J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

“We found that there was a big crack”

Yesterday I started to quote a letter from E. J. Rauch published in the New York Times on 16 July 1911 about the crack in the Liberty Bell.

On George Washington’s birthday in 1835, when he was nine years old, little Emmanuel Joseph was returning from an errand for his mother when the custodian of the old Pennsylvania State House, a man named Downing, beckoned to him.
“Come here!” he called to me and several boys whom he spied in the square. After he had corralled six or eight of us—I don’t remember exactly how many—he told us that he wanted us to ring the Liberty Bell in honor of Washington’s Birthday. The idea pleased us very much—we boys were not in the habit of ringing the old bell—and we agreed to do it.

Then Downing climbed into the steeple of the State House and tied a rope to the clapper of the bell. Coming down again, he put the end of this rope into our hands and instructed us to pull with all our might, which we did.

We were working away, and the bell had struck, so far as I can recall, about ten or a dozen times, when we noticed a change in the tone. We kept on ringing, though, but, after a while, the steeplekeeper noticed the difference, too. Surmising that something might be wrong, he told us to stop pulling the rope. Then he climbed back into the steeple, we boys following behind.

On the side of the bell that hung toward Walnut Street we found that there was a big crack, a foot or fifteen inches long. Downing then told us to run along home. We obeyed.

What happened after that I forget—boy-like I didn’t do any worrying, and heard no more about the cracking of the bell until some years later. Then, however, and many times since, I have read of how the bell came to be cracked, but never have I seen the version which I have just given. I honestly believe it is the correct one.
A nineteenth-century tradition held that the bell cracked while being tolled on 8 July 1835 for Chief Justice John Marshall’s death. But perhaps that was the day when the public learned about the crack that had appeared a few months before. Perhaps Rauch misremembered the occasion when he had helped pull the rope. Or perhaps his story has no foundation in fact; normally people wouldn’t want credit for damaging a national icon, but the crack in the Liberty Bell is part of what makes it iconic.

The historical record shows, however, that Philadelphia continued to order the Liberty Bell to be rung after 1835.

TOMORROW: The final blow.

(The picture above illustrates a legend about the signing of the Declaration of Independence that Philadelphia author George Lippard came up with in 1847. It’s got nothing to do with Thomas Downing, E. J. Rauch, and the other boys. But I couldn’t resist using it.)

1 comment:

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Yes, the crack makes the bell. Just ask Rob Petrie.

(The Dick Van Dyke Show, episode 134)

-Chris H. of Woburn