Head west from New Orleans along Metairie Road and you’ll pass a building marked with the silhouette of a Churchillian gentleman smoking a cigar, advertising Winston’s Pub and Patio. But if you were to travel the same route for a brief time in the 1930s, you’d see a very different sign on the building: “We buy frogs.”
Before The Music Man sold trombones to River City, Lyle Lanley sold a monorail to the Simpsons, and your high school bully tried to sell you essential oils on Facebook, a New Orleans transplant named Albert Broel set out to sell the world on frogs. That building on Metairie Road was the center of operations for his American Frog Canning Company. The company sold canned frog legs to grocery stores and provided live frogs to upscale shops like Solari’s delicatessen in the French Quarter. American Frog ads blanketed newspapers and magazines from Popular Mechanics to the Poultry Tribune, offering breeding stock and training materials to help readers get rich by farming them at home.
“Our FREE book ‘A Fortune in Frogs’ explains everything,” the ads boasted.
Broel was a kind of quintessential American character, at various points held up by editorial writers as representing the best or the worst of 20th century capitalism. He arrived from Eastern Europe during World War I and, like a real-life Jay Gatsby or Don Draper, managed to repeatedly reinvent himself with multiple businesses that drew national headlines. He also came under repeated legal scrutiny. Over the course of his career, Broel was investigated for allegedly deceiving would-be frog farmers about the viability of the trade, operating a personal ads business used by a notorious serial killer, practicing medicine without a license, and potentially faking his own kidnapping and assault.
According to Broel’s personal (and perhaps apocryphal) history, he was born a member of the Polish nobility in what was then part of the Russian empire. Broel was, he said, son and heir to a count from the aristocratic house of Broel-Plater. His mother was of French extraction, he wrote in his 1950 book Frog Raising for Pleasure and Profit, and from an early age spoke to him of the virtues of frogs, which she credited with saving her life. During a period of illness in her childhood, he wrote, the amphibians were the only source of meat she could digest.
As a young man, Broel started on a more traditional career path, attending medical school at the urging of his father, he wrote in Frog Raising. He was still barely a tadpole himself when he was pulled out of school and commissioned a captain in the Russian cavalry during World War I. His unit of 200 men was “completely wiped out” by the Germans, and he was taken prisoner, only to discover that the captain of the German unit holding him was his cousin. The cousin, he wrote, arranged for him to receive treatment for his wounds and, ultimately, passage to America.
“When I came to this wonderful country of Opportunity, I continued with my medical studies, later going into practice,” Broel wrote. “I was devoted to my profession and loved my work; enjoying better than average success—but ALWAYS—in the back of my mind—raise frogs, Raise Frogs, RAISE FROGS!”
According to a 1923 blurb in the Detroit Free Press, Broel was a graduate of the Chicago College of Naprapathy (a still-practiced alternative healing method related to chiropractic medicine). He worked as a “naprapath and specialist in diet,” according to the newspaper. But the night before that description ran in the paper, Broel’s “richly furnished and elaborately equipped offices” were raided by health officials. They reportedly found “seven diplomas from medical schools,” but no license to practice, according to the Windsor (Ontario) Star. Broel, who then used the name Albert Broel-Plater, was fined $100.
HOT SINGLE GILLS
A few years later, Broel (using the name Albert Plater) and his wife Olga operated a second enterprise: a Detroit organization called the American Friendship Society (no relation to the Quakers) that published a monthly newsletter of paid romantic personal ads. It solicited subscribers through its own ads, placed in newspapers around the country. It was one of a number of such services, known as matrimonial bureaus or (derisively) lonelyhearts clubs. “The World’s Greatest Letter Club has many rich folks who seek new friends,” read one ad for the service in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News.
Another, similar ad appeared in Weird Tales, the horror and fantasy magazine. “If you want ‘A Rich Wife!’ or ‘Wealthy Husband!,’” it read, “send for our big (FREE) list of descriptions.” The ad shared a 1931 issue with horror poetry by H.P. Lovecraft—and other ads promoting pathways to romantic success. One pushed a $1 book teaching readers to woo their crushes through mental telepathy. Another, for Hawaiian guitar lessons offered by mail, highlighted the instrument’s sex appeal.
