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Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Bell & Howl--
Will Swint Go to Court?

According to an article by Linda Wheeler in "A House Divided," the Civil War blog of The Washington Post (16 Aug.), since Howard Swint has had no response from the city government of Marlborough, Massachusetts, "he now plans to take legal action by filing a motion with the U.S. District court to bring the bell back to Harpers Ferry."  Swint has proven a one-man army in single-minded pursuit of the "John Brown Bell"--the Harper's Ferry armory bell that once rang atop the engine house where Brown made his last stand in October 1859.  The bell was removed by Union soldiers during the Civil War and kept by a loyal friend for thirty years before it was shipped up to Massachusetts, where it has remained a symbolic centerpiece of Marlborough since 1892.  Swint really would like to see the bell returned to the engine house, now part of the National Park Service in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.  He has tried appealing, reasoning, and arguing to no avail.  More recently, he has proposed a program of shared possession between Marlborough and Harper's Ferry, although the mayor of the latter town has not made an issue of returning the bell.  No doubt, people in West Virginia would like to see the bell returned, just as people in Marlborough and other places in the northeast probably feel just as strongly about seeing the bell remain where it has been for 120 years.

The question of making this a federal case opens a whole new scenario.  On one level, it might make sense since the bell originally was the property of a federal facility, not a [West] Virginia town.  Were it returned today, it would also be returned to government property, the National Park Service at Harper's Ferry.  

Mr. Swint, backed by the 20th century research of Boyd Stutler, contends that the bell was removed from Harper's Ferry without approval of the army.  Both Stutler and Swint, respectively, made good faith searches for any written order permitting the removal of the bell, and found none.  The latter has further argued that this strengthens the claim of those who want the bell removed and restored to the engine house structure in West Virginia.  But the absence of documentation does not entirely prove the point.  There are two witness testimonies from the Union soldiers stating that they received permission, although they requested it after the fact of the bell's removal.  In a 1910 pamphlet telling the story of the bell, Lysander Parker wrote:
Realizing that our treasure was the property of Uncle Sam, we thought best to consult proper authority before proceeding further, and immediately through Major Gould, Provost Marshal of the 13th at Sandy Hook, we made direct application to the Government for it and in due season received permission from the War Department to appropriate the bell.  It was then boxed by Levi Taylor and Algernon S. Smith and placed on board the canal boat “Charles McCardell.”  This boat was used during the time we were there for the officers quarters and there it remained until we rejoined out regiment.1
Another "bell raider," James M. Gleason, gave his account of the incident in 1901, in a published speech available through the Marlborough Historical Society website.2  Gleason's account seems a bit more hazy, although he also states that orders (after the fact) were issued by Major [Jacob] Gould permitting the bell's removal.  Gleason's account varies with Parker in stating that the bell was at first "dumped in the canal," then retrieved and boxed after Gould's orders came through.

Obviously, if the bell becomes a court case, it will require far more intensive examination of the evidence and judgment would be made accordingly.  However, given the fact that the bell has been held by Marlborough for well over a century, this may also be a significant factor in the eyes of the law.  Of course the question remains whether, at this stage in our nation's economy, we want government time and money spent on this issue.  Mr. Swint may also do more harm than good if he presses this matter to the point of a federal lawsuit.  Not only will Marlborough dig in its heels, but the matter may grow from irritation to hard feelings.

To my mind (and I've given this matter little thought, and only recently), perhaps the only real route to take would have been for the National Park Service to ask for the bell on loan, to be displayed annually, perhaps through the month of October, where it could be placed atop the engine house in commemoration of the John Brown raid.  Unfortunately, at this point, I doubt the leaders of Marlborough will even go for that.  It's a bell of a dilemma.

1 Parker (1910) quoted in "Nine Weeks at Harper's Ferry; Part V The John Brown Bell," 13th Mass.org.  Retrieved from: http://13thmass.org/1861/harpersferry.html#john_brown_bell.

2 "The John Brown Bell: An Address Delivered by James M. Gleason. . .April 11, 1901, under "The John Brown Bell," Marlborough Historical Society website.  Document download address: http://www.scribd.com/doc/61504099/Retelling-50-years-later-of-the-events-that-led-to-the-taking-of-the-John-Brown-Bell

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