Far-Out Friday: Old Rip the Horned Toad

Although the term “cornerstone” is referenced several times in the Bible, the exact origin of a ceremony laying a building cornerstone and placing items in it  (a “time capsule”) is vague, but perhaps began to be practiced as many as five thousand years ago.  Time Capsules: A Cultural History suggests that:

Time capsules can embody the highest technical and cultural aspirations of civilization, like the World’s Fairs where they are sometimes exhibited.  They are commonly featured as institutional publicity promotions, public relations activities, carnival-type attractions, or even the very familiar, de rigueur civic commemorative rituals.  They are convenient devices (literal or metaphorical) for us to commemorate hopes and evidence by leaving them for possible futures.  Influential groups of twentieth century savants and promoters organized a few noteworthy time capsule projects and attempted to preserve them for future recipients.  More often, people have been content to seal up smaller cultural samples, multitudes of which serve as “garden-variety” time capsules – modest shorter span memorials.

Such was the case in regards to a “garden-variety” time capsule for the town of Eastland, Texas. In 1897 the town was beginning construction of a new courthouse and a hollow cornerstone was being prepared to serve as a time capsule.  I’m sure many everyday items of that era were deposited, but only one such deposit would be remembered and eventually become wildly “famous” years later.

NOTE:  This article contains quite a few clips from newspapers around the country in 1928 and 1929.  Feel free to click on them to view them as a full image — they are quite interesting, and in some respects quite amusing.

Eastland citizen Earnest Wood had a unique deposit for the time capsule.  The legend goes that Mr. Wood’s son had a pet horned toad and dad decided to test a theory that reptiles such as the horned toad could live up to one hundred years in hibernation.  Wood placed it down in the hollowed-out block and it was sealed.

Fast forward thirty-one years when it was time to build a new courthouse.  The old courthouse would be demolished and the original time capsule removed.  Wood remembered the deposit he made in 1897 and word soon spread about the horned toad.  A large crowd gathered on February 18, 1928, and for evidential purposes a county judge and Methodist pastor presided over the opening of the time capsule.

Astonishingly, the horned toad was still alive, and in honor of Rip Van Winkle, was named “Old Rip” and placed on display.  The news quickly spread and newspaper after newspaper around the country carried stories with headlines like:


It seemed the whole country was caught up with the amazing horned toad story, which spawned all kinds of stories, theories and even a tour for Old Rip.  Old Rip would even meet President Calvin Coolidge:

CoolidgeArticleSpeaking of Calvin Coolidge, his detractors used the horned toad story to mock him mercilessly.  In 1927, Coolidge had decided that he would not run for re-election in 1928.  On August 2, 1927 he simply and succinctly announced to the press, via strips of paper with the statement printed on them: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.”  Coolidge, a quiet and reserved person, had earned the nickname of “Silent Cal”.  Here is one such political cartoon, tinged with the currency of the horned toad phenomenon:

CoolidgeCartoonAbout a month after finding Old Rip alive and well, the Ft. Worth Press decided to conduct their own test.  There were two toads, one from Ft. Worth and one which would be transported from El Paso.  El Paso’s entry went by the name of “Snoozer” and he would join “Boozer”, Ft. Worth’s entry, after being transported in a three ton truck – the three ton truck used “as a special service in the interest of science”, according to the El Paso Evening Post.

When Snoozer left El Paso he was sound asleep and still asleep when placed in the concrete block with Boozer (not sure how Boozer earned his moniker).  According to the Evening Post, “Boozer was awake today but remained content to shove his nose against the glass and gaze around with a bored expression.  Champions of the Ft. Worth toad averred that he is saving his energy in the 31-year race of his life.”

Snoozer_BoozerWomen even began taking up horned toads as pets as evidenced by this story in the News-Herald of Franklin, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1928:

EmmaJollayMiss Emma Jollay of Cleveland had received a baby horned toad, named “Herman” from a Texas admirer.  She carried it in her vanity case and was then claiming that Herman was the “first of his long-lasting family to travel by airmail”, as evidenced by a reproduction of his cancelled ticket:

ToadAirMailSo phenomenal was the story of Old Rip’s survival that a kind of “horned toad craze” erupted.  On March 16, 1928, the Springfield (Missouri) Leader announced “Horned Toad Farms Spring Up In Texas”, this while scientists were still disputing the viability of the story.  The article went on to say, “Now scores of Texans, dreaming of quick wealth by supplying toads for cornerstones and for [illegible] in eastern and northern cities, are catching the reptiles and starting horned toad farms.”

Even not-so-famous horned toads earned a headline in the Huntington (Indiana) Press:

ToadArticleIt was reported that in Alpine, Texas a horned toad took on a bull dog — and won:

HornedToad3On May 13, 1928 the Helena, Montana Independent Record had this headline: “Seattle is to Seal Up a Horned Toad in New Auditorium.”  Officials in Seattle had ordered “six horned toads, the largest and finest available” which were delivered by air mail – just to have them on hand in case scientists decided to test the theory for themselves.

