Bell controversy still ringing loudly

February 01, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

Silence was ushered in with the snow that fell days earlier in Harpers Ferry, leaving gift shops closed, restaurant tables empty, cobblestone streets bare. One recent afternoon, a woman driving a large sport utility vehicle parked alongside John Brown's fort left her car's engine idling and quickly walked past the fort and out of sight, a camera in her hands.

Footprints in the snow around the fort were outnumbered by brown, prickly balls that fell from surrounding sweetgum trees.

Inside the fort, wasp nests and a bird's nest decorated the rafters.

Conspicuously absent from the fort's cupola is a bell.

"John Brown's bell," as it sometimes is called, cannot be found across the street in the John Brown Museum, nor is it on display in any of the other buildings at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

To see the bronze bell, one must head north to Marlborough, Mass., a town half an hour west of Boston that, population-wise, is nearly the exact same size as Hagerstown.


There, the bell hangs at the top of a free-standing tower in a small grassy common.

"They claimed that it was a trophy of war, but of course they actually stole it during the war," former Harpers Ferry mayor Kip Stowell said of the bell, which was taken by Massachusetts soldiers in 1861.

Not so, said Gary Brown ("no relation" to John), chair of the Marlborough Historical Commission.

"The bell was not stolen. (Its seizure) was duly authorized by the War Department," Brown said. "It's ours. Legally. Fair and square."

For whom this bell should toll seems to depend on whether one calls West Virginia or Massachusetts home.

Removing the bell

Little might be known about the bell, including how it ended up in Massachusetts, had Lysander P. Parker not given a detailed statement about the matter on Dec. 8, 1909.

Parker was one of those who, depending on who tells the story, either stole or legally appropriated the bell. He took an oath before giving the statement, which was witnessed by a justice of the peace.

According to Parker, after being ordered to take everything of value from Harpers Ferry, federal troops seized firearms, minerals and other items from the town.

"Being on historic grounds, our thoughts naturally turned towards the engine house, for 'twas here that John Brown fought his last fight for the liberation of the slaves. Again in imagination, we could see the old Spartan as 'he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and grasped his rifle with the other,'" Parker said in his 1909 statement. "In vain we searched for something to take with us as a souvenir, for others had been there before us and appropriated everything of value. We finally decided to take the bell and send it home for the Fire Department, as the Hook & Ladder Co. had none."

Removing the bell proved to be no easy task. On Sept. 26, 1861, Parker and fellow members of Co. I of the 13th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia unit started to lower the bell from the cupola, but dropped it. A few chips from the flange were lost, but "not enough however to injure the tone of the bell," according to Parker's statement.

While regiment members were stationed nearby in Williamsport, they met Elizabeth Ensminger, who baked bread for the soldiers.

With Harpers Ferry torn between north and south, and without enough money to ship the bell home, the soldiers debated what to do with it. "Unlike the ark of the covenant, it was too heavy to carry in our wanderings," Parker wrote.

A deal was struck that Elizabeth Ensminger and her husband would keep the bell during the war.

The bell's travels

Months, years and decades passed.

In 1892, Parker and a handful of others, no longer the young men who had fought their way through the Civil War, went to Washington, D.C.

They decided to see if "the old lady" was still alive. Alive and remarried she was, and "glad to see her boys again," Parker said.

Renamed Elizabeth Snyder, the bell-keeper for 30 years also gave a sworn statement, in April 1909, about the matter. Snyder said that when the Battle of Antietam started, she became worried about the bell. To safeguard it, she buried it next to one of her slaves, where it stayed for seven years. Afterward, she said, she hung it up in her back yard.

Once back in Marlborough, the bell was hung above the entrance to the Grand Army of the Republic hall, where it tolled every time a G.A.R. member died.

Later, with all G.A.R. members gone, the bell was moved to its present spot in the tower.

An understanding is in place that the bell never will be sold or lent to anyone, according to another sworn statement in "The Story of the John Brown Bell," which was compiled by G.A.R. members. Although the book in which the account is contained has been lost, Harpers Ferry Park Ranger David Fox has a photocopy.

While the account mentions that John Brown was going to ring the bell to rally slaves, Fox said he was not familiar with that story and that it is not one told by Park Service officials.

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