As the wounded Colonial soldiers were brought to the Zion Reformed Church, now a temporary field hospital, few could know that beneath the floorboards rested one of the young nation’s most famous symbols. Following is the fascinating story of how the American patriots saved the Liberty Bell from capture by the British, told by a descendant of the man whose courage made it possible.
by Gene Wheeler
In 1777, England made its second greatest effort of the war. British General Howe left a garrison in New York and took 13,000 troops to capture Philadelphia. Washington rose to defend the capital, but on September 11 was outflanked and although defeated at Brandywine Creek, his army was not destroyed. Washington retreated to Chester, Pa.
Several days later the Americans suffered another defeat at Paoli, Pa. Several hundred Americans were killed under a British bayonet attack. The American Congress fled from Philadelphia to York, Pa., and Howe entered Philadelphia without opposition in late September.
Howe quartered a part of his army at nearby Germantown. On October 4, the Americans attacked this garrison and seemed to have won a victory until the British made a determined stand in the Chew house. British reinforcements came up from Philadelphia while the besieged house still held out, and Washington’s little army retreated. The Americans then took up their miserable winter quarters at Valley Forge.
Fearing the possibility of capture by the enemy, on June 16, 1777, the Assembly of Pennsylvania meeting in the State House at Philadelphia voted to authorize the removal of all bells belonging to several churches and other public buildings and all copper and brass to a place of safety. The Continental Congress, meeting in Independence Hall, on September 14, 1777 (three days after the Battle of Brandywine) resolved that all public bells in Philadelphia be removed to a place of security upon a near approach of the enemy to the city.
The order to remove the bells was passed along to Colonel Benjamin Flower, and his instructions read: “Ordered: that Colonel Flower employ James Worrell, Francis Allison and Mr. Evans, Carpenters, or such other workmen as he may think proper to employ, to take down the Bells of all the public Buildings in this city and convey them to safety.”
They had their work cut out for them. Not only did they have to get the bells down, but also to convey them to safety. Eleven bells in all had to be removed. Most had to be taken from fairly high steeples, loaded aboard wagons, and spirited out of the city, all under the cover of night.
Once they were down, Colonel Flowers had to decide whether or not to move them by Army transport wagons leaving the area with increasing frequency. If they were to be overtaken by the British, they would certainly end up as shot designed for Americans. His reasoning might then have led him to seek out farmers bringing produce into the city from the area where the bells were destined to go, Allentown (then Northampton Town). Traditionally, these Pennsylvania German farmers brought their wares into Philadelphia and returned to their farms north of the city with empty wagons. A few of these wagons, with the bells secreted in them and covered with hay or straw, might be a better device. Should the British pass such a convoy, there would be a slightly lesser chance that they would be searched.
There are two stories recorded about whose wagon was used to haul the Liberty Bell out of Philadelphia. One states that the man chosen was one John Jacob Mickley. The exact date of the bells’ departure is unknown, perhaps a tribute to the extent of Flowers’ well-kept secret. Some historians give the date as September 16 or 17 when the bells were taken down.
Whatever the date, Howe marched into Philadelphia on September 27 but did not send a patrol in pursuit of the fleeing wagon train, undoubtedly because he needed all of his men to secure the city and to repulse Washington’s counterattack at Germantown on October 4.
The bells were taken via Bethlehem to Allentown. At some point along the way, the bell wagons joined an Army convoy of some 700 other wagons, and they rattled into Bethlehem.
As the wagon bearing the heavy Great Bell reached the center of town on September 24, the great weight broke the wagon. As the first story goes, the Bell was transferred to a wagon owned and driven by Frederick Loeser, who then carted the Bell on to Allentown.
The Bell’s hiding place until 1778 was in the basement of the Zion High German Reformed Church of Allentown, where it arrived early on the morning of September 25. Other bells were hidden in the same basement, and the church above them served as a military hospital until the British evacuated Philadelphia.
John Jacob Mickley and Frederick Loeser both have commemorative tablets in Pennsylvania that honor the parts they played in the saving of the Bell. The Loeser tablet stands at Loeser Lake just off Route 143 near Jacksonville, Pa., in upper Lehigh County, not far from Frederick’s farmland. The tablet dedicated to Mickley is outside the entrance to the Liberty Bell Shrine located at the Zion Church in Allentown and also mentions Frederick’s role in the transport of the Bell. The shrine is housed in the same basement where the Bell was harbored during its year-long stay in Allentown.
When the British completed their evacuation of Philadelphia on June 18, 1777, the bells at Allentown were free to leave their refuge, and they lost no time in doing so. It is recorded that they departed on June 27, and on August 22, the Pennsylvania Packet stated that the bells had been returned safe and hung again.
Another version of this story remains. At the dedication of the Loeser tablet at Loeser Lake in 1928 by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Frederick’s role was recorded as follows:
He with his new wagon and fine span of four horses, which were his pride and joy, Frederick Leaser set out from his home in Lynn Township with a load of farm products for Philadelphia. Arriving at his destination, he disposed of his cargo, made some purchases and planned to start his journey home next morning. The whole city was in a state of excitement. Rumors as to the nearness of the British Army were on every tongue.
