When Americans Feared the Crack in the Liberty Bell

Tracing the path of the Liberty Bell’s recently-discovered crack, December 23, 1912.

A crack in the Liberty Bell? No news there. But the discovery of a new, threatening crack through the word “Liberty” on the Liberty Bell? Well, that story resonated throughout the land.

About a century ago, Philadelphia’s itinerant icon of patriotism sprouted a 17-inch hairline crack extending clear across the bell’s crown. Metallurgist Alexander Outerbridge suggested it was so severe that vibrations from Chestnut Street traffic might “carry the crack around the bell and break it in two.” Philadelphians, who long considered the bell an easy come, easy go ambassador for freedom, cried out for a no-travel rule.

The hairline crack might have already been there when the bell made its debut in New Orleans at the World Industrial and Cotton Exposition in 1885. Or it might have appeared during the train ride to Chicago for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Or when the bell made its way to Atlanta in 1895, Charleston in 1902, Boston in 1903 or Saint Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Something like a caution prevailed in 1905, when the City turned down the bell’s proposed trip over the Rocky Mountains to Portland for the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905. That’s the year officials had Outerbridge inspect the bell.

The discovery of a new crack resulted in something like fear, for a while anyway. Even when newspaper headlines warned: “Liberty Bell’s Crack Longer,” the idea of one last, cross-country hurrah before the bell’s permanent retirement in Philadelphia resonated in the national imagination. Between 1909, when the new crack was discovered, and 1915, when San Francisco opened its Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Bell stood silently at the center of a battle of expertise, politics and patriotism.

In November 1912, The Washington Post presented an emotional case for travel in an article headlined “500,000 Want Liberty Bell – California School Children Sign Petition Asking Relic for Exposition.” San Franciscans had ushered their children’s two-mile-long scroll out of town with military honors. And when the petition arrived, Philadelphia officials balked in the limelight. “Trip of Liberty Bell Hot Issue,” declared The Boston Globe, “showing at San Francisco Would Do No Harm, Mayor Thinks.” In fact, Rudolph Blankenburg, Philadelphia’s newly-inaugurated reform Mayor, “declared he could see no particular danger in sending the historic relic on another journey… the display of patriotism aroused by the bell … more than overbalanced any danger that might be incurred.” A few weeks later he approved the cross-country swan song, which Gary Nash writes, stood out as “the grand crescendo of the Liberty Bell’s seven road trips.” Many of the San Francisco petitioners agreed.

Of course, the possibility of “Liberty” splitting on their watch instilled a special kind of fear in the City Fathers, a fear that the Foundering Fathers might return to haunt them. So they took a few precautions. First, they would hold onto the bell through July 4, 1915, telephonically transmitting its sound (as good as a wooden mallet might manage it) to the opening ceremonies in San Francisco.  And before the Bell crossed the country for the first time, they installed a six-pronged, “steel spider” inside the bell, hoping that might hold “Liberty” together. As luck, or fate, would have it, the Bell survived in one piece.

But we know the truth in this tale: that Liberty is never certain and nearly always threatened—and sometimes even by those charged with its protection.