A 1936 New York Daily News service estimated that personal ad publications had a collective 100,000 subscribers. And while such services were always seen as a bit disreputable and potentially dangerous, the American Friendship Society was at first treated by the press as an amusing novelty.
Columnist J. Butterfield mocked the society in The (Vancouver) Daily Province in 1929 after somehow being subscribed to its listings, describing the advertised women as sounding too good to be true. It being the 1920s, Butterfield could not hit “unsubscribe.” He lamented he’d be stuck on the mailing list until the day he died.
But stories took a different tone when it was revealed that the service was connected to a more serious crime: a series of murders committed by Harry F. Powers, dubbed the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell (the community outside Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he lived). Powers, who was married, used an assumed name to write to dozens of women he found through the Friendship Society, according to reports at the time.
He visited Asta Eicher, a widowed mother of three, in 1931, convincing her to join him on a road trip. They left the children with a caretaker, who soon received a letter (purportedly from Eicher) indicating that Powers would return for the children. When Powers came back to Eicher’s Illinois town, he tried and failed to cash a check on Eicher’s account. The bank suspected Eicher’s signature was forged. Powers swiftly left town with the three children. The Eicher family was never heard from again.
A few weeks later, Powers convinced a second Friendship Society woman named Dorothy Lemke to abandon her Massachusetts home to elope with him. First, she withdrew $4,000 from her bank accounts. She, too, would never return home.
Police investigating Eicher’s disappearance discovered letters Powers sent her from Clarksburg. They contacted police there, and the bodies of the two women, along with Eicher’s three children, were soon found buried at Powers’ home. He was convicted of murdering all five victims and ultimately executed, in a case that drew lurid front-page headlines around the country. Many of the reports focused on details of Broel’s Friendship Society and other women who were in correspondence with Powers.
Michigan Governor Wilber Brucker started an investigation into the Friendship Society, which was incorporated as a Michigan nonprofit, calling it a “menace to the community.” According to a 1931 United Press report citing investigators, it collected more than $100,000 in fees—more than $1.6 million in today’s money—over its roughly four years of operation. By the end of the year, Broel’s society had agreed to shut down.
Broel’s society was never alleged to have deliberately aided criminals or to have defrauded its subscribers. Still, it caught blame for Powers’ killings and generally fell afoul of prudish sentiment. One report questioned how Eicher, a widow with three children, could even find time for romance. Other similar organizations around the country also disbanded amid public moralizing and fears that others could meet a similar fate. Murder ballads inspired by the killings warned women against corresponding with strangers. “A moral lesson this should teach for one can never tell,” said the lyrics to one, “lest you be lured unto your doom like those at Quiet Dell.”
The Broels themselves came under scrutiny in some of the newspaper reports. Reporters pointed out the opulence of their Grosse Pointe home and revisited Albert Broel’s 1923 conviction for practicing medicine without a license. Some reports aired a World War I-era rumor that Broel’s very identity was fake. An unnamed Russian woman had allegedly claimed that he was in fact a servant to the noble Broel-Plater family, not an heir, masquerading as the rightful count.
HIGH HIGH HOPS
Then, in early 1932, Broel was found “semi-delirious” in a ditch in suburban Detroit. His car was burned nearby. He told police he was kidnapped by two men who beat him up, robbed him, and set the car on fire, producing a threatening note as evidence. But the police called the kidnapping a hoax, claiming there were signs the note was typed on Broel’s typewriter. Officers also believed a type of sand found in Broel’s boots was present where the car was burned, but not where Broel was found, according to the Detroit Free Press. Broel denied allegations that he staged the attack, and neither he nor anyone else appears to have been charged in the incident.
Soon afterward, Broel and his wife Olga moved from Detroit to Ohio. There, he would focus full-time on raising frogs. When he lived in Michigan, he kept the creatures in a jury-rigged greenhouse, housing them in a rowboat filled with water and plants. A steam radiator connected to his house provided heat. To simulate rain (which encourages breeding), Broel used a hose and shower head mounted on an umbrella.
In Ohio, Broel began plans to farm giant bullfrogs more formally, digging ponds on a 100-acre plot. He also honed methods for canning their meat for sale. He soon incorporated as American Bullfrog Industries in Fremont, Ohio, and told a reporter his frog cannery would employ more than 100 in that city. The company produced its first canned frog legs in January 1933, and The Fremont Messenger reported that they tasted “delicious.”
