The Curious (and Possibly Murderous) Origins of Punxsutawney Phil's Name

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A groundhog has been making weather predictions in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1886, but we've only been calling him "Phil" since 1961. Before that, the critter was usually just called the "Br'er Groundhog" or "The Punxsutawney Groundhog." Most sources (including the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club) say he eventually earned the moniker "Phil" as homage to "King Philip," but that explanation is as dubious as it is vague.

The problem is that they never specify which King Philip. The tradition of foretelling the weather with a marmot's shadow has its origins in Germany, but Deutschland hasn't seen a "King Philip" for more than eight centuries. France, Greece, Spain, and even the Wampanoag people of New England have all had a King Philip, but it's very unlikely that a small Germanic Pennsylvania community would ever name their beloved groundhog after any of these kings, either.

Rather, the name might actually refer to a prince—and it may have gotten its start thanks a pair of heinous murders and some good old-fashioned small-town competition.

In 1953, Punxsutawney sent two baby groundhogs to Los Angeles's Griffith Park Zoo. The critters had been named after Britain's new reigning couple, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the future Prince (not King!) Philip. While the zoo gladly welcomed Liz and Phil with open arms, the state of California did not. The California Department of Agriculture declared the baby groundhogs "agricultural pests" and demanded they be "destroyed." The animals were summarily killed.

Back in Pennsylvania, people were deeply insulted. (The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club went so far to say that the groundhogs had been "executed.") The head of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who worried that the killings could spark an international incident, told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm going to ask [my congressman] to take the matter up with the State Department so we won't get into complications with England. Killing these groundhogs was an insult to the royal family." Indeed, a congressional representative would issue a statement criticizing California. The two groundhogs were eventually buried back home.

Eight years later, the name "Punxsutawney Phil" first appeared in newspapers. It's possible that this new moniker was a shout-out to one of the dearly deceased royal groundhogs. (That, however, is a matter of speculation.)

Regardless, the new name was also a necessity. Multiple Pennsylvania towns—such as Quarryville and Pine Grove—also had their own prognosticating woodchucks, and the towns were stuck in a vicious debate over who was home to the real sage. Adopting a new name was not only good branding, but also a practical way to help differentiate the different groundhogs. (The competitors would also get unique names: Octoraro Orphie and Grover.)

Eventually, Punxsutawney would get a huge PR boost from the 1993 movie Groundhog Daythough it was always home to the leading marmot. On Groundhog Day in 1904, the Pittsburgh Press reported, "The ticket-sellers in the various railroad offices noticed a surprising increase in receipts this morning. First-class rates to Punxsutawney went so fast that the advisability of raising the price was considered. All the cold weather interests were off to the lair of the groundhog to see him see his shadow."

8 Things That Happened on Leap Day

On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Since Leap Day comes just once every four years, events that happen on February 29 are somewhat rare. Check out these eight events that are extra memorable thanks to their timing.

1. On Leap Day in 1940, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award.

Actress Hattie McDaniel took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 1940 Academy Awards for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The win made her the first African American to receive the award.

2. Buddy Holly’s lost glasses were found on Leap Day in 1959.

Buddy Holly in his signature glasses
Buddy Holly in his signature glasses.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The singer's famous glasses disappeared for more than two decades after he died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959. Holly’s trademark frames, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, were thrown clear of the plane wreckage. The items remained buried in the snow until the spring thaw, when they were turned over to the County Sheriff’s office and filed away in a sealed manila envelope, where they were forgotten. The envelope was rediscovered in 1980 by County Sheriff Jerry Allen, who came across it while looking for old court records. The discovery was announced on February 29, 1980. The glasses were returned to Holly’s widow, Maria Elena.

3. The Henriksen siblings—all of them—were born on Leap Day.

On February 29, 1960, Heidi Henriksen was born. Her brother, Olav, joined the family exactly four years later. And in 1968, to the day, Leif-Martin Henriksen entered the world. The Norwegian siblings held the Guinness record for most babies born on a Leap Day until 2012, when the Estes family from Utah tied them: Xavier Estes was born on February 29, 2004; Remington Estes in 2008; and Jade Estes in 2012.

4. Davy Jones died on Leap Day in 2012.

In 2012, the Monkee passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was just 66, leaving many fans in shock at his unexpected death.

5. Hank Aaron became the highest-paid Major League Baseball Player on Leap Day.

A $200,000-a-year contract might seem like peanuts for a MLB player today, but by 1972 standards, it was a big deal. So big, in fact, that the three-year contract Aaron inked to play for the Atlanta Braves made him the highest paid baseball player in the league.

6. The future Pope John Paul II was nearly killed on Leap Day.

Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile
Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile in 2004.

