a lawman’s badge, Everett Townsend had killed men. As a pioneer
conservationist, he was a prime mover in the creation of Big
Bend National Park. But he was not incapable of having a little
fun now and then.
A good example is the friendly feud he had with Alpine Avalanche
editor Nig Bennett over an unusual self-defence ability attributed
to Phrynsoma cornutum, far better known in Texas as horny
toads. Townsend maintained that these critters spat blood out
of their eyes when cornered. Bennett asserted that they did not.
While Townsend had years of experience on his side, having criss-crossed
Bend by horse and car, Bennet bought ink by the barrel. In other
words, as a newspaper editor, he enjoyed a particularly bully pulpit.
No matter, Bennett felt journalistically bound to be fair in his
in the September 8, 1939 edition of his newspaper, he devoted his
page-one column, “Mountain Peeks: Glimpses from the Texas Rockies,”
to an affidavit supposedly sworn and subscribed to by two women
of near impeccable veracity: two nuns.
First Bennet set the stage:
“It seems that Everett Townsend is the only one who is still hot
and bothered about the claim that horned toads spit blood. He is
still working dilligently to prove, to himself probably, that they
With assistance from his friend Jerry Ratliff of the Sul Ross College
faculty, Bennett continued, Everett had “secured from a couple of
unsupecting souls” a statement that they had actually seen a horned
toad “commit the act.”
Bennett also did a little crawfishing. “We have never said the horned
toad does NOT spit blood when excited or angry” merely that
“we have never seen one do it.”
The signed statement came from Sister Frances (christened Sue Mildred
Johnson) and Sister Eloysius (christened Madeline Maria Wagner).
Both women had attended summer school at Sul Ross.
“On or about June 17, A.D. 1939, we were out walking with dual purpose
of exercising ourselves and giving Shoe Buttons (their dog) her
daily constitutional,” the meat of their statement began.
Suddenly, “Shoe Button…attracted our attention by barking and scampering
violently.” Turning to see what the matter was, the sisters found
their dog “making heroic charges upon some tiny beestie. When we
approached we discovered that the battle raging was between Shoe
Buttons, as aggressor, and his horned toadship, on the defensive.”
The dog, they continued, “would alternately charge and retreat,
and his toadship…would alternately do the reverse and ditto.”
Then Shoe Buttons, “…in a burst of fury—more valorous than wise—rushed
the toad, but suddenly fell back in the face of a counter charge,
and began to give tongue to her griefs, real and imagined.”
Rushing to the dog’s assistance, to their horror the sisters found
its face covered with blood. At first they thought the dog had mortally
injured the toad, but on closer examination, they realized the fluid
had come from the toad. Spitting and running, the small reptile
had succeeded in making its escape.
“Maybe the two good sisters were mistaken,” Bennett said of their
statement. “Maybe the toad in question had a chew of terbaccy in
his cheek and was squirting the juice therefrom.”
Despite the sworn testimony of the two nuns, and the belief of syndicated
newspaper cartoonist Bob Ripley’s popular “Ripley’s Believe it or
Not” feature, Everett Townsend and Jerry Ratliff, Bennet wrote that
he still wasn’t convinced.
“We demand a demonstration,” he concluded.
That would have been easier back then than in the 21st century,
when the iconic lizzard has become a rare sight in Texas.
Thanks to human predation (from boys shooting them with BB rifles
to people collecting them as pets or to gold-plate as jewelry) coupled
with the invasive fireants’ consumption of the native ants that
horned toads like to eat, they are a threatened species in Texas.
Seeing one in the Big
Bend or most other areas they used to range has gone from common
So who was right, an old lawman-rancher who had spent many a day
in wild country in the heyday of the horned
toad, or a country newspaper editor?
Improbable as it may seem, the ability to squirt blood collected
from the capillaries along its eyelids, is indeed a built-in horned
toad feature. When threatened, the palm-sized critters can send
a stream for up to four feet.
The two nuns (or whoever reduced their statement to writing) may
have been guilty of over-dramatizing the confrontation between their
pet and a much-smaller lizard, but they had no confession to make
in regard to prevarication.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June
23, 2011 column