George Graham Vest served in the United States Senate for twenty-four years, from 1879 to 1903, but the act for which he is best remembered is a speech delivered in an insignificant court case while he was still a lawyer in rural Missouri.
Born in Kentucky in 1830, Vest moved in the 1850's to Missouri, where he practiced law and served in the state legislature. During the Civil War, he was a member of the Confederate Congress. After the war, he practiced law until his election to the Senate as a Democrat.
The lawsuit that brought him immortality concerned the shooting of "Old Drum," the best hunting dog of a local farmer. A neighbor who suspected that Old Drum was moonlighting by killing his sheep gave orders to shoot the dog if it appeared on the property again. When Old Drum was found dead near the neighbor's house, the farmer filed suit, seeking damages of fifty dollars. After a jury awarded twenty-five dollars, the neighbor successfully appealed the ruling. The dog's owner, however, succeeded in his motion for a new trial and hired two skilled lawyers, one of them George G. Vest.
The Billings gazette., August 30, 1904
ANECDOTES OF VEST
How Missouri's Ex-Senator Won a Jack Pot.
AN INSTANCE OF HIS BEADY WIT
Sen. George G. Vest
-With Crushing Effect When Interrupted In a Speech
-How the Senator Lost His Teeth
-A Gallant Impromptu Speech at a Fourth of July Celebration.
Years ago the late ex-United States Senator George G. Vest when a young man occasionally indulged in the fascinating game called draw poker, a game which we know is thoroughly understood in all the details in Clinton county, Mo., more especially Lathrop. Well, once on a time Vest had tried a case in a little county seat and received a large fee for clearing his man, says the Lathrop Monitor. So much money in the hands of the young lawyer was as tempting to the denizens as a cool watermelon to a hungry negro. The result was a game of poker was got up. The boys intended to fleece Vest and of course stacked the cards. They had no place to play in but a little shed that had no floor but some fresh dry wheat straw. It was a five handed game, and a dry goods box served as a table. It happened to be a jack pot, and Vest 'opened it on three queens. The cards being fixed, the other fellows had better hands and of course raised before the draw. Vest stood the raise and drew two cards. As luck would have it, he got the other queen. The betting commenced and grew exceedingly warm. They would raise the young lawyer, and he would see them and go a little better. An outsider who stood in with the gang looked over Vest's shoulder and saw what a formidable hand he had. ' He held up four fingers, shook his head and in other ways tried to warn his friends, but to no purpose. He saw that Vest would break the crowd, so he lit a match and set the straw floor on fire and told the to run for dear life. That cool head which served him so well in. after years and which never let him become rattled did not desert him then. With one hand he raked in the boodle, with the
other be exhibited his lovely queens, and as he went out of the door, with his coat tall on fire, he said: "Let her burn; the pot is mine!"
A Missouri paper revives an anecdote illustrating Senator Vest's readiness of wit and sarcasm. On one occasion, some years ago, the doughty senator used his gift with crushing effect on a man who interrupted him while he was making a speech in the Johnson county courthouse at Warrensburg, Mo., the home of his colleague, Senator Cockrell. The room was packed. Vest was speaking in a particularly happy vein when a Warrensburg editor who did not like him arose and asked him a question. It was courteously answered, and the editor followed it up with an other and another. To the surprise of most of his hearers, Senator Vest kept his temper and continued to reply courteously. Finally the editor asked a long and very involved question. The senator listened to it with the same attention as he had given to those that preceded it, but just as he seemed ready to reply, "and while," says Frank Frayne, who tells the story, "the audience was perfectly quiet, awaiting Vest's answer, a little yellow bench legged cur came jumping up the aisle immediately in front of the judge's stand, barking furiously at him. As quick as a flash Vest turned and, pointing his finger at the dog, said: 'One at a time, sir. You are out of your turn. Wait till I get through with the other one, then I will reply to you.' "
According to the Saturday Evening Post, Mr. Vest had artificial teeth and was not at all ashamed of them; on the contrary, the relief that he left after he had all his natural ones taken out, many years ago, made him rather proud of the false ones. One day, soon after the artificial set was fitted, he started on horseback for a country town, ten miles or so from his home in Missouri, where he had to argue an important law case. It was a cold, bleak day in November, but he tried forget the discomfort of his ride by thinking over the case and rehearsing his speech. About half way to his destination he had to ford a stream, as no bridge had then been built, and was getting along finely, when suddenly, his horse stepped off a ledge into deep water and had 'to swim for it. Mr. Vest did not lose his seat, but in the excitement of the moment he did lose his teeth. As he was then only a short distance from the other bank he urged his horse on and soon landed. But what to do without his teeth? It was a case of no teeth no speech. So he tied his horse to a tree, removed his clothing and dived to the bottom of that almost ice cold stream until he found his teeth. He had to dive six times, but he got them at last-and won his case.
A large throng had assembled one Fourth of July to listen to an oration by Senator Vest, says the Louisville Courier-Journal, Applause hearty and frequent encouraged the senator. While the multitude was breathlessly waiting or the conclusion of a beautiful exposition of the government's grandeur "I ennobling the individual a loud shriek was heard. A father had been holding a baby on his shoulder. To quiet the resting wee-lad he had given him a stick of jelly, the baby had thrust into the chiffon on a girls hat. In the struggle the hat was torn from the young woman's head; hearing the shriek. Senator Vest was sorry for the girl, but he poured oil upon.the troubled waters and brought blushes to the maiden's cheeks when he said gallantly:
"The removal of so pretty a hat has exposed a far prettier head of hair. Why, I know of some women whose hair would have followed the candy too." While Senator Vest was speaking in the senate one day Senator Allison told this story about him, says the Kansas City Star:
"Vest was a member of the Confederate congress in the civil war. Some of his constituents alleged that, being an able bodied man, it would be just as well if he took a gun and went out and did some fighting instead of loafing around Richmond making laws. "Vest acquiesced. He got a gun and went to war. His first engagement was a little affair in which the Confederates were whipped. They started to retreat, Vest well up to the front. He met a, man from his own town in Missouri. 'Say, Jim,' said Vest, 'when you go back home tell those folks you have seen me in a battle.' "'All right,' replied Jim, starting away. 'And, say, Jim,' shouted Vest after him, 'while you're about it, you might tell them that no other human being will ever see me in another.' "