John Brown Bell
The journey of the second-most important bell
in American history,
from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia,
to Marlborough Massachusetts

researched by Joan Abshire
Copyright ©2008 Joan Abshire

ii  The John Brown Bell
This story is from a presentation given at the Marlborough Historical Society on 26 February
2008. In the course of my research, I had accumulated quite a bit of information from many
sources: people, books, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet – there is a bibliography
at the end. But I thought it would be helpful to visit the place where the bell came from,
so I took a trip to Harpers Ferry and Charleston, WV, and on the way back stopped in
Williamsport, MD.

In the end I had much more information than I could possibly use in one evening, so I
put together as much as I could of what I felt was the most interesting, or necessary to
fully understand the story. I saw it in my mind as a spider web, with people and events
scattered about, some connected to each other here and there, but all leading to the bell at
the center.

If anyone who reads this narrative has any information about the bell that they would like
to share I would be very glad to have it. You are welcome to copy any portion of the story,
including photos. I only ask that if you use a photo that isn’t one of mine, please provide
credit information. A few photos have unidentified sources. In those cases, either there were
none available, or I could not remember where they came from. I welcome all questions,
comments, photos and information.

Joan Hartley Abshire
12 March 2008

from a Middlesex News article
dated October 22, 1997 The John Brown Bell  iii

T his story begins with the inventor, Eli
Whitney. He was born in Westborough,
MA in 1765 and graduated from Yale
University in 1792. But he couldn’t seem to
find a job which suited his particular talents,
so he journeyed to South Carolina to fill a
position as a tutor. When that didn’t work out
for him, he was befriended by Mrs. Nathaniel
Greene, widow of the Revolutionary General.
She had met Eli on his trip south. He was
invited to her plantation in Georgia to read
law and assist her manager, Phineas Miller,
who later became his friend and partner.

Eli Whitney Museum
The only type of cotton that would grow in
that area had sticky green seeds that were
Eli Whitney
difficult and time consuming to remove by
hand. I did a search online for green seed
cotton and came up with this photo. Whether
it was Eli’s own idea, or someone else’s
suggestion, he decided to make a machine
that would remove the seeds, and in a very
short time had a working model. I won’t
go into the troubles he had with his design
being pirated before it was even patented,
etc., as that’s a whole story in itself. I only
mention the cotton engine, or gin, as it was
called, because it set the stage for what was
to come later.

The cotton gin was successful beyond
cotton - before and after anyone’s imagining and had a tremendous
impact on the course of American history.
In the 1790’s, before its invention, slavery
had actually started to decline. Tobacco
had depleted the soil, and the green seed
cotton wasn’t profitable. Without a good

2  The John Brown Bell
cash crop large numbers of slaves were no the importation of slaves was banned, 80,000
longer necessary, or economical, and some Africans were imported. By 1860, the south
farmers actually began freeing them. But the was growing three quarters of the world’s
advent of the cotton gin changed everything. supply of cotton, and the number of slave
Instead of needing fewer slaves, now they states had increased from six to sixteen.
needed more. From 1790 until 1808, when

Kean Collection/Getty Images

Cotton Gin The John Brown Bell  3

T he expansion of slave states eventually
led to the trouble in Kansas where John
Brown, later known as Osawatomie Brown,
came to prominence.

John Brown, son of Owen & Ruth Mills
Brown, was born in 1800, in Torrington, a
little town in western Connecticut, about
midway between Hartford and the New York
border. His ancestors in this country go back
to Peter Brown, who was among the pilgrims
who came on the Mayflower, and both of his
grandfathers served in the Revolution.

When he was five, the family moved to
what is now northeastern Ohio, but was then
a wilderness filled with wild animals and
Indians. Once there, he adapted quickly to
his new life and by the time he was twelve
Unidentified Source he thought nothing of being sent off alone,
John Brown at times more than a hundred miles, with
cattle which his father was furnishing for
the troops, because we were at war with
England. On one of these trips he stayed for
a short time with a U.S. Marshall who had a
slave boy about his age who had been kind
to him.

