National Treasury: the case of DC’s missing Liberty Bell

How exactly does a one-ton Liberty Bell replica disappear?

Since I launched this site, folks have reached out to me with stories about various Liberty Bell replicas. I’ve heard from other bell hunters, private bell owners and folks trying to solve their own Liberty Bell mysteries. Last year someone sent me a link to a Washington Post article detailing the amazing story of how a one-ton monument simply vanished in the nation’s capital.  

Washington D.C. missing Liberty Bell replica, Wilson building
The missing Liberty Bell replica some time after 1950, photo courtesy of Josh Gibson, DC Council

The missing Liberty Bell was one of a series* of replicas commissioned by the U.S. Treasury and cast by the Paccard Bell Foundry. These numbered replicas — one for each state, territory and the District of Columbia — would tour their respective regions to promote a U.S. Savings Bond drive in the summer of 1950. At the conclusion of the drive, the bells were presented as gifts from the Treasury to their respective regions.

I dove in and found half a dozen variations of the same story everywhere from local TV news to the Daily Beast. The impetus for all stories was a press release timed to for publication on the fourth of July, 2017 from DC Council director of communications Josh Gibson.

No stranger to Scooby-Doo-type history mysteries, Gibson had previously cracked the case of a mysterious plaque found in a broom closet of the District’s Wilson Building.

As implausible as it sounds, it’s not the first time a 2080 pound Liberty Bell has gone missing.

Phil Tovrea’s 1950 Liberty Bell replica disappeared in plain sight, in the country’s fifth largest city. It would rise triumphantly from overgrown brush when a new property owner redeveloped the land in 2004.

In 1976, as a renewed wave of patriotic spirit was sweeping the nation, the Liberty Bell replicas were called back into service to ring out for the Bicentennial celebration.

A number of states had to scramble to pull their bells out of storage and make necessary repairs. Illinois found themselves in a bit of a pickle — they had lost their Liberty Bell. Some old fashioned gumshoe work led to a tip that the bell was stationed at a fire house on the fairgrounds north of Springfield. 

Gibson explained the missing bell was one of three replicas located in DC He clarified it is not the gihugeic replica at Union Station, nor is it the replica located on the grounds of the Treasury Building, directly across from the White House.

Gigantic Liberty Bell replica
My in-laws pose with the gigantic Liberty Bell replica in 2007

Compiled from the various stories, here is the missing bell’s provenance:

July 20th, 1950: The bell is presented to the city by Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snyder, with the stipulation that it be displayed in a public, non-commercial setting. The city had not yet found a permanent location, so the bell was displayed atop of the steps of the District Building, now called the Wilson Building, at 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue.

1955: The bell is moved a few yards away to a small park in front of the District Building, becoming a landmark meet-up spot for District residents.

Washington D.C. missing Liberty Bell replica, Wilson buildingThe missing DC Liberty Bell in front of the District Building. Photo courtesy of Josh Gibson, DC Council

January 21, 1961: As John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade motors down Pennsylvania avenue, he calls the place a dump. The president-elect remarks that the area doesn’t look the “the main street of the main city of the main country”. A decades-long renovation plan commences.

April 2, 1979: The bell is safely in place, its last recoded sighting.

July 30, 1981: The bell is declared missing.

As the area was being renovated — the bell, along with a statue of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd — was temporarily removed. It was believed both were being held at a wastewater treatment plant, but while the Boss was photographed lying in the weeds, plant workers could not recall ever seeing the bell. Shepherd made it back to the city, returning to his original location in 2005 — but the Liberty Bell was never to be seen again.

Gibson identified G & C Construction, the contractor rebuilding the sidewalks outside the Wilson Building, as the the last people to see the bell alive and called on the public to send in any photos, memories or clues they had.

The hottest tip Gibson got was about a Liberty Bell replica spotted in the Fort Lincoln cemetery in nearby Brendwood, MD. It turned out to be a genuine Paccard bell, but cast in 1976.

