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Summoned by Bells December 2, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

The following bell story cannot lay claim to being bizarre history in the normal sense of the phrase. But it is enjoyable. It comes from the memoirs of James Lee-Milne (obit 1997) and describes Mrs Hartwell’s most dangerous day.

[Mrs] Hartwell was an aged widow who gallantly brought up an orphaned brood of undisciplined grandchildren. She was tiny, about four foot nothing, with skin and sinews creased and stretched like the parchment leaves of a family bible. Her face was remarkable for an expansive smile sewn from one ear to the other, and watery blue eyes which she constantly wiped with a duster. She was never to be seen – but once – without a huge hat which practically concealed her like an umbrella.

You get the idea. We are in deepest, deep England in the 1930s. And where would deep England be without bells?

Although really far too old and frail, Mrs Hartwell refused to relinquish the bell rope with its fluffy stripes in red, white and blue… She regarded the pulling of it as her sacred duty, which she would surrender to no one, until breath, as she put it, was out of her body. The act was sometimes attended by alarming manifestations. For bell ringing, even with one rope, necessitates a sense of rhythm in the ringer. Mrs Hartwell lacked this sense. Occasionally she would pull too soon, or too late. The rope thereupon gave a jerk and if she failed to let go – it was not in her nature to let go of things – she would be swept up the belfry. When this happened she would either cling to the rope until it came down again, or she would swing on it until her feet touched a ladder kept permanently fixed to the wall to enable workmen or builders to go up the tower. With astonishing agility for a person of her years she would scramble down the ladder and resume ringing as though nothing had happened.

Sooner or later this strategy was bound to go horribly wrong.

Once, having been carried upwards, she failed for some reason to swing across to the ladder. Owing to the unusual velocity of her ascent the whole mechanism of the bell became dislocated, and the rope did not come down again. Mrs Hartwell was left clinging to a small fraction of the fluffly part which was stuck in the hole of the ceiling some thirty feet above the ground. She looked like one of those medieval saints in a state of levitation. Beneath a voluminous skirt and petticoats her button boots could be observed going through the motions of someone trying desperately and ineffectually to swim. The impact of her poor head against the ceiling had dislodged the purple umbrella of cherries, which floated pathetically to the floor. Yet no cry of alarm escaped her. The congregation anxiously gathered under the tower and began shouting contradictory directions how she was on no account to let go. With much presence of mind the Vicar ran to fetch Haines, our chauffer, to come to the rescue. My mother, whose behaviour in a crisis was unpredictable, called loudly for a grappling iron. ‘Whatever’s that, m’m?’ somebody asked. ‘I don’t know’ was her answer. Determined, nevertheless to offer encouragement, if nothing else, she kept repeating, ‘It’s all right, Mrs Hartwell. You’ve nothing to worry about. I’ve got your hat,’ which was scant consolation to a septuagenarian clinging to an inch of rope for dear life. Eventually, Haines, when found, was able by climbing through the trapdoor to the ceiling to release the rope, which had got jammed in the wheel of the bell. Slowly Mrs Hartwell was lowered into the font. Quite underterred by this mishap she shook herself, put on her hat and began pulling the rope all over again.

