby. (A modern account from the Johnson County historical society, in contrast, states that the dog was shot by Samuel Ferguson, the 12-year-old nephew of Leonidas “Lon” Hornsby.)

Either way, the defendants claimed the shooting was because dogs had killed 100 sheep on their farm, but the impassioned appeal by the attorney George Vest describing the dog as Burden’s best friend moved the jury to find for the plaintiff, who was awarded $50 — the equivalent of about $960 today.

This verdict may seem to be something of an insult today. After all, can you really put a dollar value — and such a low one at that — on a family member, companion, and loved one? However, it was actually radical for the time. Remember, this was before humans had figured out how to conquer rabies, so dogs had not yet become the household pets we know them as today. They were mostly working animals, and sometimes livestock-killing pests, and it was a rare person at the time who considered them to be more than just animals.

So for a jury to make such a finding at the time is a huge example of how moved they were by Vests’s arguments in his eulogy — words that are still having an effect on the people of Missouri nearly a century and a half later.

Missouri Senate Bill No. 376 was just passed to the formal calendar for “Perfection,” the process of finalizing the bill for passage. You can find more information at the Missouri State Senate website.

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