As a kid, reading Mark Twain’s, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” lead to “Treasure Island” and eventually “Lord of the Flies.” But somehow, I always returned to Twain, especially to his shorter tales.
One such short story is “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” In it, the narrator is sent by a friend to interview an old man, Simon Wheeler, who might know the location of an old acquaintance named Leonidas W. Smiley.
Finding Wheeler at Angels Camp, the narrator asks him if he knows anything about Leonidas. Simon appears not to and instead tells a story about Jim Smiley, a man who had visited the camp years earlier.
According to Wheeler, Jim loves to gamble and will bet on anything and everything. He explains that once Jim caught a frog, whom he names Dan’l Webster, and spent three months training it to jump.
When a stranger visits the camp, Jim shows off Dan’l and offers to bet $40 that it can out-jump any other frog in Calaveras County. The stranger, unimpressed, says that he would take the bet if he had a frog, so Jim goes out to catch one, leaving him alone with Dan’l.
While Jim is away, the stranger pours lead shot down Dan’l’s throat. Once Jim returns, he and the stranger set the frogs down and let them loose.
The stranger’s frog jumps away while Dan’l doesn’t budge, and the surprised and disgusted Jim pays the $40 wager. After the stranger leaves, Jim notices Dan’l’s sluggishness and picks the frog up, finding it much heavier than he remembers.
When Dan’l belches out a double handful of lead shot, Jim realizes that he has been had and chases after the stranger but never catches him.
The narrator, understanding that Jim has no connection to Leonidas, gets up to leave. However, Wheeler wants to tell him about a yellow, one-eyed, stubby-tailed cow Jim once owned.
Rather than listening to another pointless tale, the narrator leaves. As he does, he muses that his friend must have fabricated Leonidas Smiley to trick him into listening to Wheeler’s stories.
But how did Twain come up with such a story?
It began in Virginia City, Nevada, with a prospecting pig named John Henry and Towser the Bulldog. Both animals belonged to Twain’s friend, Jim Gillis.
Gillis was not only a teller of tall tales but also a “pocket miner.” He spent his time searching for small hallows in the dirt where he might find ore.
Gillis trained John Henry to dig hardpan. He did this by burying biscuits that the pig could dig up, and in doing so, Gillis would sift through the loose dirt.
One evening after staying past midnight, drinking and swapping stories with Gillis, Clemens decided he would stay over. The cabin had four bunks and two already in use.
Gillis would let the dog and the inside on cold nights, something his guest didn’t know. They slept on the cot which Clemens was currently occupying.
The pair piled on Clemens and began to wrestle as they always did before settling down to sleep. Needless to say, this made Clemens a little more than testy.
Clemens called Gillis every name he could think of, swore off their friendship, and threatened never to speak to him again. But Gillis pulled the cork from another bottle of whiskey, offered Clemens a drink, and proceeded to tell the story about an amphibian from the Golden State that wouldn’t hop.
Sam settled down, and the rest, as they say, is history.