The Marshall was very good to John. He had
him to dinner with his friends and praised
him for bringing the cattle such a distance
by himself; while the negro boy was badly
clothed, poorly fed, lodged in cold weather,
Unidentified Source and beaten with iron shovels or whatever
Birthplace of John Brown came to hand.

4  The John Brown Bell
John’s father was a Calvinist and a dedicated
abolitionist, so it’s probably safe to assume
that he was raised in an atmosphere that
promoted equality among the races. But
there’s a big difference between being
taught that slavery is wrong and actually
witnessing first hand the cruelty of it. This
experience planted the seeds of his life-long
commitment to end it.

John, over the course of his lifetime, was
a tanner, surveyor, sheep drover, wool Joyce M. Ranieri
merchant, farmer and land speculator.
John Brown monument, North Elba, NY
Some of these occupations seemed to work
well for a while, but, whether because of
the circumstances of the time or his own
miscalculations, he never acquired the
fortune he was seeking. It’s believed that he
would have used this fortune to finance his
fight against slavery.

In 1820 he married Dianthe Lusk, who bore
him seven children before her death in 1832.
The following year he married Mary Ann
Day, who gave him 13 more. The family
moved quite often until 1849, when they Library of Congress
settled on a farm in North Elba, NY, near Mary Ann Brown with two daughters
Lake Placid. Gerrit Smith, a millionaire
abolitionist and member of The Secret Six,
had established a black community in the
area. John Brown and his family moved
there to help them acclimatize and to be
their advocate with the whites in the region,
some of whom were taking advantage of
them. But the blacks were unaccustomed to
the cold and did not succeed well as farmers.
Only a very few families stayed to make it
their home.
New York History Website

John Brown Farm, Historic State Park The John Brown Bell  5
I should explain that The Secret Six were men already mentioned, was from New York, but
who supported John Brown in his efforts the other five were all from Massachusetts.
to abolish slavery by providing him with
money and arms. Gerrit Smith, whom I’ve In 1855 John Brown joined his sons in
Kansas to try to stop it from becoming
John Brown 1800-1859 another slave state. He took part in several
skirmishes with pro-slavers, but his fighting
was mostly defensive until May 26, 1856.
On that night he led seven men, including
four of his sons, to Pottawatamie Creek
where they murdered five pro-slavers. The
victims have been described as pro-slavery
thugs who had been routinely beating,
intimidating, and even killing anti-slavery

Why did they suddenly resort to such
violence? There are several theories, but the
one I believe is closest to the truth is in Evan
Carton’s book, Patriotic Treason. He states
that Brown felt that, “a few .. terrible deaths,
would suffice to demonstrate to every border
ruffian and pro-slavery agitator that the idol
he served could not protect him and that
the threats he made against others would be
visited upon himself.”

One incident that may have helped
The Secret Six precipitate the massacre had happened
in the U.S. Senate just three days before.
New York Public Library
Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery
advocate from Massachusetts, was beaten
severely with a cane by South Carolina
Representative Preston Brooks because of
a speech Sumner had delivered a few days
earlier as to whether Kansas should be
admitted as a slave, or free, state. In that
speech he had some harsh words to say
about Brooks’ uncle. Both men were treated
Caning in the U.S. Senate as heroes by their constituencies. Brooks

6  The John Brown Bell
was censured, resigned, and immediately
re-elected. Sumner also was re-elected,
although three years would pass before he
was able to return to his Senate seat.

