Mark Twain and Boyce House were storytellers and lovers of the tall tale. Mark Twain celebrated a jumping frog of Calaveras County. Boyce House celebrated a horned frog of Eastland County.
Boyce House may have had the Twainian touch, but the event he turned into national news in 1928 seemed more up the dark alley of Edgar Allan Poe: Horned frog suffers premature burial, rises from the crypt thirty-one years later—alive!
The story of Old Rip was the second (see Part 1) news event that Boyce House scooped in two months in 1927-1928. His coverage of these two events would carry him from small-town Eastland to big-city Fort Worth, where he would live, write, achieve fame, die, and be buried.
Boyce House was born in Arkansas in 1896, son of a country newspaper editor. House moved to Texas for his health in 1920, just in time to get caught up in the 1919-1921 Ranger oil boom in Eastland County. By 1921 he was editor of the Eastland newspaper.
In an article in the Star-Telegram in 1938 House recalled the saga of Old Rip:
“In the summer of 1897, the cornerstone of the new [Eastland County] courthouse was to be laid. [Ernest] 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.”
The cornerstone was to serve as a time capsule. The hapless horned frog (we know a horned frog is really a lizard) was sealed up in the cornerstone with, it was reported, a Bible.
The cornerstone was laid on July 31, 1897. The Fort Worth Register story included no details of a reptilian nature.
Fast-forward to 1928—thirty-one years later. Eastland County was tearing down the 1897 courthouse to build a new one. Boyce House, who had been born one year before the horned frog had been placed into its cornerstone tomb, was now editor of the Eastland Argus-Tribune. Ernest Wood—the very man who in 1897 had caused the horned frog to be placed into the cornerstone—hinted to House that the reptile might still be alive when the cornerstone time capsule was opened. House’s reportage of that seemingly wild prediction drew a crowd of three thousand to watch as the brick and mortar enclosing the cornerstone were pried away and as “Eugene Day, oilman, thrust his hand into the cavity and lifted out a flat, dust-covered toad, which he handed over to the Rev. Mr. Singleton [pastor of the Eastland Methodist Church].
“The pastor handed the creature on to Judge Pritchard, who dangled it aloft by a hind leg that all might see. Suddenly the other hind leg twitched; the frog was alive! The crowd cheered—and cheered again as his body swelled with a breath of fresh air, the first (presumably) in almost thirty-one years.”
Dallas Morning News of February 19, 1928.
Boyce recalled: “Old Rip (as he was fittingly named) had surpassed the achievement of the original Rip Van Winkle, who had slept a mere twenty years. The Eastland frog became the most famous animal since the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Mark Twain’s jumping frog became an also-ran. In newspaper space, Old Rip’s total was exceeded only by Lindbergh for a like span of time. . . . Horned frogs were sold as souvenirs at $2.50 each at the national Democratic convention in Houston. So many were shipped out of West Texas . . . that a Department of Agriculture bulletin foretold damage amounting to thousands of dollars if the shipment did not stop inasmuch as horned frogs preyed on insects that otherwise would devour crops.
“Meanwhile Old Rip had been taken to Dallas for exhibition . . . by Will Wood (the erstwhile lad whose pet had been taken so many years before). But visitors poured into Eastland, and there was disappointment when they learned that the frog was elsewhere. Anxious to please, Wood brought Old Rip back—and was sued for $6,000 for alleged breach of contract in Dallas. The frog was taken in custody on an attachment, and Wood had to arrange bond of $1,000 to get the frog back.”
Then Old Rip went to Washington. To meet the president. Of the United States. Such magical things could happen to a horned frog in the Texas of 1928.
Boyce House wrote: “[Will] Wood called at the office of Earle B. Mayfield, then United States Senator from Texas, in the hope of getting an appointment to see President Calvin Coolidge. Mayfield took the matter up with the President in these words:
“‘Mr. Will Wood of Eastland is in the city and wants to see you.’
“The Chief Executive replied: ‘I’m very busy; I haven’t time, Senator.’
“To which Mayfield countered: ‘But he is the man who owns the horned frog.’
“With unaccustomed eagerness, Coolidge asked: ‘Does he have the frog with him? Very well, I’ll see him.’”
