Lore of the Liberty Bell

By Ronald E. Shaffer

Most every member of Old Pine should be able to point out the gravesite of William Hurrie (Hurry) if asked, “Where is the guy who rang the Liberty Bell buried?” (In case your GPS history site locator is acting up…Hurrie’s grave is clearly marked and located adjacent to the brick walk behind the church leading to the Community Center.)

Some history relating to the Bell before a brief story about William Hurrie. Pennsylvania, when it was still a British colony, paid $300 to have the bell cast in England…plus shipping. Shortly after delivery, it cracked on first ringing in 1752. Recast in Philadelphia, it became known as the State House Bell. The bell and its later official ringer became famous when, along with church bells, it was rung to announce the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. The bell rung at each successive July 8th anniversary of the adoption until 1835. (Hurrie “pulled the rope every year between 1776 and 1781.) On July 8, 1835, after ringing another anniversary year, the bell cracked during the Funeral of Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall. About 1839, the bell became known as the Liberty Bell hen abolitionists began referring to its cast inscription. Other than a few “move-abouts” during the Revolutionary War, the bell remained in Independence Hall, displayed at the base of an interior stairs until Jan. 1, 1976 when it was moved and displayed in a nearby pavilion…later to the current location.

William Hurrie was born in Scotland, August 22, 1721. At age 20 he is believed to have run away from home…arriving in Philadelphia sometime in 1741. His ship passage was likely paid by a servitude indenture. Once in Philadelphia, little is known as to his addresses or employment. In 1768 he was the first sexton at Old Pine…responsible for arranging burials and collecting pews for which he was paid a commission. Records for 1769 indicate he was a tax payer. In 1773-74, Hurrie became an indentured servant to John Mitchel, a wealthy, well-connected member of Old Pine. Between 1777-79 he served as a private in the city militia. Most probably with John Mitchel’s political connections, Hurrie was appointed sexton and official bell ringer at the State House.

His claim to fame in history occurred July 8, 1776 when he rang the State House bell for an hour…summoning hundreds of curious to hear the Declaration of Independence publicly read for the first time. A year later, following the nine month devastating British occupation, Congress authorized Hurrie to put the State House in order without delay. He accomplished the work in 53 days. For this, Congress rewarded him with a bonus. During the clean up, he accepted additional duties at the State House as door keeper to Congress as well as the Supreme Executive Council…both required indisputable trust and secrecy at a time when the State House was no place for gossipers, spies or crown loyalists. Hurrie continued working at the State House until late summer 1781 when, due to declining health, he resigned from all positions.

Family lore adds a final page to Hurrie’s patriotic life as told by a direct descendent: “William Hurrie, my mother’s grandfather, emigrated to America. He was keeper of the State House as well as door keeper while Congress was in session. He tolled the bell when the Declaration of Independence was publically read. But just before the war ended, he was taken sick with bilious fever. When the news arrived that Cornwallis was taken, they tried to keep it from him, fearing the excitement (of victory) would cause his death; but Hurrie, hearing the watchman repeating it, inquired its meaning. They had to tell him. Soon after, his son came in and said, ‘Good news to thee, my father’; said he, ‘Good news to thee, my son…my joy is in heaven’ With that, he died.”

Note: The war ended, Oct. 19, 1781, with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Hurrie died three days later in Philadelphia. It would have been possible for relay riders on fast horses to reach the city with the good news, “The war is over.” Score one for family lore!

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