Benjamin Franklin Papers

Franklin: Account of Living Toads Found Enclosed in Limestone, [6 April 1782]

Franklin: Account of Living Toads Found Enclosed in Limestone1

AD: Académie royale des sciences; copy: Library of Congress

In submitting the following report to the Académie des sciences, Franklin joined a long tradition of people who had marveled over the improbable discovery of toads living in niches in solid rock or in the middle of tree trunks. The Annual Register for 1761 published a survey of some of this literature, including translations of two accounts published by the Académie des sciences in 1719 and 1731 of live toads discovered in the trunks of mid-sized trees.2 The author of the survey also alluded to several accounts of toads living in stone formations that had been reported by the ancient Greeks. Some of these reports he discounted as specious; others he was hard-pressed to explain, except by speculating that eggs must have been deposited in the crevices of saplings and somehow managed to derive sustenance from the moisture in the niches they created.3 Dr. Charles Leigh in The Natural History of Lancashire … (Oxford, 1700), and other early British naturalists, also reported having seen living toads emerge from cells in seemingly solid rock.4 In Hebron, Connecticut, a similar incident was described in 1770 by S. A. Peters. After detonating a large rock on his property, he discovered a frog living in a small cavity laid open by the explosion. The cavity appeared to have been accessible only by a small crevice as wide as a knitting needle. Peters’ letter was later forwarded to Thomas Jefferson, who submitted it to the American Philosophical Society.5

[April 6, 1782]

At Passy near Paris, April 6, 1782. being with Mr de Chaumont, viewing his Quarry, he mention’d to me that the Workmen had found a living Toad shut up in the Stone. On questioning one of them he told us they had found four in different Cells which had no Communication: That they were very lively and active when set at Liberty: That there was in each Cell some loose soft yellowish Earth, which appeared to be very moist. We ask’d if he could show us the Parts of the Stone that form’d the Cells; he said no, for they were thrown among the rest of what was dug out, and he knew not where to find them. We asked if there appear’d any Opening by which the Animal might enter? He said no, not the least. We ask’d if in the Course of his Business as a Labourer in Quarries he had often met with the Like? He said never before. We ask’d if he could show us the Toads? He said he had thrown two of them up on a higher Part of the Quarry, but knew not what became of the others. He then came up to the place where he had thrown the Two, and finding them, he took them by the foot and threw them up to us, upon the Ground where we Stood. One of them was quite dead; and appeared very lean: the other was plump and still living. The Part of the Rock in which they were found is at least 15 feet below the Surface, and is a kind of Limestone. A Part of it is fill’d with ancient Sea Shells, and other marine Substances. If these Animals have remained in that Confinement since the Formation of the Rock, they are probably some thousands of Years old. We have put them in Spirits of Wine to preserve their Bodies a little longer. The Workmen have promis’d to call us if they meet with any more that we may examine their Situation. Before a suitable Bottle could be found to receive them, that which was living when we first had them, appear’d to be quite dead and motionless; but being in the Bottle, and the Spirits pour’d over them, he flounc’d about in it very vigorously for Two or Three Minutes, and then expired.6

It is observed that Animals who perspire but little can live long without Food; such as Tortises whose Flesh is cover’d with a thick Shell, and Snakes who are cover’d with Scales which are of so close a Substance as scarcely to admit the Passage of perspirable Vapour thro’ them. Animals that have open Pores all over the Surface of their Bodies, and live in Air which takes off continually the perspirable Part of their Substance, naturally require a continual Supply of Food to maintain their Bulk. Toads shut up in solid Stone which prevents their losing anything of their Substance, may perhaps for that reason need no Supply, and being guarded against all Accidents, and all the Inclemencies of the Air and Changes of the Seasons, are it seems Subject to no Diseases and become as it were immortal.7

1La Rochefoucauld read this account to the Academy of Sciences at its meeting of April 20: procés verbaux for 1782.

2We have not been able to find these reports in the Academy’s memoirs.

3The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, of the Year 1761 (London, 1762), pp. 82–3, second pagination.

4Their findings are quoted in The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer …, trans. and annotated by Melvin E. Jahn and Daniel J. Woolf (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963), pp. 180, 200.

5The letter is quoted in Murphy D. Smith, A Museum: the History of the Cabinet of Curiosities of the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, 1996), pp. 203–4.

6BF related this incident to William Thornton in 1784, when the young medical student visited Passy. As Thornton heard the story, WTF and Bancroft were also present at the quarry, and Bancroft quipped that the newly revived toad “was in high spirits.” BF evidently saved the preserved toads, which he showed to Thornton: Thornton Papers, folio 3060, Library of Congress. Thornton also described a session of the Society of Natural Historians at the University of Edinburgh, at which a number of similar incidents were related: a living toad found in a slab of marble and in the cornerstone of a 300-year-old building. Ibid., folio 3061.

7According to WTF, BF annexed to his retained copy of this report a copy of a letter from Sir John Pringle to Alexander Small dated April 25, 1780. It reported that certain large moths known as mosquito hawks survived 71 days after Pringle had removed their heads with a scissors: WTF, Memoirs, III, 450–1.

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