Illustrations by Subin Yang
“And now call the dog,” said Judge Edward Kimball to the bailiff. Did he smile when he said it? Did he look embarrassed? Judge Kimball was a serious man — a graduate of George Washington University and Harvard Law, appointed to the District of Columbia municipal court by President Wilson in 1914. He was a well-respected judge and a fixture of D.C. society. So why was he putting a dog on the stand?
The case was a pet ownership battle. The plaintiff, Maj. Gen. Eli Helmick, said that the dog was Buddy, purchased in 1920 from Brockway Kennels in Baldwin, Kansas, which had advertised 75 “white, intelligent, shaggy, handsome trick Eskimos.” For almost two years, the family raised the pup, until one day in November 1921 it went missing. Months later, Florence Helmick visited Keeley Morse’s hat shop, where customers were greeted by a fluffy, friendly white dog that Florence insisted was her Buddy. She demanded Morse hand over the animal. When he refused to surrender the dog, which he called Prince, the Helmicks brought him to court.
Animals and the law have been linked since the Code of Hammurabi declared, “If the ox gore a free-born man and kill him, the owner shall pay one-half a mina in money.” Throughout the medieval period, similar laws were made to govern animals as property, and courts even punished animals accused of hurting humans. It was not until the 1860s, however, that the law began to view pets as something separate from livestock. On April 12, 1867, due to the lobbying of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the New York legislature passed an act “for the more effectual prevention of cruelty to animals,” which forbid unnecessary “maiming” and banned cockfighting and dogfighting. This law set the legal framework for pets, now protected from unnecessary violence, to be seen as the legal property of their owners.
However, “there is no distinction between a companion animal and any given piece of inanimate personal property,” writes Tabby McLain, a lawyer specializing in animal custody disputes. When pet owners sue to recover an animal, judges consider the same things they would for any piece of property: purchase records, market value, as well as expenditures made on its care. But that is starting to change, as states pass laws to take the animal’s well-being into account in these decisions — an attempt to treat pets in the courtroom with the love we give them everywhere else, which has its roots in the day the dog was called to testify.
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After they purchased Buddy from the breeders in Kansas, the Helmicks entered their Eskimo in a show, where he won three blue ribbons. General Helmick testified that on November 6, 1921, he attended a service at Arlington National Cemetery. When he returned home, the dog was missing.
The family distributed posters in local newspapers and other locations, but they turned up no leads — until Mrs. Helmick saw the dog in Morse’s shop. She recognized him immediately “by his eyes which are exceptionally bright; by the brown color of his nose; by a slight discoloration of his back; and by a fluffy erectness of the hair on that portion of his anatomy.”
When Morse insisted that the dog belonged to him, General Helmick turned to the law, attempting to have Morse arrested. When Detective Sgt. Bradley arrived at the F Street millinery, he was unable to determine who owned the dog, so he impounded it. Rather than pursue a criminal case against Morse, General Helmick followed the advice of the family lawyer and filed a writ of replevin — a legal means of recovering “wrongfully detained” property.
When the case reached Judge Kimball, General Helmick attempted to prove ownership of the dog he called Buddy through photographs and purchase records. He presented the court with receipts and also gave additional evidence attesting to the dog’s pedigree. His case was persuasive, but Morse argued that it didn’t matter who owned Buddy, because the pet in question was a different dog.
Morse claimed he bought Prince on October 24, before Buddy went missing, for $62 or $72 — he couldn’t remember which — at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City, not far from Penn Station. He did not have a receipt, but he brought four witnesses to testify that the dog was in his shop before November 6. Additional witnesses stated that the dog seemed happy there.
Morse called the general’s account into question by pointing to the certification documents that accompanied the blue ribbons, wherein the dog-show judges reclassified Buddy as a Samoyed not an Eskimo. Neither pet could be his Prince, he said, who was a simple mutt.
He called an expert witness who testified that the dog in question “was not an Eskimo dog but was a dog,” meaning a mixed-breed dog, going on to say that while “bright eyes were a characteristic of [Eskimo] dogs, that brown color of nose and discoloration of back were common traits of mongrels of this type; mongrel dogs have brown noses as a general rule, whereas well-bred dogs have black noses; and erectness of hair on the back was usual in Eskimo dogs of mixed pedigree.”
The court was baffled. With no other means to resolve such a conundrum, Judge Kimball turned to a method that has since become a cliché in movies and books: He invited the dog to testify. The court officer exited through the back doors and walked the dog to the stand. They did not bother trying to swear the animal in, nor did they need to. Almost immediately, the dog leapt out of its chair.
“With a turn of his head and a swish of his tail, the animal bounded to the chair where Mrs. Helmick sat,” wrote The Washington Times, whose account provides the best narration of the scenes in the courtroom. Greeted as Buddy by the Helmick family, the Times writes, the dog “wag[ged] his tail with enthusiastic joy.”
Judge Kimball required no other testimony. He immediately handed the dog over to the Helmicks.
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Helmick v. Morse is one of the first documented examples of a judge giving such agency to a pet. Such scenes are becoming more common. Encouraged by animal advocates who argue that pets should be granted special status, similar to children, the law has started to change. During Hurricane Katrina, some judges allowed a pet’s response to its name to be considered when determining ownership. In 2016, the Alaska legislature amended its marriage and divorce statutes with reference to pets, such that the court ought to “[take] into consideration the well-being of the animal.” Illinois and California followed suit this past year with their own versions of these laws. Although animals do not have civil rights, courts are now starting to recognize what Judge Kimball knew instinctively in 1922: Pets are a unique form of property, with feelings all their own.
And what happened with poor Keeley Morse? After his Prince was taken away, Morse filed a writ of error calling the judgment into question on several grounds, most notably that the service at Arlington Cemetery actually took place five days after November 6. His lawyer appealed to a higher court, but the response has been lost to history.
By late November 1922, Morse owed nearly $7,000 in debts and had lost his business. An ad in the Washington papers noted that “the assignee will sell by public auction … the Fourteenth of December 1922, ladies trimmed and untrimmed hats, hat frames, display stands, dressing-tables, plate-glass tops, etc.” He’d lost everything, and the dog too.
Christopher DeCou studied history and Chinese in Ann Arbor and Chicago. After teaching in the furthest suburbs of Seoul, he is currently based in Tel Aviv, where he writes about history, geography, archaeology and science.