For whom the bell tolls

Slow and mournful, the Sir Christopher Wren Building Bell tolled through the cold winter night. The ringing startled John Blair in his home on Duke of Gloucester Street.

“Last night the college bell tolled they say about an hour, very slow and regular, till some went up and stopt it, who saw nobody,” reads his February 2, 1751 diary entry.

Nephew of College of William and Mary founder James Blair — and a graduate of the College — John did not offer speculation about the cause of the mysterious ringing.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Research Historian and Associate of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture Dr. Taylor Stoermer explained that most educated 18th-century colonists looked down upon such superstition. Many of the currently popular urban legends in Williamsburg actually date back to the 19th century.

“The few supernatural stories printed in the Virginia Gazette are almost always from foreign — usually French — sources,” Stoermer said. “This was done to show how crazy the French were. Seriously. Just as a way to show how superior the English are. ‘These French will believe in anything.’”

Williamsburg, in addition to being a college town, was the capital of Virginia after 1699, and its citizens were more likely to possess urbane views influenced by the Enlightenment. For example, murder cases based solely on the “ordeal of touch,” the supernatural belief that a murdered body would react if touched by its killer, were thrown out in Williamsburg courts.

Blair and his contemporaries had little time for such nonsense. His diary entry does, however, describe a rather unusual incident.

According to Stoermer, while the Wren cupola stood a story higher in Blair’s time, there was still only one way up and down. It would have been impossible to sneak past the individuals coming out to check on the bell, which would have sounded “slow and regular” only if rung deliberately.

“Blair’s got no response to that whatsoever,” Stoermer said. “He doesn’t write, ‘Wow. OMG, spooky.’ He’s just like, ‘That happened.’”



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