John Brown may have felt that he was
justified in what he did, but I just can’t accept
it. And it’s sad because there is so much
about him that I admire. He believed in the
equality of the whole human race. He was a
Harper’s Weekly
religious man who lived what he preached
and taught his family to do the same. He Frederick Douglass
was friends with many of the black leaders
of the day, including Frederick Douglass, In 1859 he met with Douglass and explained
from whom he sought advice and counsel, his plan to capture the arsenal at Harpers
although he didn’t always heed it, and blacks Ferry. He believed that this strike would
were often present at his dinner table. He rouse the country and the slaves would rally
was a member of the Underground Railroad round him. He figured that once he was in
for years, helping slaves escape to Canada control of it, it would be impossible to get
and personally freeing and leading some of him out, and he wanted Douglass to join
them himself. He was not some madman or him. But Douglass refused and argued with
wild-eyed fanatic as he has sometimes been him for hours trying to talk him out of it. He
portrayed; he saw a terrible injustice and saw Harpers Ferry as a steel trap and only
gave his life to end it. disaster ahead.

Mural from the State Capitol
in Topeka, Kansas

The Tragic Prelude, John Brown by John Stewart Curry The John Brown Bell  7

H arpers Ferry is at the junction of the
Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and
the boundaries of three states: Virginia,
West Virginia and Maryland, (although at
the time of this story, West Virginia did not
yet exist.) The Appalachian Trail crosses
the river there. It is truly a beautiful spot.
Thomas Jefferson was there in 1783 and
stated in his notes that, “the passage of the
Potomac through the Blue Ridge is one of
Ian Douglas
the most stupendous scenes in Nature,” and,
“worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”
Harpers Ferry, WV

Robert Harper came over from England in
1703, when he was 20 years old. Around
1747, he was on a trip to Virginia and on
the advice of a fellow traveler he went by
way of what was then called “The Hole,” or
“Peter’s Hole,” where he had been promised
the sight of some wonderful scenery. He
was so impressed by what he saw that he
bought out Peter Stevens who had squatted
there for several years. The place was part of
the great Fairfax estate. Harper settled there,
operated a ferry across the river, and “The
Hole” became Harpers Ferry.

At the age of 16, George Washington was
in this area with a group that was surveying
the Fairfax land, which was quite extensive.
Joan Hartley Abshire How close he came to Harpers Ferry is not
known, but it’s been said that what he saw
St. Peters Church & Shenandoah River
on this trip caused him to chose the spot
for an armory and arsenal when he became

8  The John Brown Bell
In 1796, the government purchased 125
acres of land from the heirs of Robert
Harper. Construction on the arsenal began
and by 1802 full scale production had
begun. The 24x35 foot building that became
John Brown’s Fort was built in 1848 as the
Armory’s fire engine and guard house. It
was the only building not destroyed during
the Civil War.

In the summer of 1859, John Brown arrived
in the area and began looking for a place to
wait while he gathered the arms and men
necessary to carry out his plan. He rented a The Mapmaker of Mt. Vernon
by Edward J. Redmond
little farm in Maryland across the river from
Young Washington, the Surveyor
the estate of Dr. Robert Kennedy. He lived
there, masquerading as Isaac Smith, while
gathering troops and training them for the
raid on Harpers Ferry.

On the night of Sunday, October 16, John
Brown, leaving three men behind as guards,
proceeded with the remaining 18 to the
arsenal at Harpers Ferry. They captured one
watchman at the railroad bridge, another at Joan Hartley Abshire

the gate, and took control of the arsenal. A Kennedy Farm


John Brown’s Fort The John Brown Bell  9
few of the men were sent into the surrounding
countryside to bring in certain planters and
their slaves. Gradually, through the night,
they accumulated more hostages until they
had quite few, some of them leading citizens
of the town. One of those hostages was
Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grand-
nephew of George Washington.

