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A to Z Texas: Old Rip – Famed Horny Toad of Eastland County

Eastland County Courthouse, home of Old Rip (photo by Tui Snider)
Eastland County Courthouse, home of Old Rip (photo by Tui Snider)

Horned Lizard Buried Alive in Eastland, Texas

While the average horny toad has a lifespan of five to ten years, there is an old wive’s tale that – like Rip Van Winkle – they can live for 100 years in hibernation.

On July 29, 1897 a county clerk in Eastland, Texas named Ernest E. Wood decided to test this theory. On that day, a cornerstone containing a time capsule was cemented into the new Eastland County Courthouse. The time capsule included a Bible, coins, newspapers and – as a last minute addition by Mr. Wood – a live Texas horned lizard.

The reptile was his four-year-old son’s pet, and the little guy had even named him Blinky. I’m not sure how Mr. Wood’s son, Will, reacted to his father’s idea, but I know how I’d feel if my dad decided to bury one of my pets alive to, “test a theory.”

Oh, well!

Still Alive 31 Years Later

Thirty-one years later, that Eastland County Courthouse was demolished and a new one built. People remembered the Texas horned lizard that had been sealed in the cornerstone, and curiosity grew so strong that over 3,000 people arrived on February 18, 1928 to witness the cornerstone as it was unsealed.

Would the little critter be alive or dead? (I’m sure a bit of money exchanged hands that day; how could people resist placing a bet on something like that?)

Monument for Old Rip in Eastland, Texas (photo by Tui Snider)
Monument for Old Rip in Eastland, Texas (photo by Tui Snider)

Investigators Called In: It’s No Hoax

To ensure no hanky-panky, the event was presided over by a judge and a Methodist pastor. Upon opening the cornerstone, a dusty horned lizard was found inside. Shortly afterwards, the creature began to wiggle and was deemed alive.

A biology team from Texan Christian University (TCU) examined the horned lizard and discovered that while it was healthy overall, it had a broken leg and worn-down horns, probably from trying to escape over the years. Blinky’s eyes and mouth were sealed shut, as well, which is normal for a hibernating lizard at that time of year. (Incidentally, TCU’s mascot is the Texas horned lizard, but they came up with that long before the whole Old Rip scenario. TCU did recently name a sculpture in Old Rip’s honor.)

When some folks grumbled that the lizard’s survival was a hoax (probably those who lost money on their bets!) a local businessman offered $1000 to anyone who could scare up a horny toad in Texas in February. Since horned lizards hibernate underground throughout the winter, no one was able to take up this offer. Other folks, including Will Wood, the boy – now a man – who had originally caught the lizard, attributed its survival to the Bible it was sealed up with rather than anything biological. This is Texas, after all.

Old Rip Goes Viral, Meets the President, Lives the Good Life

As news of the horned lizard’s survival swept the nation, Blinky’s publicists cleverly renamed him “Old Rip,” as a nod to the Rip Van Winkle fairy tale.

What happened next, you ask? A national tour of the USA, of course! Old Rip was even given an audience with President Calvin Coolidge and written up in the pages of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

Keeping horned lizards as pets became a fad and a local Texas gas station handed out live horned lizards with every fill-up. Eastland County even tried to seal up another horned lizard in the cornerstone of the newest courthouse, but was dissuaded by the Fort Worth Human Society at the last minute.

When not on tour, Old Rip lived with the Wood family in Eastland, Texas. Will Wood, who had originally caught the horned lizard as a toddler, now had children of his own, and they are the ones who took care of the famous lizard.

Sadly, Old Rip died from pneumonia on January 19, 1929, a mere eleven months after his initial release from the courthouse cornerstone.

Will Wood had Old Rip preserved and obtained a tiny, velvet-lined coffin from The National Casket Company. After an open casket wake at a local funeral home, the lizard was exhibited at the town courthouse. Then, instead of being buried, Old Rip continued to travel the country as part of fairs and exhibits.

The legend of Old Rip became such a part of Eastland, Texas that it inspired several businesses including the Old Rip Cap Company, the Old Rip Cafe and Old Rip Soda. Even Warner Brothers took inspiration from the Old Rip tale when it created Michigan J. Frog, the character which symbolizes its TV network.

Old Rip on display in his tiny velvet casket (photo by Tui Snider)
Old Rip on display in his tiny velvet casket (photo by Tui Snider)

Gubernatorial Photo Op with Lizard Goes Awry

Eventually, Old Rip was returned to the Eastland Texas Courthouse where it can be viewed to this day. Even so, did returning home and being dead stop the adventures of this famous reptile?

No way!

