Liberty Bell – Literally right across the street from Independence Hall is one of the nation’s most iconic and recognizable symbols of freedom: the Liberty Bell. It was ordered in 1751 for the bell tower atop Independence Hall, but got its first crack within months of finding its new home. And that’s how it all started.
Amy and I realized as we walked through the building that houses the bell that we had pretty no clue as to why the darn thing was so important. Was the Star-Spangled Banner first chimed out on this thing? Did it alert the Minutemen that the Redcoats were coming? Did it killer Hitler?
Turns out it did none of these things. It’s just a bell for the most part. It rang to announce the opening of the First Continental Congress and after the battle of Lexington and Concord at the start of the Revolutionary War. In the 1830s it was adopted by the American Anti-Slavery Society as a symbol of the abolitionist movement. Before then it wasn’t even called the Liberty Bell. Originally, it was called Independence Bell or Old Yankee’s Bell, which sucks considering Philadelphia has way more Phillies fans than Yankees fans. I can see why they changed it.
And here’s a little somethin’ to pass onto those looking for Liberty Bill trivia—the huge crack we see today isn’t from the bell breaking; it’s from a crap attempt to fix the bell that went horribly wrong. You know how it is when you continue to use something that’s clearly broken. One of my recliners, for example, makes cracking noises every time I flip up the footrest. Does the fact that I’m probably continuing to ruin it hinder my using it? Not at all, and so it goes with Philadelphians and the Liberty Bell.
When it came to fix it, the bell doctors separated the crack a little bit to insert pins at the top and bottom of the split that were supposed to stabilize the structure and return the bell’s natural timbre. But instead of saving they day these two goofballs pretty much forced the bell into retirement forever, which worked out for Independence National Park, because it was still in that bell tower they couldn’t make any money off it being on display. See? Everybody wins. Except the Brittish. And Hitler.
Ben Franklin’s Grave – Christ Church in Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin attended weekly services, purchased two acres of land in 1719 for the purpose of burying the town’s glorious dead. Today there are something like 4000 historic Philadelphians within those walls, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence, but you have to pay $2 for the full tour.
Were Franklin himself buried somewhere in the middle of the grounds, only to be seen with the price of admission, we would’ve sucked it up and dropped the two bones. But as it happened Franklin’s grave was visible from the sidewalk, and we arrived at the same time as a city tour guide and so got to listen in a bit.
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The thing about doling out for a tour guide is that you get extra tidbits you wouldn’t have known anything about otherwise unless you’d read a pretty detailed biography. In this case we found out that Benjamin Franklin’s son was a Loyalist, so the two never really got along and after The Good Guys won the Revolutionary War, Franklin Junior had really no choice but to move back to Britain and finish out his days there. Sort of messed up the American descendancy of the Franklin family tree. Ben’s wife is interred at the Christ Church cemetery, though, as his grandson. So there’s that.
On the topic of Ben Franklin and death, we also learned that because infant mortality rates were so horrible in the 18th Century, families would actually give several of their infants the same name knowing that it was likely some of them would die. In Franklin’s case, “Benjamin” was an important family name, so he actually had four brothers named Benjamin Franklin, even though he was the only one to survive his childhood. George Foreman would have been right at home in the 1700s, wouldn’t he?
Betsy Ross Home & Grave – We all know the Betsy Ross story. George Washington and a committee allegedly came to the Ross home in 1775 to ask Mrs. Ross, an upholsterer in the Philadelphia region, to design and construct the nation’s first flag. The result was the precursor to our modern flag, except there were only thirteen stars then, and they were arranged in a circle instead of rows.
Unfortunately, this whole story might be a big stinky load of yoo-hoo.
They don’t tell you this at the Betsy Ross Home, of course, because you’re paying admission to learn more about how awesome and iconic Ross was. But that’s okay. It was neat to look straight into the room that plays the backdrop to the most famous Betsy Ross painting. The place was very small but had a cool basement, which served as a combination store room and work area.
As for how much Ross actually had to do with the construction of one of the world’s most instantly recognizable flags, most of what we know comes from Ross’s grandson, who was 11 when his famous grandmother passed away and didn’t share the story we all know and love until 34 years later, when he was well into adulthood. Thing is, there’s really no evidence to discount his stories. More importantly, however, is that there’s really no evidence to successfully prove it, either.
While it’s indisputable that Ross made flags for the burgeoning U.S. government, nobody really knows for sure if she made the first flag. There were seventeen other people in Philadelphia with the same profession as Ross, and other artists and government men claimed to have had a hand in designing our banner. In any event, I’m not one to rain on the parade of one of America’s earliest female heroes. I’m just sayin’, that’s all.
Eastern State Penitentiary – One of my favorite things to do on vacations is visit old prisons. I blame the Ohio State Reformatory (a.k.a. Shawshank) for this, since touring that dilapidated old prison was one of the coolest things I’ve ever personally seen. Alcatraz was a cool experience, too, and Philly’s Eastern State Pen was supposed to rank pretty high on the list of neat-o American prisons, too, so I talked Amy into going with me. She may have been reticent at first, but the place was so old and so creepy that we were too overwhelmed to be bored. This place was right up there with the best of them.
ESP’s claim to fame was that it was the first prison to fine-tune the use of solitary confinement, which was there way of actually reforming inmates instead of just shoving society’s outcasts into a cell so they could either rot or kill each other. The idea of prison reform was relatively new in 1829 when the jail opened (it closed in 1971), but the success had by prisoners there inspired a whole new way of looking at the American penal system.
It was designed to look like a castle for the sole purpose of looking imposing to its residents. At the time it was built it was the biggest and most expensive public structure ever built. This wasn’t a quaint little town jailhouse. Al Capone and Willie Sutton did time here, as did many other less famous hardened criminals, and having seen it myself I can say it’s an extremely daunting structure.
Sprawling out like some sort of giant spider, the Eastern State Penitentiary’s wings stretch out in all different directions from one central hub. Since it’s been closed for almost forty years many areas are sort of falling apart, which creates a really cool ambiance up and down the wings. Paint is peeling off the walls, bars are rusted, old bed frames sit twisted and broken in the middle of dirty cells. If you dig the vibe of haunted houses, you’d dig this place, too. My only concern now is that I’m running out of awesome old prisons to visit. Where do I go from here?