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When the Liberty Bell Went on a National Tour

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Philadelphia Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg had specific instructions for both the employees of Independence Hall and the citizens of the city on Independence Day 1915. He wanted the Hall to remain open past its regular closing time. This, he told the city, was so it could accommodate everyone who might want to say goodbye to the Liberty Bell.

The next morning, it would be gone. And Blankenburg wasn’t sure it was ever coming back—at least, not in one piece.


TradingCardsNPS, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Liberty Bell, once known as the State House Bell, is one of the most iconic objects in American history. Originally forged in London for delivery to Philadelphia in 1752, it broke upon the first strike and was twice re-casted by metalworkers John Pass and John Stow. Newly strengthened, it was a signal for lawmakers and residents to assemble. But after 90-odd years of persistent ringing, a crack started to manifest. Workers widened the crack and inserted rivets in the hopes it wouldn’t get worse.

According to some accounts, it did—perhaps after a ceremony to commemorate George Washington’s birthday in 1846—and so the Bell was taken out of service, becoming less of a utility and more of a symbol for an assortment of civil rights causes, from abolitionists to the suffragette movement.

While Philadelphians could visit Independence Hall for inspiration, the rest of the country often clamored for a look. Between 1885 and 1904, the Bell went on six road trips, first to the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans and finally to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Workers hoisted it on dollies and on train cars, passing through states so Americans could see the 2000-pound symbol for themselves.

Some observers were more recognizable than others. As it passed through Mississippi on its trip to New Orleans, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis approached the Bell and spoke to it directly: "You, sacred organ, gave voice to the proudest declaration that a handful of men ever made ... Glorious old Bell, the son of a Revolutionary soldier bows in reverence before you.” Thomas Edison, who had visited it several times, was also spotted during a later tour, apparently fascinated with the sight of the Bell in the wild.

The 1904 trip appeared to be the last time it would leave Philadelphia city limits. With each successive journey, citizens fretted about the fragility of the Bell and whether it could survive transport. But in 1911, a band of politicians began making noise about another trip—this one clear across the country to San Francisco, where Mayor Jim Rolph petitioned for the Bell to appear in his city’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst endorsed the idea; San Francisco classrooms wrote letters urging Philadelphia to consider it; and in 1912, a petition bearing the signatures of thousands of San Francisco kids desperate to see the bell was sent to the Philadelphia City Council.

Philadelphia Mayor Blankenburg didn’t need any convincing. He agreed to the proposal, but was met with pushback by Boies Penrose, a senator and political rival who insisted the Bell remain undisturbed in the Hall. Talks dragged on for years between the cities, with the chief concerns being the Bell’s welfare in transit and the potential for its status as an American icon to be diminished.

The Bell, according to former Pennsylvania governor Samuel Pennypacker, was to be viewed with reverence and not stuck at “fairs associated with fat pigs and fancy furniture.” Other critics charged that for all the talk of fueling patriotism, the real motive was for the fair organizers in San Francisco to have an attraction that could draw huge crowds. Worst of all, prior trips had resulted in the Bell returning to Philadelphia a few pounds lighter: Gawkers would try and covertly chisel pieces of it off as a souvenir.

The two sides were at a standstill when the San Francisco fair opened in February 1915. As a kind of consolation prize, Blankenburg arranged for a ringing of the bell over the transcontinental Bell Telephone lines that had just been hung across the country.

But Rolph wouldn’t stop campaigning. His insistence, coupled with the sinking of the British ship Lusitania in May 1915, led to Philadelphia’s anti-touring contingent to soften. If the U.S. was about to be pulled into a world war, then perhaps some portable patriotism was in order.

Still, warnings by metallurgical engineers that the Bell faced the potential of being returned in pieces continued. Speaking to the Oakland Tribune, the reported “doctor” of the relic, Alexander Outerbridge Jr., spoke of the Bell as a patient afflicted with a cryptic “diseases of metals.”

“I myself have no hesitation in saying that the bell has a distemper which should insure its most careful preservation from all shocks such as it would be subjected to on a long journey,” he said.

The cross-country trip would be undertaken by rail, with the Pennsylvania Railroad given the responsibility of creating a ride smooth enough to minimize the risk of any further damage. Massive springs were used to cushion the train car housing the Bell. Dubbed the Liberty Bell Special, the train could also accommodate city councilmen and their families making the trip along with their special cargo.

The Bell hung from a yoke on the car and was surrounded by a brass railing to deter visitors from getting too close; a hook system was tethered to the lip of the Bell to prevent the crack from expanding, a precaution which remains in place today. Officials were firmly set on only allowing the blind to place a hand on it, but the Bell’s handlers were unable or unwilling to corral children, who were frequently hoisted up and allowed to kiss the metal.

Adults took a different tact. They would use whatever trinkets, jewelry, or pocket items they had at their disposal, handing them to guards and asking them to hold them up to the Bell’s surface. As the car traveled on through to San Francisco, the crowds could sometimes grow so deep that their edges couldn’t be seen from the train. An ocean of people had come at every stop to take in an inanimate object that had come to represent either the freedom they had or the freedom they longed to acquire.


IMLS Digital Collections and Content, Flickr  // CC BY 2.0

Incredibly, it’s believed that one-quarter of the country’s 1915 population was able to view the Bell as it made the 10,000-mile journey to San Francisco. When it arrived in California, the pull was so strong that it even lured a notorious safe robber named John Collins out of hiding. A police officer spotted him in the crowd and had him hauled away.

The train came to a stop on July 17, with the Bell getting a reprieve from travel. It remained on exhibit for four months, attracting far more attention than fair organizers could have predicted. In November, the Liberty Bell Special turned course and returned for home. The retreat was more eventful—and tragic—than the departure, with a woman in Memphis being crushed to death by the force of the swelling crowd. And while the Bell usually loomed over crowds in major cities, some stopovers were more truncated. In Beaumont, Texas, residents were disappointed to find the attraction would only be idling there for 10 minutes at 1 a.m. (although it didn't actually arrive until 6:30 a.m.).

Once it was returned to Independence Hall, the Bell’s handlers—politicians and caretakers alike—rebuffed any further attempts to put it back on wheels. The 1976 Bicentennial was one potential motivation, but further concerns over its condition meant the only trip it took was from Independence Hall to a specially constructed pavilion. It was moved to its current location in 2003. More than 18,000 people visit the bell daily today, where it remains intact—or as intact as it ever was.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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