Fort Lincoln Cemetery Liberty Bell ReplicaThe Fort Lincoln Cemetery Liberty Bell replica, photo: Josh Gibson, DC Council

If the bell is ever to be found, Gibson feels strongly it will be through an interview with someone who knows something, not by combing through musty archives — both of which he’s been doing since July.

“I’ve tracked down virtually all the personnel on both sides and sadly no one has provided that magic clue.” Gibson laments.

Garnering clues from interviews is no small task either. Gibson continues, “Many people have died, and 40 year memories aren’t that trustworthy.”

This case gets more complex the deeper you dive, but before we go there, let’s run some numbers.

*So how many bells are there exactly?

The exact number of Liberty Bell replicas is cause for much confusion and debate. I’ve always worked with 55. That’s the number I got from the fine folks at the Liberty Bell Museum in Allentown, PA. They have some dedicated folks who really know their history, along with replica #4, which I had the pleasure of ringing.

Articles and reports on the replicas list anywhere from 49 to 55. The bells themselves don’t help the matter much, as even the accompanying plaques list different totals.

The first 49

In 1950, the Treasury sought a foundry to cast full-size, functional Liberty Bell replicas that would tour each state and the District of Columbia as promotional tools to help sell $650 million worth of savings bonds. Bell total: 49.

The Territories

Following an inside tip that Alaska and Hawaii might soon join the union, the Treasury upped the order to 53 to include the territories of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands.

There seems to be no logic as to how the numbered bells were distributed among the American regions. However, Alaska has replica #1, so it’s fairly clear that at least these additional four were part of the original run. Bell total: 53.

Thank you. No, thank you.

There was only one foundry in the world that could complete such a large order in such a short amount of time; the storied Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, a small town in the French Alps.

As a thank you for their hustle, the Secretary of the Treasury gifted a replica to the city of Annecy on Sept. 4th, 1950.

In return, the city of Annecy presented a Liberty Bell replica to president Truman’s home town of Independence, MO in October of 1950. Foundry owner Alfred Paccard was on hand to personally presented the bell.

Since they were not used as part of the bond drive, the two gift bells were understandably not mentioned in the Secretary of the Treasury’s June 30th, 1950 fiscal yearend report.

The Annecy bell is listed as #51, and the Independence bell is #54 — so if those serial numbers are correct, it seems these bells were also part of the original production run.  Bell total: 55. 

The U.S. gift Liberty Bell replica at the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France The Annecy Liberty Bell, the only replica that tolls regularly. Photo: Josh Gibson

With the exception of the Kansas bell, which is in storage, all 55 are accounted for and, to varying degrees, accessible to the public.

But wait, there’s more

Not long into my quest to visit all 55 bells, I started hearing about other replicas: two in Tennessee, two in Massachusetts, four in California, one in the black hills of South Dakota — bells as far away as Tokyo, Normandy and one in Russia that was reportedly melted down for scrap.

As Gibson quickly discovered, there are many more bells than the original 55. In fact, if you have the money and the space, you can still buy your very own Liberty Bell replica.

A brand new Liberty Bell replica at the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, FranceA freshly cast Liberty Bell replica at the Paccard Bell Foundry, 2017. Photo: Josh Gibson

While a Liberty Bell is Liberty Bell is a Liberty Bell, the original 55 take precedence for most bell hunters.

Historically, the two main producers of full size, functional Liberty Bell replicas are Paccard in France and the recently shuttered Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, where the real-deal Liberty Bell was first cast.

It seems neither company kept good records of the number of bells they produced, so the total number of existing Liberty Bell replicas is a mystery that will never be solved.

Any way you slice it, strange things are afoot at the nation’s capital.

Washington’s missing Liberty Bell raises some compelling questions, beyond where it might have gone:

Wait, if all 55 bells are accounted for, how can one be missing?

