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  • Writer's pictureLauren Jessop

The myths and mysteries of the Liberty Bell,

and the story of Revolutionary War patriots who removed it from Philadelphia and hid it for almost one year

Exact replica of Liberty Bell
One of 55 replicas of the Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell is one of America’s most iconic symbols of freedom. It was supposedly rung to celebrate the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and it was melted down and recast twice, but its lesser-known history includes a wagon trip from Philadelphia where it was hidden in the basement of a church in Allentown, Pennsylvania for nearly one year to save it from falling into the hands of the British.

Philadelphia is the place where our Founding Fathers met to discuss and debate the formation of a new country. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were drafted and signed in the Pennsylvania State house, or Independence Hall, as it is now known.

At that time, the bell was simply called the State House bell. It did not earn its current title until around 1839 when abolitionists adopted it as their symbol because of its inscription:

“Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof (Leviticus 25:10)”

According to the National Park Service (NPS) website, the inscription is from the bible and refers to the “Jubilee,” or the “instructions to the Israelites to return property and free slaves every 50 years. Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris chose this inscription for the State House bell in 1751, possibly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges which granted religious liberties and political self-government to the people of Pennsylvania.”

The Liberty Bell was commissioned in 1751 by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly to hang in the new State House. It was cast in London by Whitechapel Bell Foundry at a cost of £100 and delivered in August 1752. It weighs 2,080 pounds.

The bell cracked the first time it was tested due to the metal being too brittle, and it was melted down and recast twice before its tone was acceptable and hung in 1753. There are many theories on how the bell’s second crack occurred, but the most verifiable story is that it occurred in 1846 when it rang in remembrance of George Washington’s birthday.

Ironically, the event it is most famous for being rung at did not actually happen.

The story that the bell rang to signal the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 is a myth. After its adoption on the 4th, the Declaration was sent to the printer and the bell is said to have been tolled at the first public reading of the document on July 8. However, historians say the steeple in the State House was in bad condition and that although bells throughout the city rang, it is unlikely the Liberty Bell was one of them.

Enter our unlikely heroes.

On September 11, 1777 the British defeated Washington at the Battle of Brandywine and they were poised to move north to Philadelphia. In preparation, on September 14, the Continental Congress ordered all public bells in the city be removed to safety so they could not be melted down, made into weaponry, and used against the Philadelphians.

The story, as told by a descendant of someone involved, says that in total, 11 bells were taken down, most of them from “fairly high steeples.” They were loaded into wagons and “spirited out of the city, all under the cover of night.”

Colonel Benjamin Flower was tasked with organizing the removal and decided not to send the bells with Army transport wagons, since they would be an easy mark if they came across British soldiers. Instead, he chose Pennsylvania German farmers who brought their wares into Philadelphia and were returning home with empty wagons. The farmers stood a lesser chance of being searched by the British if their paths crossed.

By most accounts on the subject, John Jacob Mickley was chosen to transport the Liberty Bell. The bells were placed in wagons and covered with hay or straw, and taken to Allentown via Bethlehem.

As the story goes, on September 23, the wagon carrying the heavy Liberty Bell reached the center of Bethlehem and broke an axle. It was then transferred to a wagon owned and driven by Frederick Loeser, (also spelled Leaser or Leiser in various documents) who completed the mission on September 24.

The Liberty Bell, along with others, was placed in the basement of Zion’s Reformed Church, where it remained secreted and safe for nearly a year. The church also served as a military hospital until the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, and the bells were returned to their rightful places.

A pair of farmers was ordered to “convey by wagon,” money and loan papers belonging to the Public Loan Office, to Easton, Pennsylvania; Henry Bartholomew and his neighbor John Snyder were assigned the detail. Bartholomew is also credited with assisting his neighbors repair the axle of the wagon owned by Mickley.

Records indicate Bartholomew and Snyder were charged with transporting “all the books in the state library” to Easton as well.

On April 23, 1778, it was ordered that “ammunition and valuable stores” be removed from Pittston, New Jersey to Easton – Bartholomew and Snyder were entrusted to carry that task out also.

1937 headline about local patriots
Headline, Allentown Morning Call, 1937

Heinrich Bartholomew was born in Zweibrücken, Germany in 1728 and immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1751. He died in 1807 and is buried at Zion’s Stone Church Cemetery in Kreidersville. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in the Lehigh Valley, and Henry’s tombstone is one of the oldest there. In early county records he was referred to as “Henry the Elder of the town of Allen, yeoman.” There are over 60 Revolutionary War patriots buried on the property.

I met up with Charles E. Bartholomew, a descendant of Henry, at the cemetery where we visited Henry’s grave and he recounted the stories that set this writer off on a hunt for further information about this story.

Charles said that Henry had three sons; Henry Jr., Peter, and Ludwig. Peter is the only one of the four that did not fight in the Revolution. He also told me the original homestead, not far from the church, is still standing.

Zion’s Reformed Church not only remains, but the basement where the Liberty Bell was hidden away long ago also contains what is now the Liberty Bell Museum.

Zion United Church of Christ, Allentown, PA
Zion United Church of Christ, Allentown, PA

Liberty Bell Museum, Allentown, PA
Liberty Bell Museum, Allentown, PA

In addition to educational exhibits, the museum houses an exact replica of the Liberty Bell that was presented to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1950 when the U.S. Department of Treasury commissioned 55 of them to be cast and distributed to every state and U.S. territory.

The bell can be rung, and Jim, the museum’s docent, was kind enough to demonstrate how it’s done. It was surprising how little force was needed to make it ring beautifully.

Independence Day weekend is always a busy one for them, and there will be a special program on Monday, July 4 beginning at 12 p.m. They will be participating in a National Bell Ringing event in which all replica bells will be rung 13 times to represent the original colonies at 1 p.m.

Stephanie Burke, manager of the museum, has been there for 11 years and said what she is proudest of is their education program. “We make history fun and relevant for elementary school kids,” she said. She added that making history fun and accessible for kids is her personal mission.

On Saturday, July 16, a Historical Marker Dedication will take place at 12 p.m. See their website for more information.

In 1976 the Liberty Bell was moved from the State House to a pavilion about 100 yards away, and then another 963 feet in 2003, to its current location at the Liberty Bell Center on Independence Mall where visitors can view it.

It is silent now, but over its 269 years of existence, it rung out across the city of Philadelphia when the Constitution was ratified in 1787, for the deaths of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who coincidentally, both died on July 4, 1826.

After its final use on George Washington’s birthday in 1846 rendering it silent, it has traveled across the country for special events, and even survived an attack by a tourist with a hammer in 2001.

Given all it has been through, that iconic symbol of freedom can also be considered a symbol of endurance.

Happy Independence Day and God bless America!

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