That same year, American Bullfrog began advertising in Popular Mechanics and other magazines, seeking students for correspondence courses in frog husbandry. According to a columnist in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle those cost between $47.50 and $57.50. Over his career, Broel’s frog businesses would often bundle sales and training. At times, they’d offer free frogs to paid graduates of their courses. Other times, they’d promise free instructional materials to buyers of frogs, emphasizing what Broel saw as an untapped market for bullfrog meat.
“There is a veritable gold mine in the proper raising of giant bullfrogs,” according to an American Bullfrog pamphlet quoted in the Democrat and Chronicle. “The bullfrog raising industry will equal that of the automobile and the radio in the not distant future. Now is the time for ambitious, red blooded American men and women to realize that there is no better way to avoid future depressions than to rent or buy a small plot of low-lands (swamp) or to build a small pond in the backyard and start raising these money-makers, with our instructions.”
THE FROGMAN COMETH
Broel’s Ohio cannery plans never came to fruition. In April 1933, a state agricultural official declined to license the facility. Broel later claimed he also realized he needed to be somewhere with a bigger supply of frogs. “That’s when I decided to move to New Orleans!” he wrote.
By the end of 1934, he moved from the Metairie Road location to 12 newly purchased acres along Jefferson Highway where he built a sprawling complex with offices, a cannery and slaughterhouse, and acres of frog ponds. The frogs were fed a diet including crawfish and minnows, with the minnows dining on specially planted foliage, according to an opinion piece in the McComb (Mississippi) Enterprise.
“It struck us as the nearest thing to perpetual motion we have run into,” wrote the unnamed author. “Man sets out the plants; the plants feed the minnows; the minnows feed the frogs; the frogs feed the man.”
A pair of large frog statues with electric lights for eyes greeted visitors and passersby. The compound even became a tourist attraction, listed in the Works Progress Administration guide to Louisiana. American Frog soon drew nationwide attention as both a novelty and a startup success story.
“Depression puts him into strange business; makes him nation’s biggest raiser of frogs,” read one headline in the Asbury Park Evening Press in 1934, just above a picture of Broel.
Broel let visitors see his frogs in special display ponds, and food vendors would set up shop selling popcorn and ice cream to families checking out the animals, though he later limited public access to protect his frogs (visitors, he wrote, would sometimes throw rocks at the animals to see them jump). American Frog also reached the public through grocery shelves. It sold canned frog legs under the Broel’s brand and other frog and seafood products under the Mardi Gras label, emphasizing the company’s ties to New Orleans. “A Southern delicacy from the romantic old French Quarters [sic] of New Orleans, known the world over for its culinary art,” read one label on a canned dish of frog meat and mushrooms.
American Frog also continued to sell instructional materials and live frogs to people looking to start their own frog farms. “Raise giant frogs,” read one typical ad. “We buy what you raise.”
Newspapers throughout the 1930s ran stories about people around the country and as far away as Australia getting into frog farming with the “Broel system.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin, for instance, reported that Railway Express employees were “astonished to receive a crate of live frogs from New Orleans.” They were destined for the pond of Hilo’s Hayato Okino, who was interested in testing the viability of frog farming in the then-territory.
And the Kokomo Tribune reported in 1935 that “lots of croaking can be expected” at swamps outside the Indiana city, where a local breeder was to start raising frogs to sell to Broel’s cannery. A Texas restaurateur by the name of O.J. Worm incorporated the Worm Bullfrog Raising Company, studying Broel’s writing to learn the basics and promising that frog would soon be on his menu. In Tampa, a father-and-son team opened a “Giant Bull Frog” ranch, after working with American Frog to confirm that frogs would eat fiddler crabs, which the area had in abundance. “If you have never eaten frog meat you have a real treat coming to you because it is somewhat like the breast of chicken,” reported The Tampa Daily Times in 1934, “only many folks think it is much more tasty and digestible.”
FROG FRAUD FRACAS
While many reports focused on Broel-inspired frog farming as a fad or curiosity, others seemed to see the practice as reaffirming the merits of American entrepreneurialism during the Great Depression. “To individuals who have no regard for the value of personal initiative, here is a splendid lesson,” read the story in Mississippi’s McComb Enterprise. “Here is a man who through private initiative has made money for himself and in doing so has created new wealth for his state and nation.”