Back when he was just 24-year-old Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II was walking home when a German army truck hit him and left him on the road for dead. The driver of a lumber truck picked him up and took him to the hospital, where Wojtyla remained unconscious for nine hours. It’s said that the incident inspired him to switch to a spiritual career path.

7. Family Circus debuted on Leap Day in 1960.

On February 29, 1960, Bil Keane’s long-running comic strip debuted as The Family Circle. Inspired by Keane’s own wife and children, Family Circus is now drawn by Keane’s youngest son, Jeff—the inspiration for “Jeffy” in the comic strip.

8. The first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials on Leap Day.

Salem residents Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba were accused of witchcraft on February 29, 1692. After refusing to confess, Good was hanged and Osborne died in prison; Tituba, a slave, admitted to her supposed crimes and was released from jail a year later.

10 Delicious Facts About McDonald's Shamrock Shake

McDonald's
McDonald's

Many people overdo it with the drinking on St. Patrick's Day, but it's not always Guinness or Jameson that gets them into trouble. Sometimes it's the Shamrock Shake, McDonald's uniquely green and often elusive seasonal treat. Here’s the skinny on the 660-calorie indulgence.

1. The Shamrock Shake wasn't originally known as The Shamrock Shake.

The original name of the cult classic milkshake was slightly less alliterative. It was called the St. Patrick’s Day Green Milkshake. Catchy, no?

2. The Shamrock Shake is a charitable endeavor.

What does the Shamrock Shake have to do with the Ronald McDonald House and the Philadelphia Eagles? Everything, according to the fast food giant. When Eagles tight end Fred Hill’s daughter was being treated for leukemia in 1974, Fred and his wife spent a lot of time in waiting rooms and noticed many other emotionally depleted families doing the same. He thought it would be healthier for families if they had a place to call home while their children were being treated, so he used his football connections to get in touch with a local advertising agency that did work for Mickey D’s. They agreed to give profits from the Shamrock Shake toward a home near the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, which ended up becoming the first-ever Ronald McDonald House.

3. Uncle O'Grimacey used to be the Shamrock Shake's ambassador.

Back in the early ‘80s, a fairly offensive character named Uncle O’Grimacey was used to promote the seasonal shake.

4. No McDonald's restaurant is required to offer the Shamrock Shake.

In 2012, it was announced that, for the first time, the Shamrock Shake would be available in all McDonald's nationwide—but not all restaurants have to carry them. Regional managers decide whether their stores will carry the shakes each year.

5. Jimmy Fallon once depleted a New York City restaurant's entire Shamrock Shake supply.

If you’re a New Yorker and you didn’t get a much-craved Shamrock Shake in 2011, it’s probably Jimmy Fallon’s fault. When he caught wind that a Union Square Mickey D's had the elusive dessert, he totally cleaned them out—purchasing more than 100 shakes for his audience. New Yorkers were not pleased with Fallon.

6. The Shamrock Shake got an ice cream offshoot (that didn't fare so well).

Despite the smashing success of the shake, the Shamrock Sundae was a dismal failure. Introduced in 1980, it was discontinued after just a year. Apparently people prefer their unnaturally green desserts in shake form as opposed to scoop form. Though this year, they're trying again: in honor of the Shamrock Shake's 50th anniversary, McDonald's is also introducing an Oreo Shamrock McFlurry.

7. There have been many super-sized versions of the Shamrock Shake.

For a few years, a giant shake was poured into the Chicago River to help contribute to the green hue it’s dyed every year. A donation was also made to the Ronald McDonald House.

8. The McDonald's app will help you track down a Shamrock Shake.

Are you one of those unfortunate souls who has to hunt the shake down every year? McDonald's official app can help. In 2020, for the first time in three years, the Shamrock Shake will be offered at all McDonald's locations. If you're not sure of the nearest one near you, the McDonald's app has a full directory to help.

9. You can make your own Shamrock Shake at home.

If you still can’t find a shake, you have one other option: make your own.

10. In 2017, McDonald's engineered a special Shamrock Shake straw.

In 2017, McDonald's unveiled an amazing innovation for Shamrock Shake lovers: the STRAW. Short for Suction Tube for Reverse Axial Withdrawal, the STRAW was designed by real engineers at the aerospace and robotics engineering firms JACE and NK Labs—specifically with the Shamrock Shake in mind. What sets the device apart from conventional straws is the sharp bend in its shape and the three, eye-shaped holes in addition to the opening at the bottom end. The extra holes are positioned in a way that allows drinkers to take a sip of a new layered version of the frosty treat that’s equal parts top mint layer and bottom chocolate layer.

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