The Bell of the Great Chicago Fire

Dear loyal readers, I have a scrumptious treat to share with you! Remember Henry Rincker? Chicago’s own bell founder active in the mid-nineteenth century?

We don’t know much about Rincker and his metallurgical output in Chicago, but we know he did cast a bell for the combined courthouse and city hall. This government building, constructed in 1853, was destroyed in the infamous Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The bell played an important role as the tragedy was unfolding; just as bells rang the alarm for fire in medieval European towns, so this bell rang for five hours before the building collapsed and the bell tumbled down. The fate of the bell is unknown.

So where’s the treat? A series of historical images of the courthouse in good times and in bad, including one amazing pic of the bell upturned on the ground—with a person standing inside! The size comparison shows just how large the bell was. Also notice the flared lip (bottom, here upturned) of the bell. That shape deviates from the less flared Gothic bell shape we are more accustomed to today in carillon and change ringing bells. The flared shape may reveal Rincker’s roots in German bell casting, but I’m not sure. I’d have to consult my sources on that one.

Change Ringing Illinois Bell Bash

In Chicagoland for Memorial Day weekend? Itching to see some change ringing in action? Check out the fourth annual Illinois Bell Bash!

Hosted by the University of Chicago Guild of Change Ringers on Saturday, May 28th, guests may see and hear the bells in Mitchell Tower. Public tours will leave at 1 and 3 p.m. from the Reynolds Club Seal. Change ringing on unsilenced bells will take place throughout the day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., so swing by to take a tour or just listen!

And the fun continues the next day at St. Paul’s Church in Riverside. Practice and general ringing will commence at 11:30 a.m. and the unsilent practice will go from 6:30 to 8 p.m.


United Church of Hyde Park, Chicago, IL

We have several churches in Hyde Park, but only one (besides the carillon in UChicago’s Rockefeller Chapel) has a bell—United Church of Hyde Park. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) Mr. Cal Audrain graciously showed me around their church and bell.

United Church lines the commercial artery of 53rd Street in my neighborhood. As its name suggests, the church is a union of Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist congregations that were active in Hyde Park as early as the 1850s. The formal merger of all three denominations into this one church occurred in 1970.

The bell of United Church of Hyde Park, then, is actually inscribed to the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church. It was cast by Meneely of West Troy (now known as Watervliet), New York. The inscription reads:

Bell of United Church of Hyde Park

Presented to the Hyde Park Presbyterian Church
by James Johnson
February 18[70]?

I ring out the Darkness of the Land
I ring in the Christ that is to be

1870 or thereabouts is a fairly early date for a bell in Chicago. I would bet that not many other churches in Chicago have tower bells in action that predate this one.

It’s rung the old-fashioned way—by pulling on a rope to swing the bell around.

Rope to ring the bell

And then there’s this mysterious sign on the door to the bell. Not sure what the chimes were that preceded this single bell. A peal? A ring? A chime? Where did they go? Hmmm.

What were these chimes?

The bell is rung at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays before the service, although not on a regular basis. I live just a couple of blocks away, and I think I heard it ring once on a Sunday morning. I definitely took note!

Mitchell Tower, University of Chicago

If you had to name American universities that are especially pro-bell, the University of Chicago would be near the top of the list. First, it has the stunning Rockefeller carillon which I had the great pleasure of performing on for years. Second, it has a ring of ten bells in nearby Mitchell Tower. (These bell towers are within two blocks of each other. I’m thinking we need to arrange a “dueling bell towers” of sorts.) Only one other American university campus boasts a carillon and ring—The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Tom Farthing, the fearless leader of the intrepid change ringers, showed me around the tower and the English ringing tradition. Change ringing is a method in which a set of bells are rung one at a time, each by a single person, in mathematical permutations, so that the in each iteration each bell is played only once and the exact order of bells is never repeated. See my other posts on the method here and here.

Here we get a close up of a bell with a muted clapper. The bell is muted so as to not disturb neighbors during practice sessions. The clapper strikes the bell as it is swung around from top to bottom.

And here is what the ringing looks like from below. Tom pulls on the sally (the woolen grip) to just pull the bell down and lets it swing back up. Here he is playing along with a computer program that reproduces the sound of the bells (again, great for practice sessions!) Tom makes it look easy, but it’s actually difficult to time the pull just right—and not pull too hard or too soft—to allow the bell to smoothly rotate down and back up.

One of the trickiest parts of change ringing is preparing the bells for a performance. Normally the bells are in rest position with the mouth hanging down. Before ringing, though, someone has to get each bell swinging enough to bring the mouth up to the top and let it balance there (the bells are rung up.) Kind of like getting this wooden acrobat to stand straight up.

Thank you, Tom, and the University of Chicago Guild of Change Ringers for hosting me!

Tsar Bell Finally Rings

Update 4.18.16–and here is how the Tsar Bell sounds!

The folks over at UC Berkeley have done it again–they’ve dreamed up a scintillating, beautiful project with bells at the core. See their “Natural Frequencies” and “Polartide” performances from recent years.

And this project is happening TODAY at 12 p.m. PDT. You can catch it live through this video feed!

So what’s happening? What’s happening is a performance of the re-created sound of the fabled Tsar Bell. They’ve used computer modeling to virtually create the bell and produce its sound. Actually, this type of thing isn’t new–bell foundries have designed bells in this manner for decades, and a team at Pennsylvania State University used the same method years ago to re-create the sound of the Liberty Bell.

The Tsar Bell is the largest known cast bell, weighing in at over 200 tons. The bell has never rung, however, and it has rested silently in Moscow since 1735. A fire in the casting pit while the bell was cooling prompted rescuers to throw cold water onto the bell, causing cracks and a gigantic piece (23,000 lbs!) to fall off. This damage was irreversible and forever muted the bell, turning it into a really big ornament for the outdoor royal curio cabinet.

