Philadelphia’s city bell originally hung from a tree near the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. The date is uncertain, but it probably dates back to the city’s founding in 1682. The bell would ring to alert citizens of civic events and proclamations, and to the occasional civic danger.
The “Liberty Bell” was ordered from the London bell foundry of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, arriving in August of that year. Weighing in at 2,080 lbs, it has written upon it a passage from the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible; the third of five books of the Torah. “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.
Mounted to a stand to test the sound, the first strike of the clapper cracked the bell’s rim. Authorities tried to return it, but the ship’s master couldn’t take it on board, so the bell was re-cast by two local founders, John Pass and John Stow. It was broken into pieces, melted down and re-cast, with the addition of 10% copper to make the metal less brittle.
Pass and Snow bragged that the bell’s lettering was clearer on this second casting than the original. The newly re-cast bell was ready in March 1753, when City officials scheduled a public celebration to test the sound. There was free food and drink all around, but the crowd gasped and started to laugh when the bell was struck. It didn’t break this time…it sounded like two coal scuttles being banged together.
Pass and Stow hastily took it away, again breaking the bell into pieces, and again melting it down to be recast.
The whole performance was repeated in June 1753. This time most thought the sound to be satisfactory, and the bell was hung in the steeple of the State House. One who did not like the sound was Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly. He ordered a second bell in 1754, though he was unsuccessful in his efforts to return the original for credit to the Lester and Pack foundry.
The new bell was attached to the tower clock, while the old one was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted “to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint.” One such use of the old bell occurred on July 8, 1776, to announce the public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Bells are easily melted down for ammunition, so the bell was taken down and hidden before the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. The distinctive large crack began to develop some time in the early 19th century, about the time when abolitionist societies began calling it “The Liberty Bell”. Some say it cracked while ringing after the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, in its February 26, 1846 edition:
“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other … It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”
The bell would periodically travel to expositions and celebrations, but souvenir hunters would break off pieces from its rim, and additional cracking would develop after several of these trips. The bell’s travels were sharply curtailed after it came back from Chicago with a new crack in 1893, and discontinued altogether in 1915.
Former President Benjamin Harrison may have had the last word as the Liberty bell passed through Indianapolis in 1893. “This old bell was made in England”, he said, “but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.”