But federal officials proved more skeptical of Broel’s frog business, particularly the side of the company focused on selling training materials to fledgling frog farmers. In Ohio, Federal prosecutors brought a case against Broel and a young employee named Sylvester Schutt. They were accused of falsely stating in marketing materials that frog farmers who paid for their course could make more than $360 billion. Authorities said that the frog business was, however, quite lucrative for Broel himself. Within just four months, the pair had allegedly cashed in more than $15,000 in postal money orders—more than $280,000 in today’s money. Around the same time, the Federal Trade Commission also ordered Broel to cease and desist from making what it called misleading claims in his frog advertising.
Broel quickly sent a letter to The Fremont Messenger, denying the charges and taking “entire responsibility for all matters connected with literature disseminated by the American Bullfrog Industries.” He emphasized that Schutt was merely an employee with no say over the wording of ads. Broel also denied claiming that it’s possible to make $360 billion raising frogs. In his telling, he was merely reprinting a quote he found in a newspaper from someone extrapolating from frog breeding rates.
The criminal charges were ultimately dismissed, and Broel entered into a settlement with the FTC. Among other things, Broel agreed to stop saying that wild frogs are practically extinct, that a certificate from his course made someone a “‘qualified’ frog culturist,” and that frog meat can help treat diabetes. “I was overenthusiastic about the product, that’s all,” Broel said.
Reporters and consumer groups also became increasingly skeptical of the frog business. The Cleveland Better Business Bureau called Broel’s frog business a “strange racket.” A finance columnist named Kenneth B. Haas, writing in the Bowling Green (Kentucky) Park City Daily News, took a particularly harsh tone, saying that while “you must admire the crust of men who can sell saps ten frogs for forty-seven fifty,” Broel “had never been any more honest than the law required.” Haas implied that Broel had simply been in search of a new line of income after his Friendship Society had shuttered. “Then Mr. Broel probably reached for his dictionary, placed his finger momentarily at ‘friendship’ and slowly and sadly moved it down to ‘frogs,'” he wrote. “Frogs! Happy thought. And now the frog business has slumped. What will it be next?”
Despite the bad press, Broel’s ads still appeared across the country, and he continued to operate the cannery for a few more years. He ultimately shut it down citing health issues and continued difficulty getting enough frogs to keep up with demand. The land, along the Mississippi River just outside New Orleans, had also become too valuable to use for farming, he wrote.
Broel’s daughter, Bonnie Broel, wrote in her self-published 2007 memoir House of Broel: The Inside Story that her father sold the land, using the money to buy real estate in Detroit, where he eventually returned. The Jefferson Highway property was soon scooped up by the Seventh Ward Jefferson Lions Club, with statues of lions replacing the frogs.
Broel’s frog farm fans fared no fairer. The Tampa farm, which opened with great fanfare, was forced into receivership by aggrieved investors who alleged the founders had pocketed funds meant to buy frogs. A 1936 legal notice announced a bankruptcy auction, noting that even the “tadpoles will be sold free of liens.”
IT’S ALL A BIT FROGGY
It turns out that raising frogs isn’t particularly easy, experts say. To this day, multiple state agriculture agencies warn it should be seen as a hobby, not an investment. “Individuals selling ‘breeding pairs’ of bullfrogs to unsuspecting potential frog farmers have undoubtedly cornered the market on the only profitable aspect of ‘commercial’ frog production!” warns the Missouri Department of Conservation, in a report that rivals Broel’s book in its embrace of exclamation points.
Frogs can be fragile. They’re vulnerable to disease when crowded together on a farm. They’re also easy targets for predators, like snakes, raccoons, and birds. Carnivorous themselves, they only eat live prey. Farmers have to also raise a steady supply of fish, bugs, crawfish, or something else that writhes in the mouth of a hungry frog. Frogs will also eat smaller frogs and tadpoles, so larval, young, and mature frogs often need separate ponds to prevent rampant cannibalism. And once they’ve grown big enough to sell, usually after a couple of years, it can be a difficult, slapstick task to actually catch the slippery suckers.
