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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Monday, December 05, 2011

“How I Broke the Liberty Bell”

A century ago, the 16 July 1911 New York Times ran a story headlined “‘How I Broke the Liberty Bell’—By the Boy Who Broke It.” I read about this confession in Gary B. Nash’s book on the bell and went in search of the full article. Old enough to be in the public domain, the story is available in the newspaper’s public archive and more easily at Sunday Magazine.

Emmanuel Joseph Rauch contacted the Times to state that he had helped to put the famous crack in the famous bell. He told the paper that he had been born in Pennsylvania on 6 Nov 1825 and had reached the age of eighty-six. Actually, that meant he he was in eighty-sixth year, but he tended to give himself an extra.

Rauch had worked for both the army (a lieutenant in the Civil War) and the railroads, among other enterprises. In 1886 he moved to New York, joined the Manhattan Elevated Railway company, and became “road foreman of engines.” I find his name on a letter to the Locomotive Engineers’ Monthly Journal in 1892. Age and the arrival of electric engines spurred Rauch’s retirement. His granddaughter Julia Rhoads left a biographical article about him among a few other papers at Penn State.

E. J. Rauch’s letter as the Times began this way:
The Liberty Bell was cracked, as I remember, on Washington’s Birthday, 1835, and this is the way it was done:

I was then 10 [sic] years old. On that day I had been sent by my mother on an errand to a shop not far from our home. On my return from it, I was walking through State House Square when I noticed that the janitor or steeplekeeper of the old State House building was beckoning to me. His name was Downing—“Major Jack” we used to call him—and he was a well-known character in Philadelphia at that time.
Hold on! The name “Major Jack Downing” was a character that Seba Smith of Maine had created as a voice for humorous essays starting in 1830. Three years later a New York writer, Charles Augustus Davis, started using the same pseudonym. So was Rauch remembering a fictional character?

In fact, the 1829 Register of Pennsylvania records “Thomas Downing, watchman at the State House, praying for an advance in his salary.” He did so again in 1835. In 1839 Thomas Downing testified before the legislature about a political fight the previous autumn; he stated, “I live in the Terret of the State House.”

An 1884 history of Philadelphia identifies the old State House janitor as “Tommy Downing,” well known to the city’s firefighting societies because he rang the old State House’s alarm bell. Charles Franklin Warwick’s Keystone Commonwealth, published in 1912, states:
The last ringer of the [Liberty] bell was Thomas Downing. His term of office extended from 1827-35. He lived in the steeple and the pipe from his stove protruded through one of the openings. It was while he was the ringer that the Bell cracked in 1835.
Even though Downing had to stop ringing the old bell that year, his later legislative testimony shows he continued to live in the tower.

So a Mr. Downing was indeed “janitor or steeplekeeper of the old State House building” when Rauch was a boy. Folks probably took to calling him “Major Jack” after the fictional character.

TOMORROW: Back to Rauch’s story.


EHT said...

How interesting! I wrote about the Liberty Bell myself a few weeks ago. Thanks for linking...and thanks for alerting me to Sunday Magazine. Love it!

J. L. Bell said...

I stumbled across Sunday Magazine in a Google search, and now I’m sorry that it’s no longer being updated. But plenty of older stuff to explore there.