"Frogs Sadden Farmer's Life": The story of the greatest headline of all time


The headline is an art form. News gathering and dissemination can seem rote, formulaic at times, but the headline is where journalists and editors can get creative, trying to inform and intrigue the reader in a limited space. News is prosaic. Headlines are poetry. 

A handful of headlines are so memorable that they manage to outshine, and ultimately outlive, the news which they were supposed to convey. Many standouts come from the tabloid field.

In crime, there's the iconic "Headless Body in a Topless Bar," from the New York Post. Sports brings us "Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious," a punderful phrase the Scottish Sun used to describe a soccer match between Celtic and Caledonia. And, in hard news, the New York Daily News produced "Ford to City: Drop Dead," summing up President Gerald Ford's refusal to bail out New York City's debt.

Some time late last year a long-lost classic in the field of headlines was rediscovered, thanks to a tweet from the author of Strange Company, a blog that rescues obscure and macabre bits of American history. This was then recirculated by Sarah Troop, a museum curator and historian, who attributed the headline to the Minneapolis Journal, circa 1906. Troop declared it "Possibly the greatest headline EVER." And you can see why.

"Noisy, Hungry Frogs Sadden Farmer's Life," it reads. The sub-headline underneath it is no less glorious: "They Scare His Cattle and They Also Eat His Flannel Shirt." 

One part of what made the discovery of this unexpected combination of words so delightful was its lack of context. If the point of a headline is to entice its reader to think, "I must know more," this one works perfectly. 

So we dug it up. 

<!———StartFragment———>The story was published in the July 15, 1906 edition of the Minneapolis Journal, a progressive paper that existed here from 1888 to 1939, when it merged with the Minneapolis Star, forerunner of today's Star Tribune. Our frog-saddened farmer ran on page three, where the paper seems to have combined some of its less exciting local coverage with exotic tales from afar. The story next to "Frogs Sadden Farmer" is about a Minneapolis Park Board president's past as a newspaper delivery boy; the one below it tells of a Swiss cyclist falling off a 2,000-foot precipice "to Horrible Death." (Spoiler alert.)

Turns out the brilliant phrase had little to do with Minneapolis, save for its being the home of the headline's creator. The story of the frog and the farmer is a news wire reprint, and actually comes from Pennsylvania.

Below, courtesy the Library of Congress, we offer in full the story of the farmer, Alvin Shoemaker, whose life just outside Reading was saddened by loud amphibians with strange dietary interests. 

"On the farm of Alvin Shoemaker, near Seipstown, there is a pond in which big frogs fairly swarm. Harry Wieder, who hunted for them there yesterday, bagged sixt-seven, not one of which weighed less than a pound.

For years the Shoemaker farm has been noted as a frog resort, and Mr. Shoemaker always welcomes the hunters with open arms, as he declares the frogs have become a pest. He does not favor the Squibb law for protecting frogs, as they have become a pest on his farm.

He wants the frogs killed off, as their croaking scares the cattle when he drives them to water.

Last year the frogs raided his strawberry patch and devoured the entire crop. The year before they got into his summer house and ate a half-dozen of his best flannel shirts, which lay there in the wash basket."

And that's it. As you'll notice, the full story doesn't even add much to its title. The frogs sadden Alvin Shoemaker. They try to drive him from the land by depriving him of fruit and milk, and they destroy his fabrics. For this, he wants them dead. 

They are, by now. So too is Shoemaker, the simple cattle man of central Pennsylvania. But the story of their struggle lives on to this day, thanks to the greatest newspaper headline of all time.