Thursday, January 31, 2002
Contact: Peter Bailley
The history of the Knox College bell owes as much to the College's high-spirited students as it does to the College's high ideals. At least twice during the 19th century, the bell had been turned upside down by students. It filled with water which subsequently froze and cracked the metal. In addition, it cracked further in 1887 when it was rung vigorously to celebrate Knox's victory in an intercollegiate oratorical contest.
In 1902, the senior class had enough of the poor tone of the cracked bell and commissioned that it be recast.
The seniors had the bell inscribed: "This bell contains metal of an old Knox College bell made by Jones and Company, Troy, New York, 1864, and a part of the old Knox Academy bell, together with new metal added by the Class of 1902. Recast by the Class of 1902. Class Motto: Not to live, but to live well."
When the new bell arrived on campus, it was put on display in Alumni Hall, and the dedication ceremony was planned for Thursday, February 27, 1902 in Central Congregational Church. John Huston Finley, who had been president of Knox from 1892 to 1899, was engaged to give the dedicatory address, which was to be followed by a procession to Old Main, where he would place the clapper in the bell.
"In every community is one voice that speaks out to tell that this life is worth while: the voice of the bell," Finley said at the dedication. (Photo, right: John Huston Finley)
"It is one of the functions of the college bell to call students to leadership and to see to their fellows' welfare," Finley said. "The Knox College bell calls us to a service that is a happy one. It will call those who assemble in the college halls to abiding friendships and everlasting affections. These, after all, are the best things in the world, and it is these affections that make life most happy."
But the celebration was being held with the bell in absentia. Late on Tuesday February 25, less than two days before before the ceremony, the bell was carried off from Alumni Hall by persons unknown. While Finley obviously had prepared his speech in advance, he may have been alluding to the theft in his remarks. "We are to ring the new bell," Finley said, "if not this morning, then tomorrow morning, next week or the week after."
According to the Galesburg Republican Register newspaper, the night after the bell was stolen, a posse of Knox seniors fruitlessly "ransacked the town, hoping to discover it in time for the ceremony." A sheriff's deputy, Charles Herburgh, said to be a Knox alumnus, "had a burning curiosity to know what became of the bell. He wasn't fooled by telegrams that the bell was in Omaha or Salt Lake City or Deacon Felt's barn," the newspaper said. A week after the ceremony, on or about Wednesday, March 5, 1902, Herburgh learned that the bell was "reposing somewhere near the Terra Cotta plant [brickyard in East Galesburg]..."
Arriving at a farm field near the brickyard, Officer Herburgh followed a set of tracks made by a dray, or cart, to a point where the tracks became lighter. "The dray got rid of the bell around here some place," he proclaimed, according to the newspaper. Nearby they found a burned-out farmhouse where the bell had been buried about six inches deep. It was later alleged that the perpetrators were about a half-dozen underclassmen.
The bell was returned to campus, reportedly in the same cart that had been used to spirit it away. "It was washed clean of all the mud that had gathered while taking its extensive trip abroad," the Republican Register wrote. "It was drawn by enthusiastic senior boys up five long stairways and landed on the roof of the college building... President [Thomas] McClelland gave the bell its first swing to make it sound forth the news of its joyful return to duty." According to the paper, a number of students followed McClelland "and the bell was kept ringing for over ten minutes."