Jim Smiley was the archetype of the betting man. He’d bet on fighting cocks and on racing mares and, haruspicaciously, on which of two birds lolling on a fence would be the first to take flight. He’d bet on anything. He even once bet on whether the wife of a minister would recover from illness, taking the grim but practical view that she would not and laying down a few dollars to back up his hunch.
But that’s not all, learns the mysterious stranger who wanders into Angel’s Camp, in the high country of the Sierra Nevada of California, to inquire after the whereabouts and well-being of the friend of a friend, the Rev. Leonidas Smiley. Are they one and the same? A local assumes so, launching at once into a story in which Jim, having exhausted the betting possibilities of the “ancient mining camp,” catches a bullfrog, determined to teach him how to hop into glory.
Did the frog not already know how to jump? Perhaps, but Jim Smiley, saying that “all a frog wanted was education,” puts old Daniel Webster, for such is our ranid hero’s name, through his paces all the same. Soon Daniel is as well-trained as he's ever going to be, and soon Jim Smiley has buttonholed a stranger of his own to lay a bet that his frog can outjump any competitor. A stiff wager is laid, and the hop is hopped. But not, that is, before the would-be patsy has sized up the situation and played a diabolical trick on Smiley and poor Daniel Webster alike, upending the entire tale.
Mark Twain, the author of the odd and charming yarn that became known as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” put it on paper in the summer of 1865, just a frog’s hair north of 150 years ago. After it appeared in the last issue of a dying literary journal that November, he bundled it into a manuscript of sketches and offered it to a publisher. As Twain recounts in his Autobiography, that publisher brusquely rejected it, a decision he would come to regret—for Twain’s frog story was picked up by a newspaper, and then another, and then another, and he was soon off to an illustrious literary career. Said the publisher to Twain two decades later, “I refused a book of yours and for this I stand without competitor as the prize ass of the nineteenth century.”
In a case of life imitating art, the good people of Angel’s Camp began to stage bullfrog hops to do Jim—or even the Rev. Leonidas—proud. Smiley, his inheritors learned, had a method to his madness, for bullfrogs can in fact be trained to improve on the jumping powers with which nature endowed them. Reported scientists in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, all it takes is a little judicious application of the old fight-or-flight mechanism, the same one that had sent Twain far away from the battlefields of the Civil War and west to California, where he would make his name. All a frog wants is education, indeed—and a safe place to hop to.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.