This project has style! New compositions will be performed along with the generated Tsar Bell sound, including one by DJ Spooky on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m. PDT.

A Severe Punishment

Bells in centuries past were often treated as humans themselves—they were baptized, named, and described as having “voices.” In this case from Imperial Russia, a bell was punished for centuries for its alleged crime.*

It’s 1591 and Boris Godunov is keen on taking the throne of Russia. Tsar Fedor is considered weak in mind and body, so the brother-in-law Godunov knows he won’t have to wait long for him to die (no need to get entangled in a messy murder or coup! Bonus for Godunov.). The next heir to the throne is the boy Tsarevich Dmitri, so Godunov packs him and his mother off to Uglich, where they can stay far away from the political center of Moscow and remain closely monitored by an associate of Godunov, Mikhail Bitiagovski.

One bright opportunistic afternoon, Dmitri was playing a game with his friends in which a knife is thrown at a target (alternate form of Russian Roulette, perhaps?). The bell in the cathedral’s bell tower above suddenly began ringing the alarm, calling all the townspeople to the center. They came expecting a fire, but instead they found the young Dmitri dead, stabbed in the neck with a knife.

The townspeople were outraged and sought justice in their own hands. They assumed Bitiagovski, as an agent of Godunov, was behind Dmitri’s death. The mob lynched both Bitiagovski and his son, and twelve other people died in the mayhem.

Godunov couldn’t stand for this strong statement against his authority. The majority of the townspeople were executed, incarcerated, or exiled to western Siberia. The bell was also punished. First it was lowered from the cathedral tower and flogged one hundred twenty times, then its clapper was removed and part of its cannon (as its “ear”) was cut off. Finally, it too was exiled to Siberia and was dragged across the country for a full year to its final destination of Tobol’sk.

The bell remained there for three centuries. Yikes. That’s some stiff punishment. While there, it did serve its ringing function as a bell in different churches. In 1849 citizens of Uglich rallied to get their bell back, arguing that it had served out its sentence long enough. The mayor of Tobol’sk countered that since the bell had been exiled for life, it hadn’t served out its full sentence. The Uglich citizens took their case to the courts and finally their request was upheld in 1888, and the bell arrived back to its home four years later. It’s now on display at the Church of St. Demetrius. With a fixed ear.

Dmitri bell
Uglich bell

* Info taken from Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 47-50.

Easter Tradition

It’s Maundy/Holy Thursday, and it’s a big day for Catholic bells in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. It’s time to spread their wings–and fly!

flying bells and children
Bells flying over children

From Maundy Thursday (or sometimes Holy Saturday) until Easter morning, church bells are silent. Their silence is in solemn observation of the most holy, mournful days of the Christian year, the days leading up to and including Jesus’ crucifixion. The bells joyfully resound again on Easter morning in celebration of his rising from the dead.

But what happens to the bells? Do they just sit up in the towers, biding their time? No! They strap on (or grow?) wings and fly off to Rome to…visit the Pope…or receive a blessing…or get an extra-special polish…? It’s not clear what the bells *do* once they get to Rome, but off they go. And when they return in time for Easter, they drop down chocolate eggs for the local children. So no Easter Bunny here, folks–the bells bring the kids the Easter treats.

Belief is the Thing

I’ve been thinking about the connection between sounds and emotion lately; whether there is a more direct connection between them compared to a visual stimulus, or not, as Jonathan Sterne argues.

The blog posts of my dissertation co-advisor and friend Phil Ford have helped me think about this conundrum. Now, Phil Ford is absolutely cop show, so I invite you to read his entire series of posts on magic starting here. One of Phil’s larger points taken from Ramsey Dukes is that in the realm of magic, a magician does not ask “does it exist?” but “does it work?” The question of whether there truly are goblins or ghosts or valid tarot card readings is sidestepping the point of magic. What really matters is what happens when you start believing in these things—what kind of experiences do they lead to? Do they lead to experiences that can’t be rationalized in any other way? In other words, does the magic work?

A naysayer would resist this by explaining that virtually any phenomenon we experience can be rationally explained without resorting to things that bump in the night. But this is not necessarily so. We all can point to those weird coincidences and strange happenings that occur every once in a while that defy easy explanation. Most of the time we just say “that’s odd” and forget about it, rather than trying to suss out an explanation that is not forthcoming. It’s too uncomfortable for many of us to hang on to experiences that don’t fit our worldview, so we just dismiss them. Just a couple of weeks ago, the exact moment I turned on the radio in my kitchen while making dinner, my voice came over the radio saying “I want the bells to keep on ringing.” It was the NPR radio show I was interviewed for. The precise moment. Now that’s weird.

Ok, so let’s not get too far off track here. What does magic have to do with sound and emotion? One of Phil’s other points in his magic series is that we all do some magical thinking. And that may be one way to think about the connection between sound and emotion—not whether sounds, in particular music, actually own a direct line to our heart, but if we believe this to be so, do sounds yield the desired emotional response? The belief is the thing. But it comes first, before the experience. And in the case of bell sounds, I think it holds. I’ve shown here and here evidence for an emotional response to bell sounds.

Now this doesn’t mean the experience of these writers will be necessarily the same as anyone else’s. But it may encourage another to adopt the same belief and thus engender a similar reaction. And as a self-proclaimed bell advocate, if I can get you to feel the same mix of wonder, awe, beauty, and emotional intimacy when you hear a bell as I do, then I’ve worked my magic on you.

Blue Bell Magic Cookie Bar
Bell. Magic. Yum.