At first there was very little resistance, but by
daylight the citizens of the town were about,
and some of them were armed. Shots were
fired, and men on both sides were killed or
wounded, including the mayor, and hysteria
National Archives
and chaos resulted. Several militia units
arrived, and by midday the raiders were
Colonel Robert E. Lee
hemmed in and there was no longer any
hope of escape. About 11 p.m. Col. Robert
E. Lee and Lt. J.E.B. Stuart arrived with a

National Park Service

This photo from around 1862 shows the engine house on the left which was its original position

10  The John Brown Bell
company of 90 marines. Being mindful of slave insurrection, and treason against the
the safety of the hostages, they waited until state and were convicted. Brown was hanged
daylight. When Brown, for a second time, on December 2, 1859, and the others later.
refused to surrender, the marines, led by Lt. Some of the raiders had been left on the
Israel Green, stormed the building, breaking other side of the river and others had been
the door with a ladder, and in moments it sent over. These, plus two more, managed to
was over. escape, although some were later captured
and met the same fate as John Brown.
According to the National Park Service web Brown’s wife, Mary, took his body back
site, 17 people were killed in the raid: two to North Elba where he was buried. Later,
slaves, three townsmen, a slaveholder, a several of his followers would be buried
Marine, and ten of Brown’s men, including alongside him.
two of his sons.
There are so many accounts of this story
Brown himself was severely wounded by written from so many different perspectives
Lt. Green. He and the four raiders who were that it’s really hard to sort fact from fiction.
captured with him were tried for murder, One written eye-witness account with a

Harper’s Weekly

Marines storm the fort The John Brown Bell  11
different perspective is found in a small book
titled, A Voice from Harpers Ferry, written in
1861, two years after the events, by Osborne
P. Anderson, a free African American and
one of the raiders who managed to escape.
From their position in the arsenal, Osborne
and Hazlett witnessed the storming of the
engine house by the Marines. Knowing
there was nothing further that could be done,
Jefferson County Museum they took advantage of everyone’s attention
This wagon that carried John Brown to his being focused on what was going on there,
execution sitting on his coffin is now in the and made their getaway.
Jefferson County Museum in Charlestown, WV
Although John Brown’s raid itself was a
failure, it did help to produce the effects
he had worked all his life to achieve: in
1861, confederate forces fired on Fort
Sumter and the Civil War began; in 1863,
John Brown’s grave President Lincoln issued the Emancipation
Proclamation; and, in 1865, the 13th
Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing
slavery, was ratified.
Joyce M. Ranieri

Harper’s Weekly

John Brown is hanged, December 2, 1859

12  The John Brown Bell
The building known as John Brown’s Fort
has had a very interesting history. It’s traveled
much farther than most people born in that
generation. In 1891, it was sold, dismantled,
and transported to Chicago where it was
displayed at the World’s Fair, but since
it only attracted very few visitors, it was
closed, dismantled, and left abandoned on a
vacant lot.

In 1895, it was rebuilt on Murphy’s Farm,
about three miles outside of Harpers Ferry,
where five acres had been made available
by the owner of the farm. At this rebuilding,
quite a few new bricks were added to the old
ones. In 1896, the League of Colored Women
met here at the fort which has always been
revered by the black community. Unidentified Source

Osborne Perry Anderson
It stayed at the Murphy Farm until 1910,
when it was bought by Storer College in
Harpers Ferry and moved there, where it

National Park Service

League of Colored Women at John Brown’s Fort on Murphy Farm The John Brown Bell  13
was then used as a museum and gift shop. educate former slaves, but open to students
Founded in 1869, Storer College was the of all races, both male and female. In 1954,
first integrated school designed primarily to segregation in the schools ended, and in
1955, the college closed.

In 1960, the fort was acquired by the National
Park Service and moved back to Harpers
Ferry, about 150 feet from it’s original
position, which is now covered by a railroad

The building has been a fire engine house,
guardhouse, watchtower, fort, prison, storage
place for junk, World Fair exhibit, campus
Unidentified Source museum, and post for a Ground Observer
John Brown’s Fort at Storer College, Corps.
Harpers Ferry, WV

Joan Hartley Abshire

John Brown’s Fort as it appears today

14  The John Brown Bell

W hen the news of Fort Sumter spread,
there was a great surge of patriotic
fervor, and when MA Governor Andrew
sent out a call for troops, a large proportion
of citizens from Marlborough and the
surrounding communities responded,
including quite a few of Marlborough’s
firemen. Many of their names, along with
others from Marlborough who died in the war,
are inscribed on the Civil War monument on
Main Street in front of the Baptist Church.

