The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
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“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain, is a tall tale about a man who bets on anything and wagers that his frog can out-jump a stranger’s frog, with surprising results. The story is the first of Twain’s works to receive popular attention; it appeared in a New York newspaper in 1865 and was widely republished. In 1867, the story served as the title entry in Twain’s first book, a collection of short humor pieces. The tale has inspired real frog-jumping contests, including one popular even held annually in the real Calaveras County.
The story includes a description of a dog fight that contains gruesome imagery; reader caution is advised. Twain published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” several times in slightly altered forms; now in the public domain, it is widely available online. This guide references the 2015 digital version of Twain’s 1867 book of short stories of the same name.
An unnamed Narrator is asked by a friend to visit Angel’s Camp in California’s Gold Country. The Narrator seeks news about his friend’s long-lost acquaintance, the minister Leonidas W. Smiley. At the Camp, the go-to man for such information is bartender Simon Wheeler. In a relentless monotone, Simon promptly relates anecdotes about a Jim Smiley, a gambler who lived in town during the original Gold Rush. Jim Smiley bet on anything, from which of two birds on a fence would fly first to the odds that the parson’s wife would survive an illness. Smiley had a knack for winning these bets; he’d take either side, as needed, and still come out ahead.
Smiley owned many animals he used to make bets. One such creature was a wheezy, rheumatic horse that somehow always came from behind to win races. Smiley also possessed an old bulldog, Andrew Jackson, that could take a beating but still win dogfights by biting down on the opposing dog’s hind leg. Sadly, one of Smiley’s opponents brought a dog that had lost its rear appendages in an accident; that dog defeated Smiley’s bulldog, who promptly died of chagrin.
Smiley’s most famous animal was a frog that he trained from birth to jump high and long. On command, the frog, named Dan’l Webster, could leap into the air and snatch a fly from a bar countertop. One day, Smiley tells a Stranger that his frog can defeat any other frog in a jumping contest; the Stranger takes him up on it. While Smiley searches for a second frog, the Stranger pours lead shot down the frog’s throat.
When Smiley returns with a frog for the Stranger, they hold the jumping contest. Full of shot, Smiley’s frog cannot budge, and the Stranger’s frog wins handily. Smiley pays off the Stranger, who leaves. After, Smiley he discovers the lead shot weighing down his frog. He chases after the Stranger, but the man is long gone.
Wheeler tries to tell more stories about Jim Smiley, but the Narrator, annoyed that his time has been wasted, begs off and departs. The Narrator suspects that Leonidas W. Smiley does not really exist, and that his friend tricked him into listening to Simon’s rambling story.