The bottom line is that raising frogs is both labor and resource intensive. The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates it takes about 1.15 pounds of live prey to ultimately “produce a 0.4 pound bullfrog with marketable legs.” Imported meat from frogs caught in the wild costs between $2.70 and $3.20 per pound, while domestically farmed frogs can cost up to $12.70 per pound to raise, making the practice wildly uncompetitive, according to the Missouri report. “It doesn’t take much of a mathematician to rapidly reach the conclusion that attempting to commercially raise bullfrogs has the potential to be a short-cut to the poor house!” the department exclaims.
Yet Broel, even after he shut down his own canning plant and farm, continued to earnestly preach the frog gospel. Despite what the Bowling Green columnist predicted, he didn’t break into a new industry, or start advertising a new kind of newsletter in the backs of popular magazines. Instead, he dived into putting together his Frog Raising book, a comprehensive guide to what he called “frog culture.”
The 1950 tome includes a startling number of frog recipes: a gumbo made with frog meat and tomatoes; a sandwich spread produced with ground frog, cream cheese and condensed milk; frog fondue; frog omelets; frog and pineapple salad. The book also envisions other uses beyond food, like selling frogs for biology classes, for pets, and even for Main Street window displays. “Can you imagine HOW MANY MORE people would stop to look at a window-full of giant bullfrogs?” Broel wrote.
Dismissing Broel as simply a con artist, as some of his critics did, seems too simple. He appeared to have a genuine fascination with frogs and to believe in raising them, even after he quit the game. And he did try to help his frog buyers succeed, from corresponding with farmers handling unexpected predator problems to testing new kinds of food.
Similarly, his dating newsletter was seen as sleazy by the standards of its day, including by newspaper publishers who enjoyed reprinting its listings, and it was questionably registered as a nonprofit. But there’s no evidence of fraud, or that it ever was anything but what it claimed to be: a listing of personal ads sent in by readers across the country.
Broel’s exact intentions in so vehemently promoting frog farming will always remain a mystery. So, too, will his true identity. There are a few versions, some contradictory, of Broel’s sensational story of surviving World War I and coming to the U.S. They appear in historic newspaper reports dating back to the war itself, as well as his book and his daughter’s book. But it’s hard to know whether the variations amount to self-reinvention or decades-old reporting errors, misunderstandings, or liberties taken by journalists seeking a good story.
The claim that Broel was a family servant masquerading as an heir is also difficult to probe. Usually sourced to an unnamed Russian woman speaking during World War I, it first appears more than a decade after the war ended. In one New York Daily News report from 1931, the Russian woman is said to have been deported with her husband who was studying chemistry in Valparaiso, Indiana, “with the intention of blowing up public buildings,” but neither spouse is named. Reports of such a case aren’t readily found.
In her memoir, Bonnie Broel wrote of traveling to her father’s ancestral home in present-day Lithuania. Neither there, nor through other research, has she found any records of his birth or evidence that the Broel-Plater family had such a son. But, she wrote, her father came to the U.S. fluent in multiple languages including English and French, suggesting that he did come from an upper-class background.
Bonnie Broel is a well-known entrepreneur and designer in her own right. She runs the Garden District wedding venue House of Broel in an exquisitely decorated antebellum mansion on St. Charles Avenue and delights in showing it to visitors. For decades before, she ran a bridal gown store there by the same name. Her business is in part a museum, with displays of garments she’s worn as Mardi Gras royalty and of her own creations. There’s a dress she designed that was worn by Anne Rice for a mock funeral in 1995—Rice was carried in a coffin to the Garden District Book Shop for an author event—and decades of advertisements for the bridal shop, including one showing a bride kissing a frog. There are elaborate dollhouses and miniatures she painstakingly put together, including a Russian palace inspired by her father.
And there’s a room devoted to frogs. It houses sample labels from Albert Broel’s products, the typewriter and printing press that produced his books—Bonnie Broel told me she remembers her father keeping it in the bathroom for privacy—and innumerable frog knick-knacks collected over the years. Copies of Broel’s books and brochures are placed with pride inside a display case.
For her part, Bonnie Broel wrote in her book—dedicated to “Dr. Albert Broel-Plater, a true Noble Man”—and confirmed in an interview that she believes her father was indeed the count he claimed to be. “I believe he is who he said he was,” she said. “But if it wasn’t, like I said in the book, we’re children of God—what difference does it make?”
illustrations by Happy Burbeck; all other images from Frog Raising for Pleasure and Profit (by Dr. Albert Broel)