Not to be outdone, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that a “vivacious spider to challenge that horned toad” came out of a broken slab of solid concrete that had been poured fourteen years prior.

SpiderHeadlineSimilarly, the Lubbock Morning Avalanche headlined a story on July 20, 1928: “Turtle Promises to Eclipse Texas’ Own Horned Toad”.  A few days before, a seven-inch turtle had been found embedded in wood that had been under water for some seventy years – originally tasked for use in the reconstruction of the U.S.S. Constitution or “Old Ironsides” at the Charlestown navy yard in Boston.  Several newspapers would then proclaim that the turtle was now the new “champion”.

On June 22, 1928 The Times of San Mateo, California announced that “‘Horned Toad’ Industry Now Is Popular” – no kidding:


Horned toads flown to locations around the country received headlines announcing their safe arrival to Seattle, Spokane, Chicago to name a few.

Businesses such as the Horned Toad Novelty Company sprang up.  J.R. Eichelberger, toad company manager, declared that the “toad business is such a success he may add rattlesnakes and prairie dogs to his stock.”  Eichelberger would eventually proclaim himself as “the horned toad king of the southwest.”

One entrepreneur had promised ten cents each for all the toads that could be found in Eastland County, Texas.  “Virtually every boy in the county began catching the reptiles.”  But when I.G. Jones, Jr. reneged on his promised bounty, reducing it to two for five cents, legal intervention was sought to force Jones to honor his original proposed fee.

Of course, you have to expect there would be consequences for the horned toad craze –  “EXTINCTION THREATENING HORNED TOAD OF DESERT”, according to the Springfield Leader on November 15, 1928:

The growing industry of collecting horned toads and selling them to tourists is beginning to threaten extinction of the species on the Arizona desert, declare officers of the biological survey here.  There is a demand for legal protection of the little animal whose friends say it is an ally of man in his warfare on insects.

So, on and on stories about horned toads continued for several months.  Sadly, however, Old Rip succumbed to a fatal chill on January 19, 1929.

RipDeadThe Davenport Democrat and Leader would eulogize Rip on February 1, 1929:

The toad had risen above the ranks of most toads.  It was a commercial attraction with vaudeville contracts pending in its name, and a suit for breach of alleged contract actually started in a Texas court.

What will be done with the remains is not yet decided.  If the toad really lived 31 years sealed up in a corner stone, it certainly deserves a place now in some museum exhibition case.  If the whole story was wrong and based on a misconception, that toad’s value and importance have collapsed along with its life.  There is no telling, however, what legendary importance it may yet attain.

The theory was that Rip had been “lured out by the sunshine, [and] became chilled fatally.”  Details concerning disposition of the corpse have not been announced,” reported the Zanesville, Ohio Times Signal.

After Rip’s untimely demise, an array of “farewell to Rip” articles appeared in newspapers around the country.  Days after his death, the town of Eastland was still uncertain as to his disposition since they were “respectfully” awaiting word from scientists at the Smithsonian as to whether they would want to preserve Rip.

However, scientists had scoffed and discredited Eastland’s claims ever since the story broke in early 1928.  As scientists are prone to do, they referred to Rip in purely scientific terms as “Phrynosoma regale”, which both “confounded Eastland and left the town offended.”  One resident was heard to say, “Phrynosoma regale, bah.  He may be that to them guys, but he’s a horned frog to us.”  No matter the scientific community’s claims, the residents of Eastland were determined to preserve their own piece of history.  They would take Rip to a taxidermist and place him in a glass case to display in the new $300,000 court house.

After Rip passed, a purported “cousin” of his named “Old Tut” himself passed away after being encased in cement for a year, reported the Billings Gazette on April 1, 1929.  According to the paper, apparently “Old Tut lacked the purported vitality of Old Rip.”  Old Tut would be buried in a park in Wills Point, Texas in a “handsome casket” donated by a Dallas coffin company – “local florists [had] sent a profusion of flowers for the rites.”

As it turns out, Rip wasn’t just placed in an ordinary glass case.  He received his own velvet-lined “open casket”.  There is still a velvet-lined open casket containing a horned toad today on display in Eastland’s court house – whether or not it’s really Rip is subject to debate.  On January 16, 1973, Old Rip was stolen by an unknown individual.  The individual sent a letter to the local newspaper some time later claiming that he himself placed a live horned toad in the cornerstone of the original courthouse at the time of its demolishment in 1928.  Supposedly, Rip was found and recovered but some today still question whether or not it’s “Old Rip” on display, or some other unfortunate toad.

RipCasketWhether or not the whole thing was an elaborate hoax is debatable.  In the January 31, 1929 issue of the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune, one scientist seemed to sum up the whole saga:

Of all the scientists questioned about Rip, it seems to us that only one caught perfectly the spirit of the dispute.  That was William Kilgore, curator at the University of Minnesota, who said, “Maybe it did happen – you never can tell about Texas.”

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.



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