When I first dove into this story, I was pretty convinced the missing bell and the Treasury bell were one and the same. If there are 55 numbered replicas, then all are accounted for without counting the missing bell. Additionally, it was hard to comprehend how the District of Columbia — the smallest geographical region to get a bell — actually got two.

I rabbit-holed pretty deeply, hatching some Nick Cage-ean conspiracy theories. Fortunately, before I could declare my intention to steal the Liberty Bell, Gibson shared his research with me. He provided several articles, from different years and various sources, describing each bell’s dedication ceremony and placing each in their respective location at the same time.

Embed from Getty Images

Are the records of both the Liberty Bell Museum and the Paccard Bell Foundry wrong?

That’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. In my research, I find that when something is reported incorrectly, it’s often done so multiple times. Whether it’s a minor difference in the weight of the bells, or something more significant, like where the original Liberty Bell was cast — certain information often gets reported and repeated incorrectly.

My list is based on one I found on the Liberty Bell Museum’s website about ten years ago. It’s no longer on the site, but I picked up a hard copy when I visited in 2016. I cross referenced the locations with Robert English’s comprehensive photographic record and built my list with an accompanying google map. I’ve personally visited 25 of them so far.

If the list from Paccard’s U.S.-based sales office was created referencing either my list or the museum’s list, rather than their own records, that would explain how all three lists could be wrong in the same way.

Curiously, Paccard’s Liberty Bell replica location page lists the same bells in the same locations as the other lists, but excludes the Annecy bell and serial numbers. Initially, I chalked that up to downplaying the French connection by only listing the U.S. bells.

Embed from Getty Images
Michel Camdessus, IMF managing director with the Treasury bell, 1995

As the Treasury order has been reported anywhere from 49 to 55, it’s plausible there was one extra bell that was never officially counted.

What’s the serial number of the missing bell?

Neither Gibson nor any of the officials he spoke with could answer that question.

Gibson sent me a photo of the Treasury bell showing serial #55. However, the Liberty Bell Museum’s list (and mine, until I corrected it), lists the Washington DC bell as #28.

Washington D.C. Treasury Building Liberty Bell replica #55The Treasury bell, #55. Photo: Josh Gibson, DC Council

This certainly deepens the mystery. Bell #55 on the museum’s list is the U.S. Virgin Islands bell. Assuming there are not two #55 bells, then the Virgin Island bell’s serial number is also listed incorrectly. If the two numbers were simply transposed, then the Virgin Islands bell is #28 and all 55 are accounted for.

Another possible scenario: the missing bell is #28, the Virgin Islands Bell is #51 or 54, and either one or both of the gift bells (Annecy and Independence) are unnumbered.

I only recently started locating and photographing the replicas’ serial numbers, so there are just a few I can verify. I’m reaching out to state historians and fellow bell hunters in an effort to confirm or revise the serial numbers as listed and I’ll keep this site up to date.

This effort should provide some strong clues as to what the missing bell’s serial number might be.

The DC bell’s dedication ceremony. Photo: courtesy of Josh Gibson, DC Council

Why did the District of Columbia, the smallest geographical region to get a bell, actually get two?

Here, there at several possible explanations:

A prototype: Certainly the Treasury would want to see a prototype before placing their full order. Even though they were not spending their own money, a prototype would be fiscally sound and reduce risk.

The challenge here is time. With only a few months between request for proposal and delivery date, there simply was no time to cast a prototype, ship it across the Atlantic and wait for approval before starting production.

An extra: This seems like the most logical explanation. The original Liberty Bell serves as a reminder of just how fragile bells can be. Ordering an extra, or a few, would have been a good insurance policy against damage, loss or theft.

Considering the bells were paid for by six American copper companies and the mounts furnished by America steel, there would be no downside to ordering a few extra.

If the Treasury ordered one extra bell as insurance and didn’t need to use it, I can see how they’d decide to keep it for themselves.

A gift from the Treasury to the Treasury: The Daily Beast article references the fact that the Treasury “graciously gifted themselves” one of the 1950 replicas.