The name of James M. Gleason, from Torrent
Engine Co. #1, is the name most often
mentioned in all the accounts of this story
that I’ve read. A large part of this narrative
that relates to the bell is from a speech he
gave to a group from the Sons of Veterans Joan Hartley Abshire
of the GAR.
Civil War Monument, Marlborough, MA

In May of 1861 the newly formed Marlboro
militia company offered their services to the
government. In June they reported at Fort
Independence, Boston, where they became
Company I of the 13th Massachusetts
Volunteers. They left Boston in July and by
August 23 were camped by the Potomac,
near Harpers Ferry. They had only been
there a few days when they were ordered to
cross the river and seize anything that was
of value to the U.S. Government.

At the arsenal, they searched in vain for
something to take along as a souvenir. Many GAR Booklet

others had been there before them and taken
James M. Gleason
everything of value. In the yard was the
empty engine house where John Brown and The John Brown Bell  15
company had been captured. They spotted and 15 others of Co. I, went back to Harpers
the bell and decided to take it home, since Ferry, and with ropes began to lower the
their Hook & Ladder Co. had no bell. On bell from the belfry. It’s said to weigh
September 16, 1861, Lt. David L. Brown around 700 or 800 pounds, and the rope,
unfortunately, was not equal to the task. It
broke, as depicted in this drawing from the
Civil War Times magazine, and the bell fell
to the ground. A few chips were taken out of
the flange, but otherwise it was undamaged.
According to Gleason’s account, the bell
was taken across the river on a ferry made of
two scows lashed together, and dumped in
the canal, where it remained until they had
received official permission to keep it.

They realized that the bell was the property
of Uncle Sam, so they applied through
the Provost Marshal, Major Gould, and
according to the accounts, permission was
granted by the War Department. The bell
was boxed up and placed on the canal boat,
Charles McCardell, which was being used
as officers’ quarters. On October 31st they
Civil War Times Magazine
were ordered to Williamsport, Maryland,
where they joined the rest of their regiment.

Joan Hartley Abshire

Locks at Williamsport, MD

16  The John Brown Bell
The bell traveled up on the canal boat, and
was unloaded at the locks there.

While they were camped in Williamsport,
they made the acquaintance of William and
Elizabeth Ensminger. William owned and
managed two or three canal boats. They
made a deal with his wife, Elizabeth, to bake
bread for them, and she took her pay in flour,
which was probably some of what had been
confiscated at Harpers Ferry. Many times
Gleason was the one who went to town to
get the bread. GAR Booklet

In March of the following year, they were Elizabeth Ensminger (later Elizabeth Snyder),
who had charge of the bell for 30 years
ordered across the river into enemy territory.
Unable to take the bell with them, and
lacking sufficient funds to send it home, they
left it with the Ensmingers, who agreed to
keep it for them until they could return. That
early in the war, they had no idea how much
time would pass before it would end. The
regiment marched away and the bell was
forgotten. Seven of the 16 who had taken the
bell were killed in the war.

I wasn’t able to find a list of the names of the
16 who took the bell, but there are five names
that I am pretty sure of: James M. Gleason,
Lysander P. Parker, David L. Brown,
William Barnes, and Lauriman H. Russell.
Other possible candidates are William A.
Alley, E.C. Marsh, and F. K. Dansereau. It’s
interesting to note that Lauriman, who was
the son of Otis and Lovinah Russell, grew
up here, in the Peter Rice Homestead, along
with his 16 brothers and sisters. Several of
his brothers were in the war, and two, John Marlborough
Historical Society
and Benjamin, have their names inscribed Archives

on the monument. Lauriman Russell The John Brown Bell  17

T he John A. Rawlins Post was chartered
January 15, 1868. Originally, it was
called the “Lincoln Post,” but when it was
discovered that a Charlestown Post had
previously adopted that name, it was dropped,
and John A. Rawlins was substituted. Gen.
John Aaron Rawlins, who died in 1869, was
General Grant’s friend and advisor, and was
appointed Secretary of War during Grant’s

