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.”
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?)
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.
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?
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.