In 1962, gubernatorial candidate John Connally visited Eastland and wanted to pose with the famous lizard. Unfortunately, Mr. Connally accidentally broke a leg off of Old Rip during the photo op, and the incident was kept hush-hush for many years.

Oh, but this crazy tale does not end there!

Old Rip is Kidnapped – More than Once!

In 1964, Old Rip was kidnapped as a publicity stunt for the local Jaycees, which seems innocent enough. In 1973, however, a more serious lizard-napping caper ensued when Old Rip was snatched yet-again from the Eastland County Courthouse.

A ransom note soon followed, which along with the request for a small sum of money, claimed that Old Rip’s survival for 31 years in the courthouse time capsule had been a hoax. The author of the note claimed to be one of the original conspirators and demanded that his or her co-conspirators should step forward.

No one did.

Eventually, however, Old Rip’s remains were recovered at the local fairgrounds. Ever since that incident, the town of Eastland, Texas has been a little more careful with the remains of their most famous resident.

(For the record, horny toads are neither frogs nor toads. They are members of the lizard family, not amphibians. Still, the way their middle puffs out makes them look rather frog-like, and people often call them horny toads, which is why I the terms interchangeably in this blog post.)

Toadspotting: The Movie

OK, so I was just about to hit publish on this post when I decided to see if YouTube had anything to offer on the subject of Old Rip. Sure enough, I found the following 20 minute documentary on this legendary lizard:

More A to Z blog posts

This was my post for the letter O of the A to Z blogging challenge. Tune in tomorrow to see what quirky Texan thing the letter P will bring!

In the meantime, click on this link to find out what other A to Z blogging challenge folks are writing about.

Tui Snider
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Tui Snider

Tui Snider is an author, speaker, and photographer who specializes in quirky, haunted, and downright bizarre destinations. As she puts it, “I used to write fiction – but then, I moved to Texas!” Snider's writing and photography have been featured in a variety of publications, including Coast to Coast AM, FOX Travel News, LifeHack, Langdon Review, the City of Plano, Wild Woman Waking, Shades of Angels and more. Snider’s award-winning books include Paranormal Texas, The Lynching of the Santa Claus Bank Robber, and Unexpected Texas. Snider has several more books in progress, including a Field Guide to Cemetery Symbols and a book about the Great Texas Airship Mystery of 1897. Tui has worn a lot of hats in her life – literally – and is especially fond of berets. She enjoys connecting with writers and readers all over the globe through social media, her newsletter and her website: TuiSnider.com.
Tui Snider
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Published inTravel Photo Essays

13 Comments

  1. Gil Gil

    Tui, Thanks for letting me know about this very interesting post of yours. I don’t know how I missed it earlier.

  2. What an awesome story, I like this one even better than the 105 year old lightbulb. That is one resilient Horned Lizard, too bad he had to succumb to pneumonia so soon after his release. I also enjoyed the Munster Mansion and I have to admit Chuck Norris is the Man. I think he could take Jean Claude.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Dan,

      When I started researching this one, I just kept on finding out more and more and more about Old Rip. What an incredible little creature! It is sad that he didn’t get to enjoy more years of pampering after his entombment, though.

      So glad you are enjoying the posts. I try to keep things interesting around here. Luckily, Texas is an interesting place.

      ~Tui

  3. I used to see horned toads all the time when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen one in years. Of course, I haven’t looked for one either – LOL.

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Carol,

      I know you’re not looking for horned lizards, but their numbers have sharply declined due pesticide use and the fire ant invasion. Horny toads much prefer to eat harvester ants. They’ve been placed on the protected list.

      ~Tui

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Hi Sandy,

      I know! For a little critter, Old Rip had quite a storied existence, in life and in death!

      ~Tui

  4. I am learning so much from your blog. I had never heard the tale of Old Rip. (And I had no idea that horned toads were really lizards.) I’m taking my son to a Ranger’s game in Austin soon and I plan to share my new-found Texas knowledge with him during our trip. :)

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Thanks, Chuck!

      I hope to arm people with some fun Texas trivia. Yeah, I thought horny toads were a type of frog for the longest time, too. We had one in my sandbox when I was a kid. Not knowing any better, my siblings and I snuck one home with us to Virginia after visiting my Grandma in New Mexico. The critter would disappear every winter and reappear every summer. It lived for at least five years. We moved after that, so I don’t know how much longer it lived. As an adult, I feel kinda guilty about the whole thing!

      ~Tui

    • mentalmosaic mentalmosaic

      Thanks, Patricia!

      I feel like there is still more for me to find out about Old Rip, actually. I may do some more digging!

      ~Tui

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