The first meetings of the G.A.R. were held in
the attic of the Forest Hall Block. Later they
leased the upper hall of the Berry’s Block,
and in 1879 they moved to the Marlborough
Unidentified Source
Town Hall.
Gen. John Aaron Rawlins
On June 28, 1892, the G.A.R. Building on
the corner of Main St. and Rawlins Ave. was
dedicated. This would be their headquarters
for the remainder of their lives.

From the beginning, the G.A.R. held annual
national encampments, where veterans from
all over the country would come together. In
September of 1892 it was held in Washington,
D.C. Six of the nine remaining members of
Co I, who were involved in getting the bell,
went to this encampment.

While there, some of them decided to take
an 80 mile side trip to Williamsport, where
they had spent the winter of 1861-62. They
managed to locate their old bread-baker,
Mrs. Elizabeth Ensminger, only now she
Pictorial Marlborough was Mrs. George Snyder, her first husband
Marlborough Town Hall having died. Mrs. Snyder was very happy to

18  The John Brown Bell
see “her boys” again, and she invited them to
spend the night. James Gleason was up early
in the morning and in the kitchen, talking
over old times with Mrs. Snyder. When
he asked what had become of the bell, she
surprised him by saying that she had kept
it for them. They went into the back yard
behind her house, and there it was.

During the battle of Antietam, she had been
very anxious for the safety of the bell and
had it buried by one of her slaves. It was left
there for seven years, then dug up and hung
on its old frame in her back yard.
Marlborough Historical
Society Archives

They had a pleasant visit, then returned to This early photo shows
Marlborough. When they had raised enough the G.A.R. Building without the bell
money, James Gleason and his wife traveled
back to Williamsport, and the bell was boxed celebrating. When it arrived in Marlborough
and sent home by train. The agent at the train it was affixed to the front of the new G.A.R.
station told Gleason that he was glad to see Building.
it go, because as long as he could remember,
every time the Democrats had a victory, In a document dated November 23, 1892, the
that old bell had been rung all night long, surviving members of Co. I, 13th Regiment,

Marlborough Historical
Society Archives

The Grand Army of the Republic, Washington, D.C., 1892 The John Brown Bell  19
Mass. Volunteers, transferred ownership of In the summer of 1893, Mrs. Snyder visited
the bell to the John A. Rawlins Bldg. Assoc., Marlborough, and on July 11, the G.A.R.
with the provision that the members of the held a reception in the hall for her. It
association and their successors, “are to keep included speeches and entertainment which
the Bell in their possession and are never was declared to be the best ever held there.
to sell the same or to loan the same.” The There’s a very detailed account of it in the
building association is made up of members Enterprise. One line of that account reads,
of the American Legion Post, and they are “A solo by Miss Hattie Goins was given a
still the legal owners of the bell. pleasing rendering.” The first time I read
that, which was a few months ago, it didn’t
mean anything to me. It was just one more
in a long list of names. But when I was
reading it over again a short time ago, the
name Goins jumped out at me because in the
interval I had learned about Luke Goins.

Luke was a slave in Harpers Ferry. At the time
of John Brown’s raid, he was working there
in a hotel for his master. Being musically
inclined and because he was familiar with
Joan Hartley Abshire
the tolling of the bell of the engine house, he
The Synder Home in Williamsport was able to identify it from its tone when it
came to Marlborough. He had arrived here

Marlborough Historical Marlborough Historical
Society Archives Society Archives

G.A.R. Building with the bell

20  The John Brown Bell
several years after the war and built a house
next to the Williams Tavern, where he raised
his family of four sons and seven daughters.
Hattie, who had sung at Mrs. Snyder’s
reception, was one of those daughters.

