David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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The oversight of longevity – Parshat Bereishit

Come and learn from the Texas horned lizard how the exceptionally long-lived folks of Genesis unintentionally blocked all knowledge of everyone else alive at the time
Old Rip in his coffin. (CC BY-SA, QuesterMark/ Flickr)
Old Rip in his coffin. (CC BY-SA, QuesterMark/ Flickr)

The first words Old Rip would have heard as he awoke from his 31-year slumber were, “There’s the frog!” which must have been frustrating for him, since he was not a frog but a Texas horned lizard.

Of course, Old Rip only became his name after he awoke, seemingly miraculously, on February 18, 1928, after three decades of hibernation.

The lizard was caught in Eastland County, Texas, by Will Wood, then a 4-year-old boy, back in 1897 (July 29th to be precise). Wood named his new pet Blinky.

There was a tradition in West Texas that the lizard, also known as a “horned toad” or “horny toad” could survive for 100 years in hibernation.

Will Wood’s father, Ernest E. Wood, served as the Eastland County clerk. When the county laid the cornerstone for a new courthouse, Wood senior decided to test the tradition. He took his son’s newly captured pet lizard, and placed it in the time capsule, alongside a bible, newspapers, coins, some other documents and a bottle of whiskey.

Texas Horned Lizard (CC BY, Ben Goodwyn/ Wikimedia Commons)

It is unclear whether anyone else knew at the time that Blinky was placed in the time capsule.

The new courthouse was supposed to stand for at least 100 years, but 31 years later, Eastland, about two hours west of Dallas, had outgrown the building, and they built a new courthouse.

Will Wood, then 35 years old, told the townsfolk that they might find a dead lizard in the time capsule – but they just might find a live Blinky. Which explains why a large crowd gathered to witness what otherwise would have been a fairly dull event. According to some versions, officials kept watch to ensure that nobody tried to sneak a fresh toad into the cornerstone.

Local reporter Boyce House, editor of the Eastland Argus-Tribune and described in his obituary as the “Braggingest Texan of them all,” reported on what happened next:

When the brick wall was pulled away from the cornerstone, the crowd rushed forward, in its excitement pressing so closely against a worker that he barely had room to ply his pick in order to break a layer of cement that was over the top of the stone. Then he lifted a sheet of metal underlying the cement. As this covering was raised, disclosing the cavity, Rev. F. E. Singleton (pastor of the Eastland Methodist Church), who was standing beside the cornerstone, leveled a finger and said: ‘There’s the frog!’ Eugene Day, oil man, thrust his hand into the cavity and lifted out a flat, dust-covered toad which he handed over to Rev. Mr. Singleton. 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!

Nowadays, a story about a long-lived frog might make the local evening news, but probably not much more. But back in 1928, the story of the horny toad that awoke from an impossibly long sleep was reported around the country.

A front-page New York Times article stated:

It is a West Texas tradition that a horned toad can exist a century without food or water. A skeptical newspaper man had the Judge verify the report that the toad was alive when taken from its long entombment.

After the cornerstone was removed, the toad appeared lifeless for some time, but a little while it opened it eyes. In about twenty minutes it began to breath. The mouth, however, appeared to have grown together.

Efforts will be made to induce the toad to take food and, if necessary, the mouth will be opened by an operation. The toad is now on exhibition.

The Dallas Morning News of February 19, 1928, had a slightly different version:

When first taken from its score-and-a-half-year tomb, where no light, air nor water had a chance to penetrate, the frog’s eyes were closed, and it seemed dead. Soon, however, its pale eyelids blinked and then opened. Firmly held by Eugene Day, it wriggled a bit, then settled back into lethargy, seemingly ready to go to sleep for another third of a century.

House, wrote in the Eastland Argus-Tribune that:

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.

The lizard that put Eastland on the map was almost as big a news story as Charles Lindbergh, who had recently made the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight.

The lizard was taken to Dallas, by Will Wood, and put on display there. But Eastland wanted Old Rip back, and when Wood complied, he was sued by Dallas for alleged breach of contract to the tune of $6,000.

In May, Will Wood took Old Rip up to Washington DC to meet President Calvin Coolidge. Apparently, the president did not want to touch the lizard with his hands, but a newspaper report stated that:

President Coolidge asked numerous questions concerning his celebrated guest; stroked the frog’s back with his horn-rimmed glasses, and then President and Old Rip gazed steadily at each other for a full minute without a sound—Silent Cal had met his match.

Newsreels reenacted the cornerstone ceremony. Thousands of postcards featuring the lizard were sold.

Scientists debated whether it was possible for a Texas horned lizard, which normally has a lifespan of not much more than five years, to survive without food or water for 31 years. But in the meantime, everyone wanted a horned toad of their own.

A local gas station offered a horned lizard with each fill up. In Detroit, 600 lizards were sold at the International Advertising Association of the World convention. The Democratic National Convention was held in Houston, Texas, and souvenir horned lizards were sold for $2.50. In fact, so many lizards were sold that the species became endangered. The success of the long-lived Old Rip led to the state reptile almost vanishing in the wild.

