How to solve a history mystery
Recently I got a tip from Kevin in Virginia, wondering if a Liberty Bell replica in the Princess Anne Memorial Park cemetery in Virginia Beach might be the missing DC Liberty Bell and, if so, how he could tell.
Sadly, It’s not. That bell has been in the cemetery since 1976. The DC bell was on public display until 1979.
But if you, like Kevin, find yourself face-to-face with a mysterious Liberty Bell, there are a few ways you can tell if you’ve just solved one of history’s greatest mysteries.
Back up. What’s the deal with the Liberty Bell replicas?
In 1950 the U.S. Department of the Treasury commissioned full-size, functional Liberty Bell replicas from the historic Paccard Bell Foundry in France. The bells were used as promotional tools to sell Savings Bonds that summer, touring each state and territory under the campaign banner Save for Your Independence. When the bond drive was over, the bells were presented as gifts to their respective regions.
Forty-eight states and 5 of the 7 inhabited territories (Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia) would get their own Liberty Bell. Residents of Guam and American Samoa were not U.S. citizens at the time, and both territories’ status was being debated in Congress. This is likely why they were excluded from the bond drive. That adds up to 53 bells. But at least 57 bells were cast.
Considering the original Liberty Bell’s delicate history, I think the additional bells were cast as an insurance policy. Eight American Copper companies donated the raw materials and paid Paccard’s bill, so it was no skin off the Treasury’s nose to toss in a few extras. Those bells ended up in Tokyo, Annecy, France (the home of Paccard), Independence, Missouri (the home of Harry S. Truman), and in front of the U.S. Treasury building in Washington DC. The Treasury bell is not the DC bell, as I originally thought. Thanks to fellow bell hunter Josh Gibson with the DC Council for setting me straight and bringing this mystery to my attention.
But wait, there’s more?
Oh, there are more. A lot more.
Early on in my quest to visit and document the bells, I started hearing from folks about other replicas across the country. To date, I’ve identified 122 additional Liberty Bell replicas cast between 1893 and 2018. To make the list, bells must be full-size and cast as functional replicas. Bells made of marble, wood, wheat, cheese, pearls, paper mache, legos, or any other non-bronze material don’t count. Also excluded are bells metaphorically considered the Liberty Bell of their respective places, like the Liberty Bell of the West and the Liberty Bell of New York City.
So how can you tell if you’re looking at the missing DC Liberty Bell?
Does your weird uncle have a Liberty Bell in his shed you’ve always wondered about? Are you Scuba diving in the Potomac and not sure what you’re looking at? Are you in a cemetery, park, museum or college and wondering why they have a Liberty Bell and how it got there? Here’s what to look for:
The serial number
The Treasury bells are the only replicas I know of to bear serial numbers. Existing records are scarce and inaccurate. I’ve been working to document the serial numbers photographically. Thanks to the work of bell hunters, the Brock family, all but a handful have been confirmed (Indicated with an asterisk here). By process of elimination, the missing DC bell in either number 2, 28 or 50.
Most serial numbers are easy to spot; inch tall raised characters on the bell’s shoulder, above the top ring. Some are on the front. Some are on the back.
Inexplicably, not all of the Treasury bells have these prominent serial numbers. The Texas, Pennsylvania and Montana bells have smaller, etched numbers. The Utah bell’s number (9) is etched into the crown (twice, actually) in addition to the large raised number.
If the DC Liberty Bell is hiding in plain sight, the serial number will confirm its true identity. Of course, if someone knew the bell was stolen and wanted to cover their tracks, they’d likely try to file down the large raise serial number. But they might not notice the smaller engraved number.
The Paccard name
The Treasury Bells and all Paccard Bells produced since bear a founder’s mark at the bottom of the bell, directly above the lip. Most are hand-engraved, though some are raised letters. While not impossible, this would be harder to erase without leaving a scar.
The DC Liberty Bell was still mounted to its original frame when it disappeared. If someone intended to repurpose the bell, the easiest way to transport and display it would be to keep it on the frame.
The American Bridge Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, produced the frames. While yokes have rotted, bells have gained a natural patina, an unnatural paint job, or a Dremeled-on crack — the frames have stood strong.
Designed to be mounted on the back of flatbed Fords, frames included removable horizontal bars to reduce movement during transit. When the trucks arrived at a fundraising destination, the bars were removed, and the bell could swing and ring freely. In a few locations (like Alaska below), the bars remain to discourage ringing.
Bells are big, and bells are loud. When a Liberty Bell comes into the world, it does so with some fanfare. If you have a location and a rough date (1976 is a good guess), you can usually find press clippings. To date, I’ve pinpointed the location of at least 16 Paccard Liberty Bells. I don’t suspect any to be the missing bell.
