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The Ballad of Ol’ Rip, the Horny Toad That Wouldn’t Die

After 31 years entombed in a stone, this Texas icon came back to life.

The Texas horny toad. Adorably tough. (Photo: Joe Farah/Shutterstock.com)

Gather round to hear the tale of Ol’ Rip, the lizard who beat death! Well, at least once. After being entombed in stone for 31 years, Ol’ Rip emerged alive and… somewhat groggy, briefly becoming the most beloved horned lizard in Texas. Today, the body of Ol’ Rip can be found under glass at the Eastland County Courthouse, but the story of his miraculous recovery has been marveled about for nearly nine decades.

The Texas horned lizard, the state’s official reptile, is a devilish-looking little critter that could once be found all over the Lone Star State. Commonly known as “horny toads,” they are covered in severe-looking spikes, and look like miniature dragons. These prickly lizards have come to be a beloved Texas icon.

In a 2007 story in the Matagorda Advocate, Texas senator John Cornyn described their mystique, saying the horny toad seems to “reflect the land itself—rugged, fearsome, spiny, tough—and wondrously friendly, all at the same time.” So of course, when officials in Eastland County looked for something iconic to place in the keystone of their very first courthouse, this creature came to mind.

“[Native American] legend said that horned toads could hibernate for up to 100 years,” says Cecil Funderburgh, Executive Director of the Eastland Chamber of Commerce. “The placement of Old Rip in the cornerstone of the Courthouse seems to be a test of that theory.”

In 1897, Eastland County was finishing work on its third courthouse by adding a marble keystone to the edifice. There was a cavity in the stone where things could be placed as a sort of time capsule. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, Eastland County Clerk Ernest E. Wood suggested placing a horny toad in the block to explore the legend. 

Ol’ Rip rests at the Eastland Courthouse. (Photo: QuesterMark/CC BY-SA 2.0)

To commemorate the final step in completing the new county seat, onlookers came to watch the ceremony and listen to musical performances. Wood even produced a horny toad his son had captured. The reptile’s name was “Blinky.” 

However, Wood wasn’t sure if Blinky ever got placed in the keystone. “Objections to putting anything alive into the stone came up,” he was quoted as saying, in a later story in the Woodville Republican. “I went away to play in the band and do not know if the frog was placed in the stone.” 

Despite the ethical issues about entombing a live animal, it seems like the assembled locals overcame their reservations, and according to all accounts, the living horny toad was placed in the keystone along with some other assorted memorabilia, like a Bible and some coins. Then the stone was bricked into the wall.

Fast forward 31 years to 1928. Eastland was getting ready to demolish its old courthouse and replace it with a new, Art Deco-inspired building, and it was time to crack open the old keystone to find out what sort of treasures had been left back in 1897. Word about the lizard had spread, and over 1,000 onlookers arrived to see if the rumors were true.  

Using a pick, a construction worker pried open the stone, and sure enough, multiple witnesses said that they saw a horny toad (presumably Blinky) lying inside, looking, quite understandably, dead. Finally someone reached in and took the little body out of the stone. The lizard slowly lurched back to life, much to the astonishment of the gathered Eastlanders.

The Lazarus lizard became an instant celebrity, and was soon renamed Ol’ Rip after Rip Van Winkle. After recovering for a few weeks, Ol’ Rip was given a new home in a fishbowl in the window of a shop. Visitors from around the world, including President Calvin Coolidge, came to see the famous animal, as he happily chowed down on harvester ants. But not everyone was convinced.

The keystone that once held the horny toad. Was Ol’ Rip a Mason?! (Photo: QuesterMark/CC BY-SA 2.0)

While horned lizards hibernate during the winter months, their average lifespan is around five years, making the story of Ol’ Rip seem more than a little suspect. Most skeptics figured that one of the locals officiating the event slipped in a live lizard to make a good story for the massive crowd. However in the 1928 article in the Woodville Republican, a county judge, a local reverend, and even the man who pulled him out of the stone, insisted that there was no way the toad could have been tampered with.    

But even in the face of massive skepticism, Ol’ Rip’s popularity continued until the day he died of pneumonia in 1929, less than a year after his rebirth. The popularity of the horny toad waned somewhat, but claims of fraud did not.

After his death, Ol’ Rip’s body was taxidermied and placed in a little glass-topped coffin and put on display in the Eastland County Courthouse. In 1973, Ol’ Rip was kidnapped from the courthouse, and later found at the local fairgrounds with a note that claimed to be from one of the original perpetrators of the resurrection hoax. It called for the other conspirators to reveal themselves, although no one stepped forward.

The coffin was returned to the courthouse, but suspicion persists to this day that the reptile inside is a replacement Ol’ Rip, based on the condition of the little body. “Due to the entombment of Old Rip, accounts tell of the horned toad’s spikes being worn down from attempts to escape from the cornerstone,” says Funderburgh. “The body currently on display has horns and spikes that appear to be in pretty good shape.” The motive for such a crime has not been determined.   

Original horny toad or not, Ol’ Rip is still a celebrity in Eastland and the surrounding area, where his story is taken as gospel. “Ask the folks around Eastland what they think, and the majority believe it is a true fact,” says Funderburgh. “A few believe it’s a publicity stunt. Me?  I believe!”

In addition to acting as a sort of mascot for the area, his name also adorns a number of local businesses. The legend of Ol’ Rip is remembered and reinforced every February 18th, when local officials invite children and guests to the courthouse to recite the Ol’ Rip Oath, which has them pledge that they will continue to keep the story of Ol’ Rip alive. This way, the lizard that couldn’t die, never will.