Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mysteries and History of Christ Church in Philadelphia

Christ Church in Philadelphia
This article appeared in the free monthly HSP Newsletter, History HitsClick here to subscribe.

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Tales of hidden passageways, underground tunnels, and skeletons always make for an intriguing story. According to historical accounts and newspaper records held here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, there are plenty of good stories about Christ Church, the oldest Episcopal church in Philadelphia.
Founded in 1695, Christ Church on Second Street, north of Market, has a long and honorable past. Founding Fathers, such as George Washington and John Adams, worshipped there, and Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Hewes, and other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried within its graveyard, located at Fifth and Arch Streets.

The church has also been the site of mystery and intrigue. One such story comes from Townsend Ward, a secretary of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who died in 1885. Ward published an account in 1880, which was later reprinted in the Public Ledger in January of 1907. He related how on a cold November evening, the voice of a woman had been heard at Christ Church. The sexton and two young boys searched the church, but no one was located.  A month or so later, the iron door of a sepulcher was opened on the north side of the church, which revealed upon its steps "the body of a young lady in her shroud, who had been buried as dead" but met her grim fate as a "premature burial."

Chime of the Eight Bells
Christ Church is famous for its "Chime of Eight Bells" (pictured at right). The largest bell weighed 2,040 pounds. The bell was cast in England and brought to Philadelphia in 1754 on the ship Myrtilla by Capt. Richard Buden, who lies interred within the church's cemetery. It is with the bells that our mystery begins in earnest.

According to John F. Watson, the early 19th-century Philadelphia antiquarian, after the Declaration of Independence was read to the public on July 4, 1776, the bells of Christ Church rang out. The chimes often rang out to announce public events. The ringing on July 4 was not to the liking of the church rector, the Reverend Jacob Duche, who was loyal to the Crown of England. But it was pleasing to the vestry, who were unanimous in their support of the Rebellion.  It was feared the chimes would be confiscated by the British, so they were taken down in 1777 and purportedly taken to either Bethlehem or Allentown. They were returned after the British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer of 1778.

Newspaper article dated March 26, 1909
During late March in 1909, many Philadelphia newspapers, such as the Bulletin, The Press, and others, ran articles about the discovery of a "Revolutionary Tunnel" leading to Christ Church. The entrance to the tunnel was accidentally found by Edward Duncan and other workmen underneath the hardware store of James M. Vance & Co. at 211-13 Market Street. Described as being some 200 feet in length, 3 feet wide, and 7 feet high, the main passageway terminated at a blind wall where the "remains of an old stairway were also found" along with "the crumbling bones"  of some eight skeletons,  determined later to be located directly underneath the tower of Christ's Church.

As can be imagined, a number of theories were offered to explain both the tunnels and skeletons. It is well known that the grounds of Christ Church have changed over the years. At one time a pond existed at the spot, while at various times, walls and even the remains of a horse stall were found, some 14 feet below the surface.

Most individuals who examined the tunnels said they were Revolutionary-era in construction. Some speculated the tunnels were used by Tories attempting to escape Continental recruitment, while most advocated that it "solved the long perplexing problem as to how the chimes in Christ Church were removed...during the first night of the occupation of Philadelphia" by the British. Said to have been "secretly removed from the tower while the British soldiers closely guarded the Church," they were then placed on a wagon and taken to Allentown, later returned and "sunk in the Delaware River until the war was over."

And the mystery continues. Though pictures appeared in the newspaper showing the entrance to the tunnels, one of the reported discoverers, Mr. James M. Vance, denied the discovery. One newspaper erringly quoted Dr. J. W. Duncan, librarian of the "Pennsylvania Historical Society," though at the time, John W. Jordan actually held that office. Nonetheless, it is an interesting story, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained.

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