In 1928, 31 years after a courthouse was built in Eastland, Texas, officials found a horned lizard in the cornerstone of the structure—still living! The critter had reportedly been buried there since 1897, alongside a bible and several official town documents.
According to local legend, the horned lizard was dropped inside the cornerstone “time capsule” just before it was closed for over three decades. A four-year-old boy named Will Wood purportedly captured a toad named Blinky and buried him in the marble block. He placed it there to test his father’s theory that horned toads have the ability to hibernate for 100 years.
The Travelling Toad
In the late 1920s when the town decided to build a new, larger courthouse, officials dug out the cornerstone with hundreds of people in attendance. That’s when they discovered the lizard, who was covered in dust. At first, he looked dead, but then he started moving.
Even today, locals insist that the story is true.
No one stopped to think that it was impossible for a creature to survive for over 30 years without food, water, or air. While horned lizards do hibernate during the winter, they only have a life expectancy of five to eight years.
The lizard, also known as a horny toad, was named Old Rip in honor of Rip Van Winkle, a character from a Washington Irving story who fell asleep and didn’t wake up for 20 years.
News of Old Rip’s resurrection spread rapidly, and the toad became so famous that Wood, the little boy who put Old Rip in the cornerstone, took the lizard on a tour of the United States. He lived in a goldfish bowl and subsisted on a diet of red ants.
At one point, the lizard met President Calvin Coolidge in Washington, D.C. Old Rip was so popular, gas stations gave their customers free toads in his honor.
Believe It or Not!, Old Rip even made his mark on television. The toad was purportedly the inspiration behind the cartoon character Michigan J. Frog, created by Chuck Jones. The singing and dancing frog used to be a Warner Bros. mascot.
Outlandish Hoax or Gospel Truth?
Old Rip died, from pneumonia, according to newspaper reports, less than a year after he incredibly sprung back to life on February 18, 1928. In lieu of burying the toad, officials embalmed him and put the critter in an open coffin with a velvet interior. He was then displayed in the lobby inside the courthouse.
Old Rip remained largely unharmed until 1962 when a Texas gubernatorial candidate held him up by a hind leg for a photo opportunity, and it snapped off.
Then in 1973, a toad-napper stole Old Rip, leaving a letter in his place. The note claimed that the entire incident was a hoax, and the kidnapper demanded that people come forward to tell the truth. But no one did, and another letter later arrived, pinpointing the location of Old Rip’s body in the country fairgrounds. The toad made its way back to the courthouse, but not everyone was convinced that he was the original Old Rip because he appeared more mummified.
As for horned lizards in general, they all but disappeared from Texas several decades ago.
Old Rip, either the original or the imposter toad, is still on display today, and he is Eastland’s most celebrated resident. The town hosts the Ripfest festival each year, and school children annually visit the courthouse and take an oath, swearing that the seemingly tall tale is 100-percent true.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com