Nocturnal Sounds Inspired the Comic Opera The Frogs of Windham

The Frogs of Windham, by Burton E Leavitt. New York: Frank Harding. [n.d.]

The Frogs of Windham, by Burton E Leavitt. New York: Frank Harding. [n.d.]

The following is a guest post by Julianne Mangin, a retired Network Specialist from the Library of Congress.

The sounds of a summer night can be charming — a light breeze rustling the trees, the chirp of crickets, perhaps the occasional hoot of an owl or croak of a frog. But on one such night in colonial Connecticut the night sounds were so terrifying that someone wrote an opera about them.

Well, not immediately — it would take more than a century for a pair of father-and-son composers to create an operatic work that they hoped would properly memorialize this unforgettable summer night. Accounts differ on whether the event occurred in 1754 or 1758 on a night in June or July. All agree that the nocturnal drama transpired in Windham, a principal town of the British colony of Connecticut. The French and Indian War was underway, and some of the town’s best men had already been mobilized and sent off to fight for the British against the French and their native allies. The remaining colonists felt understandably vulnerable.

One summer night, well after midnight, the townspeople were awakened by a loud and mysterious noise that sounded like the repeated shouts and cries of a large band of Indians. As the citizens of Windham awoke and came out of their houses to investigate the noise, a growing panic gripped them. Men grabbed their weapons and fired them, hoping to scare off the attackers. Women and children shrieked in terror. At some point, some of the townspeople realized that the band of noise-makers, whoever they were, were not advancing toward the town. These Windhamites decided that the clamor at the edge of town was not a sign of an imminent Indian attack, but instead a sign that the Day of Judgment had come. Those who believed it was the end of the world threw themselves on the ground and begged for God’s mercy.

Towards dawn, the sounds of the night subsided and a band of men made their way toward its source. About a mile outside of town, they reached a large pond and discovered a ghastly scene. Frogs had converged there during the night, too many for the pond to support, and so a noisy territorial battle had ensued. What the men discovered that morning, to their chagrin, were hundreds of dead frogs, littering the edge of the pond.

Word of this comical turn of events spread beyond its borders, and Windham became the laughing-stock of the colonies. “The Battle of the Frogs,” as it was known, was forever bonded with the name of the town of Windham, Connecticut.

Over the decades, the people of Windham overcame their embarrassment about the frogs, and embraced their unique place in history. As recently as 2001, a new bridge built to span the Willimantic River in Windham featured four 11-foot statues of frogs, sitting on large spools of thread. In one artistic stroke, sculptor Leo Jensen managed to commemorate both the battle of the frogs and the town’s long history of producing thread in a local mill.

Frog on a spool. Windham, Connecticut. Photo by Julianne Mangin, October 2013.

Frog on a spool. Windham, Connecticut. Photo by Julianne Mangin, October 2013.

Now, about that opera…

In the late 1880s, the former owner of the Willimantic Enterprise newspaper, Nason W. Leavitt and his Yale-educated son Burton E. Leavitt collaborated to create a comic opera called The Frogs of Windham, which was copyrighted in 1891. Perhaps inspired by then-popular Gilbert and Sullivan, the team of Leavitt and Leavitt cooked up a mélange of the famous story of the frogs, a romantic sub-plot, and ethnic stereotypes. The Frogs of Windham was performed widely throughout the state of Connecticut in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

It was last performed by the Windham Theatre Guild in 1992. A 1983 performance was reported upon in an article in the New York Times, in which it was referred to as a “director’s nightmare” by the director himself. He also referred to it as being so bad it’s funny. I would have to agree.

The Library of Congress holds an 82-page piano score of the operetta. There are no known recordings of the music. With the assistance of a group of musicians — Neil Gladd (Copyright Office), Denis Malloy, Elizabeth Fulford (Network Development & MARC Standards Office), and Greg Scholtz — I was able to hear snippets of Burton Leavitt’s music. It is not particularly remarkable, although I did find the sequence called the “Frog Ballet” charming. The libretto is another matter.

Nason Leavitt, the father of the duo, felt that the story of the frogs needed something more to appeal to nineteenth century audiences, so he added a love story. Borrowing from classic melodramatic tropes, the story involves Col. Dyer, a prominent Windhamite, who wants his daughter to marry a useless English lord, presumably sent to the colonies by a family glad to be rid of him. The daughter is in love with a stalwart local farmer who doesn’t measure up to her father’s estimation based on class.

Interspersed with plot-driven scenes are interludes such as a drinking song saluting a local alcoholic concoction called “The Windham Flip”; an “Injun” war dance; and — for no apparent reason — singing and dancing gypsies. Gypsies, or Romani people, did not arrive in North America until about the 1840s, nearly a century after the so-called battle of the frogs in Windham. Ethnic stereotypes abound in The Frogs of Windham. Besides the Native Americans and gypsies, there is a German character “Lim Burger,” whose pronounced accent is difficult to follow. The English lord appears to have some sort speech impediment (“Hif Windham suits me I may stay / And gwace your stweets a while”). The African-American characters (enslaved by Col. Dyer) fare the worst; they are unfavorably caricatured in both their dialect and their presumed inferior intellect.

Even the well-born English characters are given rhymes so labored that I’d be surprised if they weren’t offended as well. In a scene in which it is explained why the English lord was captured by a tribe of Indians, led by Chief Uncas:

He done mor’n he oughter
He kissed old Uncas’ daugther

Lost in all this is the story of the battle of the frogs, which takes place in the last half of the third and final act. Col. Dyer is as stupefied as any of the town residents about the mysterious noise. A local parson convinces him that it’s God’s way of telling him that he is wrong to prevent his daughter from marrying the man she loves. Col. Dyer promises to allow it, just before one of his captains arrives to tell everyone that the noise is just a throng of combative frogs.

ALL:

Was that all? Capt. — well that’s enough
The noise they made was awful.

Col. Dyer:

Well, I’ll not go back upon my word,
though their croaking were unlawful.

Being an operetta, it has a happy ending, and it closes with joyous song and dance at the end:

Let us shout and dance and sing,
for Windham frogs of won the day.
So, let us shout and dance and sing,
for Windham frogs of won the day.
Au revoir.

Despite its flaws, The Frogs of Windham is now part of the history and lore of Connecticut, particularly in the “Quiet Corner” of the state, where one finds the town of Windham. May the sounds of your summer nights be much less frightening than a clan of battling frogs.

References:

  • Leavitt, Burton E. and Nason W. Leavitt. The Frogs of Windham. New York, Frank Harding, [1891]. LC call no: M1503.L438 F7
  • //www.loc.gov/resource/ihas.200217876.0
  • The Battle of the Frogs, at Windham, 1758: with Various Accounts and Three of the Most Popular Ballads on the Subject. Introduction by William L. Weaver. Willimantic, Conn.: James Walden, 1857. LC call no: F104.W65 W3
  • Electronic copy from HathiTrust http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009585330
  • Nord, Kristin. “A Froggy Place in History.” The New York Times, August 21, 1983, Connecticut Weekly section, page 1.

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