Lost Masterpieces

Have You Seen Washington, D.C.’s Missing Liberty Bell?

Washington, D.C.’s Liberty Bell has been missing for over three decades, but Josh Gibson of the city’s council remains determined to find it.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

When the tip came in at 10:30 p.m. on July 3, Josh Gibson, director of communications for the D.C. Council, says it took all of his willpower to keep from immediately jumping into his car.

A reporter who had covered his press conference the previous day was passing on the tip that a full-size Liberty Bell replica had been spotted in a local cemetery, and Gibson was tempted to “do a Scooby Doo and see if I could find the thing with a flashlight.”

But when Gibson arrived on the scene the next morning, his hopes were dashed. There was, in fact, a full-scale Liberty Bell replica in the cemetery, but it was not the one that had gone missing from D.C.’s Wilson Building over three decades before.

In 1950, the U.S. government launched an “Independence Drive” that lasted from May 15 to July 4 to encourage the sale of U.S. Treasury Bonds.

The intention of the initiative was the “encouragement of thrift and the fostering of public interest in the affairs of the Government,” a no doubt important goal in the aftermath of World War II as the Cold War was heating up.

The goal was to sell $650 million worth of bonds, but the states and territories (the first 48 plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and D.C.) beat that amount by over 10 percent.

Their reward was a full-scale, exact replica of the Liberty Bell for each of the geographic regions that had participated. According to a government report, “these reproductions were presented by the Secretary of the Treasury…with the intention that the bells should be kept permanently on public, noncommercial exhibition.”

Since its chimes rang out in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, signaling that the brand new Declaration of Independence was about to be read, the Liberty Bell has become an emblem of freedom and democracy in America.

Its symbolic destiny was set when it was first installed in 1751 in the tower of what would become known as Independence Hall inscribed with a quote from Leviticus that read, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

It was such a powerful symbol, that it was adopted—and given its name—by abolitionists, who used the bell as the sign of the cause starting in the 1930s. Less than a decade later, the Liberty Bell would go silent when its signature crack suddenly appeared.

A piece in the Philadelphia Public Ledger on February 26, 1846, reported on the events of that day: “The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb…It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”

But despite its jagged crack, the Liberty Bell became firmly ensconced as a symbol of the American spirit to the point that, in 1950, the federal government decided it was the perfect prize for its overachieving states and territories.

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According to Gibson, the government sent out a request to foundries around the world for their proposed plan to create 55 full-scale (and crack-free, of course) copies of the bell. The winner was a company in France called Paccard.

“The decision was made at the end of the business day in America, which means it was like midnight in France,” Gibson, who visited the foundry last summer while on family vacation, tells The Daily Beast. “So they got a phone call saying, ‘You got it. You’re going to be making the 55 Liberty Bells.’ And apparently they were popping the corks on champagne. That’s a big get if you run a bell factory.”

The Liberty Bell replica gifted to the District of Columbia was originally installed at the top of the stairs of the Wilson Building, the district’s city hall and state house. A few years later, it was moved to a small park in front of the building where it stayed for nearly three decades and became something of a landmark in the city, a place local residents often picked to meet-up with friends.

But that all changed at the end of the 1970s. According to Gibson, the mystery of the missing D.C. bell was set in motion during President Kennedy’s inauguration.

“The backstory is that, when JFK was having his inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, he was looking around and basically said, ‘What a dump. It looks shabby; it’s a lot of second hand stores; it just doesn’t look like the main street of the main city of the main country.’”

It would take nearly two decades for the slow trudge of bureaucracy to take effect, but, eventually, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) was formed for the purpose of renovating and reviving the street. But, first, they had to relocate the four small monuments that were in the way of the beautification process.

A statue of Benjamin Franklin and the Temperance Fountain were moved to a nearby location. A statue of Boss Shepherd, an early governor of the district, “got kind of deliberately exiled, sent out to sort of the hinterlands of the district because he had historically fallen out of favor at the time. But he was never really lost, people knew where he was,” Gibson says…even if where he was happened, for a time, to be standing guard at the sewage treatment plant.

But the Liberty Bell vanished without a trace.

Gibson has spent the better part of two years trying to track down what happened to this monument. (In his role as director of communications, he has made something of a name for himself in investigating the mysteries of the district and the Wilson building in particular.)

He knows from a mention in a press account that the bell was still standing in front of the building in 1979. But by mid-1981, there were reports that it had gone missing and that no one had been able to discover its whereabouts.

On his quest to crack the case, Gibson came across the name of the person who had served point between the D.C. government and the PADC.

As luck would have it, he finally found the man last week, two days before his press conference. But it turned out to be a dead end. The former bureaucrat remembered the three other monuments that were moved, “but he did not remember a thing about the Liberty Bell.”

“This guy who I thought was going to be kind of the missing link of the story, who maybe couldn’t tell me where it is, but maybe could tell me at least where it was, ended up knowing nothing to help me deal with the Liberty Bell situation,” Gibson says.  

He had hoped that the first time he staged a press event on this matter, it would be a victory lap—a big reveal of the discovery of the Liberty Bell that no one at this point remembered was missing. But after realizing that his search was starting to go in circles, he decided it was time to turn to the public for help.

On July 3, Gibson called the media together to announce that the district’s Liberty Bell had been missing for nearly four decades and to request that anyone who had any tips—or fond memories—of the monument to come forward.

Since the press conference, the tips have started to come in. So far, Gibson has toured some of the district’s storage areas with a veteran government worker (“I saw a lot of interesting stuff, but not the Liberty Bell”). He’s been tipped off about a barn sale near Antietam and an antique shop in West Virginia and a museum in Baltimore.

While it may seem difficult for a giant brass and bronze bell that weighs 2,000 pounds to stay hidden for this long, there are some complicating factors in the search.

For starters, there is a double-size Liberty Bell replica sitting in front of Union Station (“I get multiple calls a day that, ‘Oh you bone head, it’s sitting right here’”).

Then, there’s the fact that the Treasury Department graciously gifted themselves with one of the 1950 replicas (which are all numbered above the inscription), which they still have.

Then, of course, there’s the replica that Gibson discovered in the cemetery, which, it turns out, was created by the same French foundry, but in 1976 (the foundry continues to make Liberty Bells to this day).

But despite the false leads and dead ends, Gibson hasn’t given up hope. While theft for scrap metal is not uncommon—and could be worth around $2,000 in this bell’s case—he says he discounts the “nefarious” explanations for what might have happened.

“What I tend to think happened is they stuck it someplace,” Gibson says. “When you’re dealing with a whole city-state like D.C., there’s a lot of places where you do stick stuff. And I think they stuck it someplace and then maybe the person who put it there left the government or no one ever asked for it…and it just stayed wherever it was.”