Old Rip didn’t last much longer. Will Wood placed him in a sand-filled goldfish bowl and fed him cockroaches and red harvester ants as visitors came from around the country to view the resurrected miracle. But only 11 months after he was taken from the courthouse cornerstone, Rip was found dead in his bowl – apparently from pneumonia.

Will Wood had Old Rip embalmed and placed him in a velvet-lined casket. He ended up back on display in the new Eastland County Courthouse. And crowds continued to come to see him.

In 1962, John Connally came to visit the lizard while on the campaign trail to become governor of Texas. He lifted the embalmed Old Rip by his hindleg – and the leg snapped right off. (Connally won the election, but a year later, was shot and seriously wounded while riding in the front seat of President John F. Kennedy’s car during the Dallas motorcade when the president was murdered.)

On January 16, 1973, the body of the legendary lizard was kidnapped. An anonymous letter was sent to the Abilene Reporter News by someone claiming to have perpetrated the original hoax. He wrote that he finally wanted to tell the truth of how he worked with the construction workers who knocked down the old building to switch the dead lizard for a live one. He demanded that his accomplices confess to the truth.

However, nobody came forward, so a short while later he said Old Rip could be found at the county fairgrounds.

Officials recovered the stolen lizard and returned him to the lobby of the courthouse, where you can still go today to view his embalmed body, with its missing half leg. Outside, you can still see the 30-year cornerstone where he is claimed to have slept, miraculously, for 31 years.

If you time your visit to Eastland just right, you may also be able to participate in Old Rip Day, the Horned Toad Derby, Rip’s Ribs Cook-Off, or a city-wide party named Rip Fest. You can visit the Old Rip Cap Company, dine at the Old Rip Cafe and drink Old Rip Soda.

If you would rather stay at home, you can watch a 1955 Warner Bros cartoon entitled, “One Froggy Evening” which features Michigan J. Frog and may remind you somewhat of the Old Rip legend.

If you want to know more, you can watch “ToadSpotting: The Legend of Old Rip”

It is ironic that the alleged longevity of a single Texan horned lizard contributed to the population collapse of all its fellow lizards. Today, the species is protected in Texas, and it is illegal to own, transport or sell a horned lizard without a special permit.

This week’s Torah reading is Bereishit. Chapter 5 of Genesis lists the 10 generations from Adam until Noah. Each of the men mentioned is listed as having lived for several hundred years. According to the text, the longest lifespan belonged to Methuselah, who lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27). In contrast, Enoch lived for “only” 365 years, before God took him (Genesis 5:23).

Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 2:47) explains that these 10 people lived exceptionally long lives, but all the other people at that time had regular lifespans:

As regards the Scriptural statement about the length of man’s life in those days, I say that only the persons named lived so long, whilst other people enjoyed the ordinary length of life. The men named were exceptions, either in consequence of different causes, as e.g., their food or mode of living, or by way of miracle, which admits of no analogy.

To me, this was the tragedy of that time, which unfortunately continues until today.

The 10 men listed in Bereishit lived so long that everyone else became insignificant, irrelevant and unworthy of mention. I’m sure that everyone else who lived then would have had incredible stories to tell of their three-score and 10 years on earth. But nobody will ever hear their biographies because they were overshadowed by the big 10.

And that is the problem with history (and with this blog). For every person mentioned in the history books, or who I write about, there are millions of men, women and children who we will never hear about. They each changed the world in their unique way, but they are forgotten to us.

Today, newspapers are full of stories of the newsworthy people. But we rarely hear about the equally important individuals who stay out of the spotlight, and whose stories are only heard and repeated by those close to them.

Social media has the potential to change this somewhat – everyone with Internet access can tell their stories. We should treasure the opportunities to hear their tales, and not let the politicians, sportspeople and pop stars totally dominate our social media feeds.

In the Talmud (Avoda Zara 5a) Reish Lakish speaks about the generation that built the Golden Calf and says, “Let us have gratitude to our ancestors, for if they would not have sinned, we would not have come into the world.” After several lines of questioning, that statement is modified to say “As if we would not have come into the world.”

Rashi explains, “Because they would have lived forever, and if they were around, we would be considered insignificant.”

Old Rip, because of his alleged long life, contributed to the destruction of almost the entirety of his species. The long-lived generations of Bereishit meant that we learned nothing of the others alive at that time. And if we are not careful, we can ignore the wonderful people who surround us every day, with their stories, their talents and their greatness, if we only care and hear about the handful of people who make headline news.

You can find out more about Old Rip on The Memory Palace podcast, and listen to Nate DiMeo tell the story far better than I can.

I’m beginning a new series on WebYeshiva from November 1st. The series is entitled “20th Century Responsa” and will focus on how rabbis dealt with the social, political and technological changes and upheavals of the 20th century. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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