When Old Rip and the leader of the free world met face to face, House wrote, “President Coolidge asked numerous questions concerning his celebrated guest, stroked the frog’s back with his horn-rimmed glasses; and then the President and Old Rip gazed steadily at each other for a full minute without a sound—Silent Cal had met his match.”
Alas, on January 19, 1929, eleven months after his resurrection, Old Rip died.
His death was reported in the February 1 Dallas Morning News.
Old Rip’s body was embalmed and placed on display in the lobby of the new Eastland County courthouse in a velvet-lined open casket. (Photo from Eastland Visitor Center.)
But for Old Rip there was life after death: He died and went to the state fair. Clip is from the October 12, 1930 Dallas Morning News.
Fast-forward to 1973. Frognapping! Well, frog bodysnatching anyway. Someone stole Old Rip’s body and casket from the courthouse. In an anonymous letter a writer claimed that back in 1928 he and unnamed accomplices had hoaxed the nation with Old Rip. The writer demanded that his accomplices join him in ’fessing up. When no ’fesses were forthcoming, up or otherwise, another letter arrived claiming that Old Rip and his casket could be found at the county fairground. A dead horned frog and casket were indeed recovered at the fairground. They were placed on display in the lobby of the courthouse and can be seen there today.
But, of course, no saga as wonderful as that of Old Rip is without controversy. Some doubt that the original Old Rip survived those thirty-one years in the time capsule with nary a nosh on a red-ant bed. They suspect that as the cornerstone was opened in 1928, by sleight of hand a dead Old Rip was replaced by a living body double.
But 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. There are men in prison today who were sent there on proof not as strong as the evidence that Old Rip spent nearly a third of a century in a tomb and emerged alive.
“Even [French magician] Hermann the Great couldn’t have slipped the [substitute] frog in because the greatest of stage magicians must have a patter to distract attention; he must have lights, trapdoors, and especially constructed garments, and his audience is seated in front only, whereas in this instance hundreds were peering from above, below, behind, and at both sides as well as the front!”
Other doubters suspect that the Old Rip that was recovered after the 1973 frognapping also was a body double. Eastland County Judge Scott Bailey, for one, said, “This toad is fairly well-preserved. The other was more . . . mummified.”
Regardless, for Boyce House there was life after Old Rip. A rich, full life. Boyce House’s reporting of the Santa Claus Bank Robbery and Old Rip sent him places. By 1931 he was writing for the Star-Telegram and living on Hemphill Street with wife Golda Fay.
House wrote for the Star-Telegram for five years in the 1930s. He also graduated from newspapers to books in 1935. His books, including I Give You Texas (a New York Times bestseller), Tall Talk From Texas, Texas Proud and Loud, and Texas Rhythm, were compilations of tall tales about his adopted state.
“Texans at heart are really modest,” he wrote, “but when we tell the plain, unadorned, unretouched truth about our incomparable state, we are accused of exaggerating.”
Poet Carl Sandburg said that House’s writing had “that peculiar blend of valor and swagger which is Texas.”
House was publicity director of the Frontier Centennial in 1937. He also was publicity director of the Stock Show for several years.
In the course of his journalism House became an expert on the west Texas oil fields, so much so that he served as technical director for Boom Town, the 1940 film about oil boom wildcatters starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Heddy Lamar.
House had a radio program on KGKO in the early 1940s. In 1941 his program was broadcast by a network.
House wrote a weekly column that was syndicated in two hundred Texas newspapers. He even ran for lieutenant governor twice in the 1940s.
By 1949 House and Golda Fay were living at 3329 Park Ridge in Bluebonnet Hills.
That year Eastland celebrated the legend of its most famous reptilian resident with a horned toad derby.
Boyce House died in Fort Worth on December 30, 1961.
Boyce House is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Two horned frog footnotes:
In 1897, the same year Old Rip began his thirty-one year nap, AddRan Christian University (it became Texas Christian University in 1902) adopted the horned frog as its mascot.
In 1955 cartoonist Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese were inspired by the story of Old Rip. They made the cartoon One Froggy Evening about a frog who is freed from a cornerstone and sings ragtime jazz. That frog morphed into Michigan J. Frog, who served as mascot of the Warner Brothers television network from 1995 until 2005.