Lifestyles of Hartford Rich and Famous

April 16, 2020 · Collections ·
Pliny Jewell and his frogs, c. 1880s
CHS Collection Photographs: Portraits: J

How does someone with friends in high places and a hand in the larger Hartford business community stay entertained? Theater? Saloons? Church socials? For Pliney Jewell, his entertainment came in the form of taking care of pet bullfrogs. 

When Hartford’s Pliny Jewell (1823-1911) died, he was respected enough that former Connecticut Governor and U.S. State Senator, Morgan G. Bulkeley was one of his honorary pallbearers. While among the living, Jewell was the vice president of Hartford Board of Trade, director of the Travelers Insurance Company, and director of Hartford National Bank.

Jewell Belting Co., Trumbull St, Hartford, CT, c.1900
Gelatin Silver Print on paper on cardboard mount
CHS Collection 1992.20.6

With his father — Pliny the elder — and his brothers, Jewell ran the Jewell Belting Company at the corner of Trumbull Street near the then-exposed Park River, what is now the corner of Trumbull and Jewell Streets. The company supplied the Union Army with leather goods during the Civil War and saw its business boom as demand increased for leather belts to drive mills for wartime manufacturing.  In 1895, the Jewell Belting Company was recognized for producing the largest belt in the world, able to transmit 2,000 horsepower — at least according to local newspapers.

Governor Marshall Jewell, c.1870-1880, engraving
Gift of Mrs. Alna S. Mathers
CHS Collection 2004.112.5

While the Jewell family built its wealth by conveyor belts, it was also turning out politicians and establishing itself in the upper echelon. Pliny’s brother, Marshall, served twice as governor of this state and later as the U.S. Minister to Russia. As for Pliny, he vacationed at Fenwick Hall in Old Saybrook with the likes of the politically connected such as the Bulkeleys and literary connected such as the Clemenses. The unattractively rolled cigars that he gifted neighbor Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) were dubbed “Prize Jewels”. After Jewell’s death, Twain quipped that those cigars guaranteed the businessman to be spending the afterlife down below. 

In his declining years, Pliny Jewell spent time living down South. In January 1909, Jewell leased his 28 room mansion, named Echo Lawn, to the newly inaugurated Governor, George Lilley. Lilley used Echo Lawn the entire length of his term, all four months, until he died there after an illness thought to be brought on by job stress. 

Not just known for his weird cigars, Jewell was also known for the strange menagerie he kept. Dave Hill, Tom Reed, Homer, and Laura Matilda were some of his pet bullfrogs, dwelling at Echo Lake, a small pond at the end of Jewell Court, on Jewell’s property located at 210 Farmington Avenue in Hartford. The newspapers began to take interest in Jewell’s peculiar hobby around 1892, though he had been immersed in this amusement for six years by then. Grover Cleveland, the fattest of Jewell’s herd, was a media darling, adorned with a collar. 

Three evenings every week, at 5pm sharp, Jewell would walk along the gravel path circling his pond, then ring a cowbell. Trained to respond, the frogs would climb up the bank and gather around the man, leaping into the air before their feeding. Laura Matilda would accept breadcrumbs, but the rest were reported to be more finicky. Skewered live mice is what they wanted, and what Jewell provided. 

Every banquet called for 25 mice. Jewell’s property could not supply enough for these frogs’ appetites, so he took to paying the children who lived in the Asylum Hill neighborhood five cents for each live mouse delivered. In times of rodent shortage, live sparrows would be substituted. The frogs would still perform their hoppy routine if their offerings were dead, but they would not consume cold meat. 

It was a splendid, gruesome arrangement. At least one of the young mice vendors turned his earnings into a pair of ice skates. Jewell issued paper tickets to children allowing them to skate on his pond in the winter. Because it was shallow and offered little risk of drowning, the spot was popular, and the ticket system reduced chaos. Once the ice thawed, Jewell would post signs on the property declaring “no children allowed,” presumably to protect his precious pollywogs and bullfrogs. 

Kids were not the only beneficiaries and frogs not the only pets. Jewell fed crackers to goldfish in his pond, who also reacted to the ringing of his bell. Crows and robins were known to show up in time for the fish feeding, snagging crackers for themselves.

Jewell, in his eighties, broke his hip and began spending time down South, returning to Echo Lawn with a change in his interests. Because the mice population dropped off, he began to neglect his frogs, turning his attention to a flock of 80 pigeons. He was particular about their appearance, keeping only pure white birds. His housekeeper was tasked with making pie from pigeons whose coloring deviated. Despite not fitting a monochromatic requirement, grackles were invited onto his property. Where can you find this marvelous and creepy pond? You can’t. After Jewell’s death in 1911, the property – described by the Hartford Courant as “among the most desirable in the vicinity” — changed hands multiple times. The brick and wood frame mansion caught fire and was abandoned. Today, a high-rise apartment building stands where the one-time governor’s mansion stood. Jewell Court is a driveway that blends with the surface parking lot that now surrounds it. A spiritual wellness center and community garden covers the lily pond where one of Hartford’s elite nourished over a dozen frogs with still wriggling mice and sparrows.

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