Old Rip, beloved pet horned toad, allegedly survived 31 years in a time capsule buried at the Eastland, Texas courthouse in 1897. The building was razed in 1928 to make way for a larger facility. When the time capsule was opened, witnesses saw the horned toad twitch back to life.
At least that’s how the story has been told and retold. Old Rip remains the town’s mascot to this day.
Once known as Blinky, the horned lizard (technically not a toad) was renamed. He became “Old Rip” after Washington Irving’s fictional character Rip Van Winkle who slept for twenty years. Old Rip soared to national celebrity as he toured several U.S. cities. His people even arranged a formal audience with President Calvin Coolidge.
Today Old Rip signs and souvenirs are as common across Eastland as spines on a horned lizard’s head. Old Rip festivals, contests and other events attract faithful locals and tourists alike.
Most experts agree that no horned lizard could survive 31 years of entombment. Like any news story, historical or current, you have to determine if it’s fact, fiction, or a bit of both. As with Tulip Mania, one of the first stories to go viral in 1841, the sheer scope of repetition created momentum and believability. Pictures, graphs and anecdotes make false stories more credible.
First, The Facts
Horned lizards are mistakenly called toads or frogs. Three types call Texas home. The most common is the Texas Horned Lizard, which was designated as the state reptile in 1993, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
Their broad, flat bodies average 2 ½ to 4 inches. They have a short, pointed snout and a short tail. They sport a prominent crown of spines at the back of the head, with two enlarged spines in the center, giving the appearance of horns. They also have rows of enlarged spines on either side of the throat.
Despite their gnarly appearance, horned lizards are docile. Their primary defense is camouflage. They also puff up to twice their size if threatened. When necessary they can squirt blood from their eyes, up to several feet. Their spines also make horned lizards hard to swallow.
Horned lizards primarily eat harvester ants. The invasion of Texas by the red imported fire ant led to extensive use of insecticides that also killed harvester ants. Consequently, horned lizard populations also diminished. In 1977 they were added to the state’s threatened species list. In the 1980s ownership of a horned lizards was banned. The Horned Lizard Conservation Society was formed in 1990.
Horned lizards normally disappear between October and April. According to the Rio Grande Valley Texas Naturalist Master they are not hibernating, but brumating. This is a state during which activity is lessened, but not to the extremes of hibernation.
Did this annual disappearance trigger the old cowboy legend that horned lizards can live without food or water for one hundred years?
Ernest Wood Tested The Legend
Ernest Wood, county clerk of the city of Eastland, Texas, supposedly tested the legend on July 31, 1897.
The story of Tulip Mania went viral 200 years after the incident, thanks to a sensationalist author who published a book on crowd psychology. Similarly, Old Rip hopped back to life when author/journalist/editor Boyce House re-told the story of Old Rip decades later, prior to the opening of the time capsule.
House’s 1938 article in the Star-Telegram, retold the story of the horned lizard, that had belonged to WiIl Wood, son of Ernest. The story went viral, thanks to word of mouth and the long reach of the Associate Press.
“In the summer of 1897, the cornerstone of the new courthouse was to be laid. Wood was to have a doubly important role in the ceremonies because, besides being County Clerk, he was a member of the town band which was to render appropriate music. As he started from his home, he noticed that his little son, Will, was playing with a horned frog. Wood picked up the frog and continued to town. His duties as cornet player prevented him from personally placing the critter in the cornerstone, but he turned the animal over to a friend who actually deposited the frog therein.”
Accounts of the objects placed in the time capsule varied. Most agreed that a Bible and possibly a bottle of liquor, some coins and newspapers were included. And of course there was Blinky. Some believe it was the Bible that sustained him.
Thirty-One Years Later: Blinky Saw The Light
As the story is told, Ernest Wood suggested to Boyce House that the horned toad might be found alive when the time capsule was opened. House’s news stories piqued enough interest to draw a crowd of somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 onlookers.
