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The Devil and Daniel Webster is a short story about a farmer from Cross Corners, New Hampshire. Plagued for years by bad luck, one day he says “It’s enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil – and I would, too, for two cents.” Sure enough, the next day a dark stranger shows up and offers him seven years of prosperity in exchange for his eternal soul. Farmer Stone gladly signs the contract.

At the end of the term, Stone wants out of the deal, of course. When the devil comes to collect, he finds Stone has hired Daniel Webster as his lawyer. Webster demands a trial, as is the right of every American. The devil agrees on the condition that he gets to choose the judge and jury. The judge he chooses is the man who presided at the Salem Witch Trials and ordered the hanging of fourteen women and five men. Judge John Hathorne grins evilly from the bench as “a jury of the damned enters the courtroom with the fires of hell still upon them.” 

The Dan’l Webster was the name of a train on the New Haven Railroad that traveled between New York and Boston. Dan’l is the colonial-era pronunciation, just like Dan’l Boone, the frontiersman. The Dan’l Webster Inn and Spa on Cape Cod has been around for 300 years. The story, the train and the inn were named after the real Daniel Webster, America’s most famous orator, statesman and congressman of the early 1800s, who as a lawyer argued more than 200 cases before the United States Supreme Court. His oratory was so strong that it would last for hours and leave those in the courtroom in tears. “When he stood up to speak, stars and stripes came right out of the sky, the trout would jump out of the streams and into his pockets, and the chickens were all white meat, down through the drumsticks.” 

Also named after Mr. Webster was Jim Smiley’s prize jumping frog

May 13th is the day people have celebrated National Jumping Frog Day since 1893. After qualifying rounds, the top 50 jumping frogs are entered in the grandly named International Frog Jump Finals. The current record holder is a frog named Rosie the Ribeter. She jumped 21 feet from takeoff to landing, more than the length of three king-sized beds laid head to foot.

It all started with Mark Twain’s short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County

Interestingliterature.com says the first story Twain ever wrote is a combination of tall tale and practical joke.

Twain tells the story of a frog jumping competition through the eyes of one of the contestants

Jim Smiley was such a fanatical bettor that he trained a frog for three months straight, teaching it to jump higher and farther. If you’ve never read the story, you can read the original Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog free with no strings at PBS.org.

Smiley would bet on anything

If he saw two birds sitting on a wire, he’d bet which one would fly off first. He once bet that the preacher’s wife wouldn’t recover from an illness – and won. In the end, Smiley’s frog loses because of some underhanded dealings by a hustler even slicker than he is.

Which brings the names of two of the great hustlers to mind

Minnesota Fats was the most famous pool hall hustler of his time. Fats provided the inspiration for one of the characters in the film The Hustler, starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason as the Fat Man. While making The Hustler, Gleason hustled Newman out of $50, running the table before Newman made a single ball. Newman paid off with 5,000 pennies. 

Most agree the greatest hustler of all time was Wisconsin’s Alvin Clarence Thompson

Known as Titanic Thompson, he would bet on anything: pool, cards, dice, golf, horseshoes – anything. What he really excelled at was betting on propositions of his own choosing. He liked to say he wasn’t someone who gambled because he only bet on sure things. 

Thompson was especially fond of bets that seemed impossible

He would go to great lengths to make sure he won by consistently outsmarting other gamblers. Here are some of the bets that made him famous:

  • He once bet that the distance posted on a roadside highway sign to Joplin, Missouri was off by five miles. Thompson won because he had secretly dug up the sign earlier and moved it five miles closer to town.
  • He invited the world champion horseshoe pitcher to come play a big money match at his private horseshoe pit. The champ lost by a mile, baffled as to how he could consistently come up short with his throws. Regulation horseshoe layouts have two iron stakes set in the ground 40 feet apart. Thompson had custom-built his pit so his stakes were 41 feet apart and he practiced for weeks before issuing the challenge. 
  • He bet on the number of watermelons on a stake-bed truck parked on the street outside his hotel. He had paid the driver to park there at a pre-arranged time. Thompson guess was no guess, of course. He knew the number of watermelons because he had paid the driver to count them.
  • He bet a professional boxer that they could stand on the same sheet of newspaper and the boxer would not be able to knock him out. The boxer agreed, the bets were made, and Thompson laid a newspaper across the threshold of his hotel room doorway. He had the boxer stand on the hallway side and then closed the door between them.
Minnesota Fats liked to tell this origin story about Titanic Thompson

Thompson got his nickname when he was a passenger on the Titanic. When it struck the iceberg, he put on ladies’ clothes so he could trick his way into a seat in a women-and-children only lifeboat and save himself. Others claim Thompson was given the nickname when an eyewitness to one of his winning bets said his name ought to be Titanic because he sinks everybody.

Thompson was such a larger-than-life character that Damon Runyon wanted to write about him

Runyon was a writer of short stories about colorful and slightly seamy characters like hustlers, gamblers, and con men. He wanted to write about Titantic Thompson, but npr.org says that Thompson talked him out of it because “Mine ain’t the kind of work that publicity helps.” Runyan compromised by writing him into his musical Guys and Dolls as Sky Masterson, the larger than life character played by Marlon Brando.

In the play and the movie, Brando offers this advice to Nathan Detroit, played by Frank Sinatra:

“This guy’s going to offer you a bet that he can make the jack of spades jump out of a brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to end up with an earful of cider.”

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Celebrate this memorable occasion with friends by making your own jumping frogs from paper and holding a contest of your own. Click here for instructions on how to make them.

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