Pliny Jewell and His Frogs

Status: Upcoming

The story: Pliny Jewell fed live mice to bullfrogs living in a pond on his estate at 210 Farmington Avenue. He would announce dinner to the frogs by ringing a bell, and the frogs would come up out of the pond and gather around his seat. He would then dangle the mice by their tails from a stick, and the frogs would leap up to grab them.

Fact or Fiction?

Fact! The story is supported by two articles in the Courant, both of which depend on eyewitness accounts, plus there’s a photograph. Surprisingly, however, this story doesn’t seem to have survived into the 21st century – the most recent reference to it I’ve found is from February 1953.

Prove It

Pliny Jewell and his frogs were legendary by the time a reporter from the Courant and a photographer went out to see for themselves. Their story was printed in the Courant on September 1, 1892, and it includes the “photographs,” which in the printed edition are etchings of the photograph. After further digging, I found a jpeg of one of the photos.

The second article was a report from Lillian Baynes Griffin, who passed by Pliny Jewell’s pond eight times a day. I haven’t figured out where she lived, but it seems that she was regularly visiting a studio somewhere on Jewell’s property. During those walks, she would experiment with the frogs, eventually determining that they would respond to any familiar sound, including the rustling of her skirt.

The reference from 1953 was in an article about Jewell Court, “the shortest street in city” (it still is). Bob Zaiman interviewed Daniel Cotter, owner of Cotter Garage, which occupied the site of the Jewell House, and Cotter told Zaiman about the frogs. Zaiman described the story as “one of the most grisly rituals in the city’s history.”

I looked up what bullfrogs will eat, and basically they’ll eat whatever they can fit into their mouths, so the bigger the bullfrog, the bigger the meal.

The Whole Story

Three times a week and always at 5:00 in the afternoon, Pliny Jewell would carry a chair, a stick, a bell, and a bag of live mice out to the pond on his property at 210 Farmington Avenue. Some of the larger frogs would already be waiting for him, and the rest would come out of the water when he rang the bell. The bell would also attract birds, because he apparently also fed crackers to the fish in his pond at the same time he fed his frogs. Jewell would wave his stick over the frogs, prompting them to jump at it, and then he would take a mouse and wedge it by the tail into a crack at the end of the stick. He’d wave the stick again, and the frogs would again leap up to capture the mice.

On the day the Courant reporter and photographer was there, Jewell fed 25 mice to 15 frogs. Both the unnamed reporter and Griffin reported that the frogs would appear disappointed if food was not forthcoming, even after they had eaten, and occasionally Jewell would substitute English sparrows for the mice. The reporter and Griffin also reported that the frogs would spit out dead mice and sparrows – they would only eat live meals.

The Courant reporter said Jewell would ring a bell, but Griffin added that it was a cow bell. She found a cow bell on one of her walks – not apparently the one used by Jewell, but a smaller one – and when she rang it, the frogs came to her where she was, which was not where Jewell regularly sat. After that, they would come to the sound of her skirt, even though she never fed them. She would occasionally wave a piece of paper above them, and that would be enough to induce them to jump. The frogs would keep at it until they got bored or figured out the paper wasn’t edible.

According to the unnamed reporter, the frogs had been living on the Jewell property for six years, so Jewell began his hobby with the frogs some time during or after 1886, probably not coincidentally during Grover Cleveland’s first term in office. By June 1911, Jewell had lost interest in the frogs, and he was raising pigeons. Four months later, on Halloween, Jewell died, and perhaps inevitably his frog pond would vanish under future developments on the property. Currently, it’s the parking lot in front of 224 The EcoSpace – unintended irony, I’m sure.

As if that wasn't enough

The reporter defended Jewell’s practice of feeding live mice to frogs as a kinder, more natural way of ridding Hartford of mice than the mousetraps currently in use. Mousetraps killed mice slowly and painfully, while frogs killed them instantly and, since they were eating them, naturally. Unfortunately, this wasn’t exactly true: the reporter noted that occasionally the mice would escape from the mouths of the frogs after the frogs hopped back into the pond to enjoy their meals. Death, therefore, wasn’t quite so instantaneous as the reporter maintained.

Griffin, on the other hand, seemed a little disturbed by the whole affair, but she appreciated that it was an industry that kept the local boys employed. Jewell would pay five cents a head for live mice – also reported by the unnamed reporter – and for live sparrows – not mentioned by the reporter. The boy Griffin talked to managed to raise $3.15 in one summer, and he planned to buy ice skates with the money.

And then there's this

The frogs had names, three of which the Courant reported: Grover Cleveland, Dave Hill, and Tom Reed. Pliny Jewell and the Courant were good Republicans, so the Democrats Grover Cleveland and Dave Hill were likely being mocked. Tom Reed, on the other hand, was a Republican, but he was a very large man, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds. These three frogs were the largest of the 15 frogs the reporter saw, so Reed’s name was probably intended as a reference to his size.

I had guessed Jewell was a Republican – his brother was Marshall Jewell, the Republican governor of Connecticut – but Griffin confirmed that in her article. She also reported that one of the frogs was named Grover Cleveland, but she seemed less amused by that than the unnamed Courant reporter, who was almost certainly a Republican (if he wasn’t, he’d have worked for the Hartford Times). Cleveland was the country’s only ex-president at the time, but Jewell’s gardener assured her it was a matter of partisan politics.

That time was 1905, or 13 years after the unnamed reporter’s article. Do bullfrogs really live that long? Not really. In the wild, they can live as long as nine years, but in captivity they can live as long as 16 years, which is the record. Grover Cleveland lived in the wild but had regular meals served by Jewell – nonetheless, it doesn’t seem likely that the reporter and Griffin were looking at the same frog. More likely, Jewell reserved the name Grover Cleveland for the biggest frog to emerge each year.

Some context

The frogs were not native to Jewell’s pond. According to the unnamed reporter, there were two “families” of frogs in the pond. One batch had come from New Hampshire, while the other had come from Windham. Jewell had apparently imported them to his pond around 1886, but I haven’t found any reporting on how exactly Jewell figured out that he could train frogs to respond to his offer of live mice.

The frogs hibernated in the pond over winter, and their population was kept in check by – you guessed it – themselves. They tended to eat their own young because, after all, they fit in their mouths.

On an unrelated note

Lillian Baynes Griffin was married to Walter Griffin, a painter of some renown who, in 1905, was a teacher at the art school of the Hartford Art Society. Her biography is somewhat complicated, especially after she and her husband left Hartford, but at some point she became a photographer – and a fairly famous one at that. Among her portraits of famous people, she took a photograph of Frances Preston, who before she was remarried in 1913 had been Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover Cleveland. Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine that, as she posed for her portrait, Frances heard Lillian say, “You know, strangest thing, but back when I lived in Hartford I met a frog named after your first husband …”