Come on, how could a Liberty Bell just disappear?
As the saying goes, free advice is worth the price you pay. History has proven the same applies to Liberty Bells. DC’s bell didn’t come with a receipt or City Arts Commission report. Nobody asked for it. Nobody paid for it. Nobody was responsible for it.
Due to the unconventional way they were acquired, many of the bells were often moved, occasionally lost, and languished in storage for decades. Texas gave theirs to A&M. Virginia gave theirs to a firehouse. The state of Delaware and the City of Dover played a game of hot potato with their bell. The Kansas bell never found a home. Just last year, Wyoming finished a $307 million Capitol renovation project. The Liberty Bell wasn’t part of the plan. Once prominently displayed at the corner of 24th Street and Carey Avenue, it’s now in a parking garage.
It’s entirely possible the DC Liberty Bell got lost because it wasn’t anyone’s job to keep track of it.
So what became of the DC Liberty Bell?
The bell has now been missing for more than half its 70-year life. With each passing year, it seems more and more likely to remain lost to history. With a few years to ponder the question, here’s what I think might have happened, listed from least likely to most likely.
The eclectic collector
When valuable art and antiquities disappear, they sometimes end up in the homes of eclectic collectors. When you can buy anything you want, you might choose to collect things that can’t be acquired through legal channels: a baby hippo, a Cezanne, the Capital City’s Liberty Bell. Admittedly, this case lacks the intrigue of a daring, high-profile art heist. The bell just quietly disappeared. If it’s in a private collection, the owner has likely shown it off from time to time. What’s the point of having your own Liberty Bell if you don’t let it ring?
Lost in plain sight
The last known location of the DC Liberty Bell was the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant on the Potomac River. It wouldn’t be the first time a bell disappeared without going anywhere. Maybe the bell never moved. Was it overcome by thicket? Consumed by the swamp? Buried under tons of human waste? Used as fill? No one at the plant knows anything, and you can’t really go there and have a look around for yourself.
There are a lot of Liberty Bells out there. Did someone come into possession of the DC bell, misrepresent its provenance and sell it to an unwitting buyer who now displays it at their museum, college, park or cemetery? It’s impossible to make a 30-year-old bell look like new, so it likely would have been sold as used. This rules out the vast majority of known replicas, as they were ordered new and purchased before 1979.
It’s being used as a bell
Has the missing Liberty Bell been pealing away the last 40 years in a church steeple somewhere? Did a well-meaning bureaucrat kill two birds with one stone, making an unwanted public monument disappear and providing a needy church with a means to call the flock?
There is precedent, albeit on the other side of the globe. The 1918 Democratic Mid-European Union Liberty Bell was gifted by the U.S. as a symbolic monument. Then it was forgotten. Then Hitler stole it. Then the Communists mothballed it. Then it showed up quietly at a church in Prague.
It’s now called Václav.
Václav rings out at 7 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. every day — not as a proclamation of Mid-European independence (that didn’t work out as planned) — but simply as a bell.
There are 380,000 churches in the United States, and most of them have bells.
The scrap heap
In 1979, the scrap value of a ton of bronze was about $2,000. That’s not nothing. If you set aside the symbolic value of a Liberty Bell replica, this is the most practical way to get rid of an unclaimed, unwanted bell. If such a fate befell the DC bell, a transaction took place between at least two parties. It was transported, weighed, scrapped and paid for. Someone knows something but nobody’s talking.
The Raiders of the Lost Ark ending
The last scene of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark shows the Nazi-melting Ark of the Covenant, in a nondescript wooden crate, being wheeled deep into an equally nondescript warehouse.
These bells were a gift, not a purchased asset. Some states and territories didn’t want them. Most didn’t know what to do with them. Consider the unique jurisdictional relationship between the City of Washington DC and the federal government, and it’s completely plausible the Liberty Bell became suspended in some limbo of responsibility.
Here too, there is precedent. When some states planned to use their bells to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial, Illinois officials wanted to follow suit. But no one knew where their bell was. After some investigation, it was located at a firehouse outside of Springfield and returned to the Capitol.
Has the DC Liberty Bell been collecting dust in a dark warehouse for three decades? This is a big country, and there are lots of places to hide.
The quest continues
My bell quest is far from over. At my current pace, I have a lifetime of work ahead and a lot of stories to uncover. Will the return of the DC Liberty Bell be one of them? I’d love it, but I doubt it. Until then, I’m going to imagine it’s living the life of Václav — inside a steeple and outside of the limelight. Undercover for the world to hear.
If a Liberty Bell rings and you don’t know it’s a Liberty Bell, is it still a Liberty Bell? Consider this the next time you hear the chimes ring out.