A newspaper clipping from the Worcester
Telegram relates how Mr. Goins would
march around that end of town, up to French
Joan Hartley Abshire
Hill and back, playing his flute, and by the
time he got back home half of the children Goins Family Home
in the area were trailing along behind with
his own children. They called him the Pied
Piper of Old Marlborough. He died in 1896.
But the story doesn’t end there. Hattie Goin’s
sister Geneva/Genevieve, was the mother of
Anna Walker
Anna Walker, that awesome lady who had a
dance studio in Marlborough for many years
and was very involved with the seniors of The photos of Anna
the city. Her name is on the front of the Walker and the Goins
Family were donated
by Vivienne Erlandson

Goins Family The John Brown Bell  21
Senior Center because she was so influential which was also in the parade. When I read
in getting it built. this, I wondered, “how had this all come
about? How did our bell become part of a
On June 17, 1903, there was a big Civic and Charlestown parade?”
Military parade in Charlestown. The John
Brown Bell, on a float drawn by six black Then I discovered, in James Gleason’s
horses, shared honors with the Liberty Bell, obituary of 1906, that he was known all
over this section of the country as a veteran
Marlborough Historical fireman, and for several years he had been
Society Archives
foreman of the Charlestown Vets. Also,
several years previously, the Charlestown
company had come to a fireman’s muster
here in Marlborough.

One by one the G.A.R. members passed
away, and the bell tolled for each of them.
The last one from Marlborough was Stillman
Stillman Wood Funeral, 1937 Wood who died in 1937.

Marlborough Historical
Society Archives

The John Brown Bell at the Charlestown Celebration, June 17, 1903

22  The John Brown Bell

T he years passed and they were not kind
to the G.A.R. building. In the 1960’s,
the bell was beginning to detach from the
Marlborough Historical
Society Archives

building and something needed to be done.
Raymond Cahill, of the Marlborough
Chamber of Commerce, had the idea of
building a tower on Union Common. Ralph
Riccuitti, of the Akroyd Houde Post 132,
American Legion, designed the tower and
supervised its construction. It was built,
stone by stone, by many volunteer masons
and laborers whose names are engraved on a
plaque attached to the tower. Work began in
July of 1968, and a dedication ceremony was
held the same year on Labor Day, September 2.

There is another plaque attached to the
tower which reads, in part, “The John Brown
Bell – Symbol of a nation’s efforts to obtain
Congressman Philbin at the dedication
freedom and equality for its people.” There’s of the Bell Tower
more, but I’ll let you go and read the rest for
yourself, if you haven’t already. driveway right outside our door. That was
the corner stone of the G.A.R. building. If
By 1980 the G.A.R. building was in a sad you look closely on your way out, you’ll see
state. Bricks were falling off, and it was that there’s an inscription on it. However, I
determined that the building was a hazard. think that inscription contains one error. It
Since it would have been too costly to repair, lists the date of the razing of the building as
it was razed. It had been the home of the 1981, but I have several newspaper accounts
Marlborough Boys Club for several years, that put it in 1980.
and before that it belonged to the American
Legion. Now, the place where it stood is a I have a book of newspaper clippings relating
parking lot. But part of the building is still to the history of the bell and covering over
with us, literally. a hundred years. And I’m sure there are
even more that I’ve missed. It’s been a
I wonder how many people, on their way very popular subject. A lot of rumors have
in here, paid any attention to the big square circulated, such as the accusation that the
stone at the corner of the walkway and the bell was a fake. People from Harpers Ferry The John Brown Bell  23
have been here asking for the bell back, specifically ordered to take whatever they
some more aggressively than others. At one could find that was of value, and once they
time there was an offer to have a duplicate had they bell they got permission from the
made. War Department to keep it. It never belonged
to the town of Harpers Ferry. It was not
The story is resurrected every few years, stolen.
some more elaborately than others.
Unfortunately, these accounts, although 2. The bell was buried for 30 years
basically correct, have some errors, and I’d
According to Mrs. Snyder’s own account,
like to set the record straight on a few that
she had it for 30 years, but it was only buried
I’ve come across several times.
for seven and then dug up and hung in her
back yard.
1. The bell was stolen
The bell belonged to the U.S. Government. 3. Williamsport Locks
It was located on U.S. Government property
In the G.A.R. account it’s written that the
and was taken by Federal troops who were
bell was taken to Williamsport Locks,
which is correct but misleading. Locks is
capitalized, which makes it look like that’s
the name of the town. It would have been
clearer written as, “the bell was taken to the
locks at Williamsport.” There is no town
named Williamsport Locks.

