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Missouri’s Big Four

Probably more remarkable than the subject debated during the trial, a slain dog, were the lawyers involved.  All the lawyers involved in the September 1870 Burden v. Hornsby  trial achieved considerable success in later years.  

Immediately following the Civil War, two Union officers, John Finis Philips and Thomas Theodore Crittenden, formed law partnerships with two Confederates, Francis Marion Cockrell and George Graham Vest.  Philips and Vest in Sedalia and Cockrell and Crittenden in Warrensburg became influential attorneys and major political figures in the Democratic Party earning them the title of Missouri’s “Big Four.” 

Francis Marion Cockrell (1834-1915)

Cockrell was a native Missourian, born in rural Johnson County on October 1, 1834.  He attended local schools and graduated from Chapel Hill College in Lafayette County in 1853.  After teaching school for one term while he studied law, Cockrell was admitted to the bar in 1855.  He practiced law in Warrensburg in partnership with James O. Silliman until the beginning of the Civil War. 

Cockrell enlisted as a private in the Missouri State Guard to oppose Federal efforts to keep Missouri in the Union.  Despite little military experience, he later joined the Confederate Army as a captain and advanced to the rank of brigadier general before the end of the war.  During the Civil War, he participated in major battles from Carthage and Vicksburg to Mobile, was wounded five times, and captured three times.  After his capture at Mobile, Alabama, he was paroled and granted full amnesty. 

Cockrell returned to Warrensburg and formed a law partnership with Thomas T. Crittenden and entered Democratic politics.  Even though he was unsuccessful in his bid for the governorship in 1874, he was elected by the Missouri legislature to the U.S. Senate a year later.  Cockrell served for 30 years in the Senate and was later appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Interstate Commerce Commission for a six-year term.  Cockrell died in Washington, D.C. on December 13, 1915. 

Thomas Theodore Crittenden (1832-1909)

Crittenden was born near Shelbyville in Shelby County, Kentucky, on January 1, 1832, to a prominent Kentucky family.  He attended school in Clover Point, Kentucky, and in 1855 graduated from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.  By 1858 he had received his law degree and started a practice in Lebanon, Missouri, with partner, John A. S. Tutt. 

He entered the Civil War early as a strong Union man and helped organize the Seventh Cavalry of the Missouri State Militia along with John F. Philips.  Shortly before the end of the war after obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was appointed to fill an unexpired term as attorney general. 

Crittenden relocated after the war and began his famous law practice with Confederate Brigadier General Francis M. Cockrell in Warrensburg, Missouri.  In 1872 and 1876, Crittenden was voted into the United States Congress.  At the close of his second term, he returned home and pursued the Democratic nomination for governor. 

Crittenden became the twenty-fourth governor of Missouri on January 10, 1881.  As governor, Crittenden implemented a controversial strategy to rid the state of outlaw activity.  He secured money from the railroads and offered large rewards for the captures and convictions of Jesse James and his gang.  The James gang was finally brought to justice when in April 1882, Robert Ford, a fellow gang member, shot and killed Jesse and then, the following fall, his brother Frank surrendered to Crittenden himself. 

Crittenden left office applauded by many for breaking up the James gang, and criticized by others for offering the rewards in his famous “wanted dead or alive” proclamation.  In 1885, following his term as governor, he moved to Kansas City and opened a new law firm.  He was appointed United States consul general to Mexico by President Grover Cleveland in 1893 and served for four years before returning to Kansas City.  Crittenden died unexpectedly in Kansas City on May 29, 1909.

John Finis Philips (1834-1919)

Philips was born on December 31, 1834, in Boone County, Missouri, the last of eleven children.  After attending the University of Missouri, he graduated from Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky, in 1855.  He joined the bar in 1857 and developed a large practice in Georgetown, Missouri.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Philips recruited the Seventh Missouri Cavalry and was commissioned as a colonel in the Union Army in May of 1862.  After displaying considerable courage in combat, he was nominated as a brigadier general but never confirmed by the General Assembly.  

Following the war in 1865, Philips moved to Sedalia and formed a law partnership with a former Confederate senator and soldier, George Graham Vest.  He became active in Democratic politics and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1868, but won election in 1874. 

Failing to be reelected to Congress in 1880, he used his considerable connections to obtain judicial positions.  In 1882, Philips received an important appointment as commissioner of the Missouri Supreme Court, followed by an appointment by friend and fellow Democrat, Governor Thomas Crittenden, as one of three judges to the newly-formed Kansas City Court of Appeals. 

With an appointment by President Grover Cleveland in 1888, Philips became judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri.  After twenty-two years on the federal bench, Philips retired in 1910 and resumed a law practice in Kansas City until his death on March 13, 1919. 

George Graham Vest (1830-1904)

Vest was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, on December 6, 1830.  He graduated from Centre College in 1848 and received a degree from the law department at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1853.  Shortly after graduating, he headed out west by stagecoach. 

En route to the coast, the stagecoach wrecked at Georgetown, Missouri, and Vest suffered a broken arm.  While recuperating, he defended a slave accused of murdering a mother and her children and though acquitted, the slave was lynched. Vest was warned to leave town, but decided to stay in the small Pettis County town and begin his successful legal career.

By 1856, Vest moved to Boonville and became active in Democratic Party politics.  He was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 1860 and served there until late 1861 when he wrote the resolution calling for the state convention to determine Missouri’s future in the Union.  

As an outspoken advocate for secession, Vest aligned himself with the South.  In 1861, he fought at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the following year was elected to the Confederate Congress where he served until 1864, when he was appointed to the Confederate Senate.

When the war was over, Vest came back to Missouri and started a law practice in Sedalia.  He chose as his partner John F. Philips, a former Union soldier.  In 1870, Vest represented Charles Burden whose hunting dog had been killed by a neighbor.  Vest’s closing remarks made no reference to the trial details, but instead eulogized a dog’s unconditional love for its master.  The case was won and Vest became famous for his classic speech.

In 1876, Vest ran for governor, but was defeated because of his Confederate record.  After moving to Kansas City, he was elected by the legislature to the U. S. Senate in 1879.  During Vest’s twenty-four years in the Senate, he became known for his skills as a debater and an orator.  He is also credited with saving Yellowstone National Park for the government and fighting to see it protected, along with urging reform in the treatment of Native Americans. 

Because of poor health, Vest retired from public life in 1903 and lived at his home in Sweet Springs, Missouri, until his death on August 9, 1904.