While it’s intriguing to imagine government fat cats treating themselves, on our dime, to a bell worth $2,000 ($20,000 in today’s money) — that kind of pork rings contrary to all contemporary accounts of the 1950 bond drive.

If you’re a fan of reduced government spending and public / private partnerships, there is no better case study than the 1950 Savings Bond drive.

The Treasury’s own 1950 fiscal year-end report details the extent to which they reduced expenses — garnering donations of fuel, advertising and even printing. There is no indication, in this report at least, that the bond drive cost the Treasury a dime.

A 1962 slide of the missing bell. Photo courtesy of Josh Gibson, DC Council.

Federal / local discord: Outsiders like me think of the nation’s capital as one place — it’s got the White House, Capitol, monuments and government buildings. Also, people live there.

But Washington is like no other American city — and that difference is rooted in the Constitution.

In 1783 a mob of Revolutionary soldiers, angry about not being paid, stormed the Capitol in Philadelphia. This forced Congress to briefly regroup in exile in New Jersey. As a result, the founding fathers identified the need for a capital city under the control and protection of Congress.

Detailed by James Madison in Federalist Paper #43, Congress felt so strongly about the issue, they worked it into the Constitution. Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 stipulates Congress shall have the power: “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States …”

Virginia and Maryland both ceded land, and a Capital city, under the control of Congress, was established.

From 1790 to today, District residents have sough more control over their own governance and congressional representation. Washingtonians finally gained the right to vote for president in 1964, and have been able to elect their own mayor only since 1975. To this day, Washington — a city the size of Paris with a population bigger than Wyoming or Vermont — pays taxes like the rest of us, but has no voting representation in Congress. The slogan “Taxation without representation” has adorned District license plates since 2000.

There are dozens of separate police departments with jurisdiction over different parts of the city. There is even a website to help protesters identify the various police forces and their powers.

In this light, one can totally chalk up the bell’s disappearance to the historic discord between local and federal governance.

Gibson supports this thinking. “The PADC, the federal organization that last handled the bell, claims the local DC government lost it, and vice versa.”

Discord between local and federal organizations can not only explain how the bell went missing, but also why Washington got two in the first place.

The missing Liberty Bell replica in September 1969. Photo, courtesy Josh Gibson, D.C. Council

Josh Gibson Liberty Bell replica Washington D.C. Treasury 2017The Treasury Bell in 2017. Photo: Josh Gibson, DC Council

Why does it matter?

Two DC Liberty Bells isn’t really twice as good as one, so what does it matter?

Whether or not the missing Liberty Bell can be found, it can’t be denied that DC residents and millions of visitors are missing out on their chance to see one of our most interesting, if under-appreciated monuments.

Prior to 9/11, the Treasury Bell was accessible to all DC visitors. When I visited in 2007, I learned the street between the White House and Treasury Building had been cordoned off to increase security, cutting of the public’s access to the bell. The photo below was as close as I could get.

In what amounts to just over a ton of irony, our efforts to gain some safety resulted in the loss of the Liberty Bell as accessible monument.

If you listen to the wind, you can hear the ghost of Ben Franklin slapping his forehead.

Washington D.C. Liberty Bell replica, TreasuryThe Treasury bell and me in 2007. Cue the sad trombone.

A proposal

The missing bell is likely to stay missing. According to its own plaque, the Treasury bell is part of the 1950 bond drive. By the Treasury’s own declaration, these bells were intended to be displayed in public, non-commercial spaces. Simply put, the Treasury bell has not been fulfilling its intended purpose for the last 17 years.

This can be easily remedied: relocate the bell.

It would be counter to the spirit of the 1950 bond drive for the Treasury to incur any cost related to moving the bell — but there is an easy way to fund such a project.

Surely, the Treasury didn’t budget for the much-publicized donations it recently received. What better way to use that surplus and honor the fiscally responsible spirit of the 1950 bond drive, than to spend $50-100k to find a permanent home for DC’s only remaining Liberty Bell replica.


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