Dallas Morning News of February 19, 1928
“The horned frog which Eastland County history relates was sealed up thirty-one years ago in the corner stone of the courthouse here, Saturday, was taken from its long retirement before a cheering crowd of more than 1,000 persons.
What’s more, it still was alive!
When first taken from its score-and-a half year-tomb, where no light, air, nor water had a chance to penetrate the frog’s eyes were closed and it seemed dead. Soon, however, its pale eyelids blinked and then opened. Firmly held by Eugene Day, it wriggled a bit, then settled back into lethargy, seemingly ready to go back to sleep for another third of a century.
When word that the corner stone was to be opened was circulated great interest was aroused in the county. Many old-timers remembered when the stone was sealed with the little horned frog in it and all of them that could do so attended the opening Saturday.”
The Story Got Bigger And Juicier
Shortly after Old Rip emerged from his tomb, newspapers across the nation. The New York Times gave the Old Rip a front-page headline:
Toad Alive After 31 Years Sealed in Texas Cornerstone
“After the cornerstone was removed the toad appeared lifeless for some time, but in a little while it opened its eyes. In about twenty minutes it began to breathe. The mouth, however, appeared to have grown together. Efforts will be made to induce the toad to take food and, if necessary, the mouth will be opened by an operation. The toad is now on exhibition.”
Even Arthur Brisbane, famed columnist who was once Nellie Bly’s editor at the New York World, wrote about the incident. As with Tulip Mania, the story’s momentum gave it credibility.
Trick Or Truth? Public Debate Ensued
Experts from a variety of specialties weighed in on the veracity of the miraculous event. Most declared the story a hoax, but not all. William T. Hornaday, respected curator of the New York Zoological Gardens, argued that it was possible for a horned lizard to survive extended entombment. His opinion offered just enough credibility to buoy true believers everywhere.
House wrote in 1938:
“If [the story] was false, surely someone who was on the inside would have, unwittingly, given the secret away. If there is anything to the test of time, then the presumption is that Old Rip really slumbered all those years.”
In his 1993 book, O Ye Legendary Horned Frog, historian June Rayfield Welch writes about an anonymous person who claimed that five young men conspired to place a living toad in the cornerstone on the famed day in February 1928. Regardless of the truth, the story of Old Rip remains a bright moment in the history of Eastland, Texas.
Texas Lizard Found Fame And An Endless Supply of Red Ants
If the public had been bamboozled, it did not matter. Will Wood (the original owner when Old Rip still went by Blinky) became the horned lizard’s official handler. He arranged a multi-city tour, including a jaunt to Dallas that ended in a lawsuit against Wood. But that did not stop him.
Among his many engagements, Old Rip drew a crowd of 40,000 visitors at the St. Louis Missouri Zoological Gardens. Newsreels staged reenactments of the cornerstone ceremony. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram declared Rip to be “the most famous animal since the serpent in the Garden of Eden.” A print run of 16,000 Old Rip postcards sold out.
Then, in May of 1928, President Calvin Coolidge agreed to give the horned lizard an audience. Newspapers across country covered the event. Coolidge, they reported, did not touch the lizard, but stroked its back with his eyeglasses.
RIP Old Rip
On January 19, 1929, 11 months after his miraculous resurrection from the cornerstone, Old Rip croaked. Will Wood had his beloved toad embalmed and placed in a tiny velvet-lined casket made by the Abilene Casket Company. Even dead, the horned lizard drew crowds.
To this day he has a place of honor in the vestibule of the first floor of the Eastland County Courthouse.
Why Do We Believe Fake Stories?
Even smart people believe fake stories. As with Tulip Mania and Old Rip, the sheer scope of repetition created momentum and that engendered believability. Pictures, graphs and anecdotes make false stories more credible.
In Harvard Summer School’s 4 Tips For Spotting a Fake News Story author Christina Nagler writes:
“Another contributing factor according to Pew Research is confirmation bias. People are more likely to accept information that confirms their beliefs and dismiss information that does not.”
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