Only in deep England…

Reading this it occurred to Beach that there must be a lot of other bell stories out there: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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3 Dec 2012: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes in with this extraordinary list. ‘There are many inventive ways to die of a church bell: caught up in a rope and hung, crushed by a falling bell, felled by a rogue clapper, and, if you believe the legends (see The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers), killed by the vibrations while trapped in a bell chamber. Here are a few tales from the belfry. TOLLS BELL, NEARLY HANGS Bellefontaine. O., Jan. 20.—Harry Warner, janitor at St. Boniface church, Piqua, while pulling the bell, suddenly found himself hanging above the floor. A noose in the bell rope had caught him about the neck and he narrowly escaped death. Massillon [OH] Evening Independent 20 January 1914: p. 3 KILLED BY A BELL CLAPPER Sexton of Okemah, Ok., Church Struck on Head by 10-Pound Metal. Okemah, Ok., April 23, Oliver Derby was killed here last night while he was ringing the bell of the Methodist Church. The 10-pound iron clapper became detached from the bell and crashed through the ceiling, striking him on the head. Kansas City [MO] Star 24 April 1915: p. 1 BELL FALLS IN CHURCH, BRITISH RECTOR KILLED Blanford, England. The Rector of Okeford Firtz-Paine, a village near here, the Reverend William Mortimer, was killed by a bell in his church. The half-ton bell hit him when it crashed to the floor.  If a bell falls down from the belfry and is hitting someone on the head and he dies, the parish pays fine for three marks. Aldre Vastgotalagen. The Elder Law of the West Goths. OWL TOLLS CHURCH BELL. Big Bird Gives Bloomfield , N.J. , Combined Fire and Ghost Scare. The bell in the tower of the little Methodist church at Bloomfield, N.J., used as a fire tocsin, boomed alarm after alarm across the quiet country early on a recent morning. Scores of residents turned out, many of the men with buckets and axes, to help the local department face the dreaded fires. But no red glares showed in the sky, and they found the church locked, just as Sexton Harry Van Ness left it Sunday night. “A ghost, by heck!” whispered Van Ness. “No livin’ man’s tollin’ that bell!”  He refused to enter the tower. The bell kept on tolling more fire alarms. There was a call for volunteers. Brave Giles Van Riper stepped from the ranks and unlocked the door. “Who’s ringin’ that bell?” demanded Van Riper. “Declar’ yourself before I come after you!” “Who-oo-oo!” came the mocking answer, in a tone like a siren in a fog. Backed up by a score, Van Riper climbed aloft. Ding dong, ding dong, continued the bell. Then there was a flash of white into Van Riper’s face, and something cut across his flesh like the bony fingers of a skeleton. He and the valiant twenty piled down the steps in a panic. Outside they waited until dawn, when the spirit should go back into its hiding place. Just as the sun rose the last peal sounded. Cautiously they reascended the steps, and there—dead as a morgue full of doornails—they found a great white owl. One of its talons had caught fast in the bell rope when it flew into the tower after a pigeon. The owl’s struggles to escape caused the bell to ring. It died of exhaustion. The Logansport [IN] Pharos 28 August 1907: p. 7 A GHOST RINGS THE BELL The Woman in White Who Is Startling an Arkansas Community. In the village of Lincolntown, which is settled principally by negroes, and which lies eight or nine miles south of this place, there is a little church, surrounding which is a mystery that is greatly perplexing and worrying the community. Every night there is to be seen in the belfry of the edifice a woman in white, who rings the bell three times in the most solemn fashion and who then disappears. How the woman gets there is what is puzzling the good people of Lincolntown, for the only approach to the belfry is a stairway to which entrance is gained by a single door, and not only is this door guarded every night since the commencement of the mysterious tolling, but the staircase is watched by 200 or 300 eyes, and at dark the belfry itself is searched and is found to be entirely empty. Besides, the belfry is only large enough to hold the bell itself, and when that is in motion there is no footing for a person. The rope that is ordinarily employed in ringing the bell hangs all the time in plain view of the crowd and is perfectly motionless. The woman is also distinctly visible, but whether white or black it is impossible to tell. Even if the figure itself was a figment of the imagination, the ringing of the bell is not, as that is to be unmistakably heard for a quarter of a mile. The negroes are much excited over the matter and say that it is a portent of ill to the race. As to the identity of the ghost, it is generally believed that it is the restless spirit of a woman named Jonelle Lambkin, who, on account of some misdemeanour charged against her, was put out of the church here in spite of her continued reiteration of her innocence. Jonelle died about two months ago, alleging with her dying breath that she was a wrongfully accused woman and that the community would ultimately receive proof of this. Arkadelphia (Ark.) Dispatch. Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 15 December 1893: p. 4 And this luridly unlikely tale Pastor Tied to Clapper By Bellringer and Killed Rome, Sept. 21. Bound to the clapper and crushed to death in the biggest bell of the famous Malalbergo chimes, the parson of the church from which the notes sounded paid horribly this week for wrecking the home of the bellringer, who compassed his punishment. The murderer, still chuckling over his victim’s fearful ending, awaits trial in prison. His wife has gone made with horror. Against the pastor there is but one witness—the ringer of the chimes. Going to the church loft to sound the bells for the usual service he surprised his wife and the pastor, he says, in one another’s arms. The pastor stumbled and before he could recover himself the bellringer had seized and tied him hand and foot to the clapper of the principal bell and began to sound the chimes furiously. The murdered man’s blood, streaming upon them from the bell tower conveyed the first news of the tragedy to the congregation. Hurrying up the ladder to the loft they found the pastor with nearly every bone in his body broken and the ringer still madly crashing the bells. [syndicated in several papers on various dates in September, 1907]. Thanks Chris!