Early next morning, when he went out to the stables to get his team, he discovered that both his horses and wagon had been commandeered, and that the wagon was laden with military stores, among which was the State House bell. Upon being informed that the destination of the cargo was either Bethlehem or Allentown, he cheerfully offered his services and the use of his team.
The officers in charge of the removal of the bells from the city were pleased with Mr. Leaser’s attitude and restored to him his team. Thus did Frederick Leaser and his fine span of horses become a part of the baggage train of the Continental Army.
Going down the hill at the ‘platz’ in Bethlehem towards the Monocacy Creek, one of the rear wheels broke, due no doubt to the method of braking with chains. After some delay, a wheel was obtained at the local wheelwright shop and the journey was continued to Allentown, where the bells were placed in the cellar of Zion Reformed Church. After which Frederick Leaser was permitted to return to his home with his team.
Meanwhile the family had become alarmed on account of his not returning within the usual time. They feared that he might have been waylaid by a band of Indians or perhaps fallen into the hands of the British soldiers. There was great rejoicing when he finally reached home. In later years he was fond of recounting this outstanding event of his life.
Such is the story of the hauling of the Liberty Bell by Frederick Leaser, as told by Dorothea Follweiler, his daughter, to her children and grandchildren.
Another account was written that supports the version that Frederick hauled the Bell from Philadelphia to Allentown, and that Jacob Mickley played a different role in the episode.
It was Frederick Leaser, who in 1777 hauled the famous bell from Philadelphia to Allentown, where it was hidden under the floor of the old Zion’s Reformed Church. Pioneer Leaser was a farmer and distiller. His grain and apple-jack he hauled to Philadelphia, where it was utilized. His descendants who are quite numerous love to relate the following interesting story:
That on a certain Monday morning he started away from home on his accustomed monthly trip to Philadelphia with a number of barrels of apple-jack on his large and strong Conestoga wagon, to which were hitched four well kept black horses. The distance from his home was some 60 miles. The trip usually consumed five days and occasionally a day or two longer, depending upon the condition of the roads. Upon this particular occasion when the seventh and finally the 8th day had passed and the head of the Leaser household had not yet returned, the family became alarmed and their anxiety became more intense as the hours of subsequent days passed by and the husband and father failed to return. It was feared that Frederick Leaser had met with an accident, or had been killed by roving bands of Indians, or perchance had fallen into the hands of the British. He was strong for the freedom of the colonies. The gloom that had fallen upon his family was happily dispelled on the Saturday morning of the second week when Leaser returned home safe and sound, announcing to his family and neighbors that he had hauled the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia to Allentown, where they hid it under the floor of Zion’s Reformed Church.
The story of how the team of Frederick Leaser was drafted into service is related alike by his many descendants. It reads as follows:
A committee had been visiting the hotels where farmers stopped with their teams in Philadelphia. That the committee selected Leaser’s wagon because it was new and strong; and when the committee passed through the stables to select good horses, they came to a place where four heavy black horses were feeding. They selected them. They next inquired for the owner of the wagon and also the horses and incidentally they belonged to the same man.
After the loading of the bell, the trip was begun. Soldiers accompanied the team. One John Jacob Mickley from Northampton County, Pa., held a minor office under the colonies in the Revolutionary War. Well founded tradition tells us that he led the procession and had charge of the soldiers and the guarding of the bell on its journey and assisted in hiding it under the church floor where it remained until after the close of the war.
Frederick died in 1810, possibly before the census of that year. He is buried in the family cemetery located in the middle of a soybean field on the farm he once owned in Lynn Township. It is near Jacksonville, Lehigh County, Pa., the same land originally purchased by his father, Jacob. Lehigh County was created from Northampton County in 1812.
His son, Daniel Loeser, is identified in the History of Lehigh County, Pa., with his birth and death dates given therein. He was born in 1772 and died in 1814. He is found in the census of 1800 with his surname spelled “Leysor,” and with a family of one son and two daughters under ten. Daniel is also buried in the family cemetery near his father.
Upon Frederick’s death, part of the Leaser homestead was left to his daughter, Maria Dorothea, and her husband, Jesse Follweiler, along with the famous wagon. It was still in use in 1833, when it was used to transport a “liberty pole” from a nearby mountain side to Loeser Lake, where it was erected to celebrate the re-election of President Andrew Jackson. When it was no longer fit for use, it was divided, and two wheels and a part of the wagon were given by Follweiler to his brother, who lived on the original homestead. In 1855, the barn on the Jesse Follweiler farm was struck by lightning and burned, consuming part of the old wagon. In 1888, the barn on the homestead burned down, and the other part of the wagon was destroyed.
John Jacob Mickley
John Jacob Mickley was descended from Huguenots who fled French persecution to find refuge among their Reformed brethren in the Palatinate. The Protestant family then migrated to the American colonies, settled in Egypt, Pa., and united with the local German Reformed congregation.
John’s daughter Sarah was married to Henry Blummer, son of Rev. Abraham Blummer, the pastor of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown where the Liberty Bell was secretly hidden. John’s 11-year old son and namesake accompanied him on the trip and is reported to have taken turns driving the wagon team. John Jacob Mickley served as a private in the Northampton County Militia in 1776 in Captain Benjamin Weiser’s company.