4. The bell was going to be rung to
summon the slaves
I really feel badly about this one because I
think it would be so neat if it was true. But it
just isn’t. I couldn’t find the least little shred
of evidence that pointed to that conclusion.
I think someone made it up, possibly my
friend James Gleason, because his account
is the first place that it appears. The fact is
that the bell is never mentioned at all in any
of the other accounts I read, except the book
put out by the G.A.R. and the newspaper
clippings that copied it. And in fact, one of
Joan Hartley Abshire the rangers at the park who went out of his
John Brown Bell Tower, Union Common, way to help me, was of the same opinion.
Marlborough, MA, 2007

24  The John Brown Bell
Now I have a question. Should we give it years. And with all the traffic through there
back? Before I started my research on the who knows where it would have ended up.
bell I really thought that we should. But now Gary Brown, our Veterans’ Agent, thinks it
I’ve changed my mind. Those boys saved it would have been melted down.
by taking it when they did. Harpers Ferry
changed hands many times during the war What do you think?

Joan Hartley Abshire

G.A.R. Building cornerstone, at the entrance to the Peter Rice Homestead, Marlborough, MA The John Brown Bell  25
Paul Polewacyk, our firefighter/historian, who so very generously loaned the Marlborough
Historical Society part of his own collection.

Maurice Snyder, Williamsport’s town historian, who invited me into his home and showed
me the points of interest in the town.

Nancy L. Hatcher, technician, and Richard Raymond, curator, at the John Brown Museum
in Harpers Ferry, who took the time to meet with me.

William Banks, a guide at the National Park Service Information Center in Harpers Ferry,
who went out of his way to be helpful.

Bill Beaulac of the American Legion, Akroyd-Houde Post 132, who showed me the
remaining artifacts of the John A. Rawlins, Post 43. G.A.R.

Many Marlborough residents who took the time to talk with me, including our Veterans’
Agent, Gary Brown, and some of the volunteers who built the bell tower on Union

All the wonderful people I met on my trip. Everyone I met was friendly and very willing to
share whatever information they had.

Page layout by James Abshire
JMA Design

26  The John Brown Bell
Patriotic Treason – Evan Carton – 2006
John Brown’s Raid – National Park Service – 1974
The Perfect Steel Trap Harpers Ferry 1859 – Bob O’Connor – 2006
A Voice from Harpers Ferry – Osborne P. Anderson – 1861
The Strange Story of Harpers Ferry – Joseph Barry – 1903
Three Years in the Army – Charles E. Davis – 1894
Pictorial Marlboro – John A. Rawlin s Post 43 G.A.R. – 1879
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass – Frederick Douglass – 1881
Washington the Indispensable Man – James Thomas Flexner – 1969
Historical Reminiscences of the Early Times in Marlborough, MA – Ella Bigelow – 1910
The Story of the John Brown Bell – John A. Rawlins Post 43, G.A.R. – 1910
Transcription of a Speech given by James M. Gleason – date unknown
Brown on Brown: John Brown’s Autobiographical Letter to Henry Stearns – July 15, 1857
The Civil War Times – magazine, May 2006

National Park Service and many other web sites

Images from:
National Park Service
Marlborough Historical Society

Newspaper Clippings from:
The Boston Globe
Herald in Hagerstown, MD
The Marlboro Enterprise
The South Middlesex News
The Worcester Telegram The John Brown Bell  27