[Right] An NYCHS composite image of Auburn prison historian John N. Miskell in foreground and prison tower in background.
(NYCHS © 2003 photo)

[Left] The front cover of
Retired Deputy
John N. Miskell's
1992 © monograph

'The Bell:
Auburn Prison'

Early one Monday morning in the Spring of 1970, John T. Deegan, Superintendent of Auburn Correctional Facility, buzzed his secretary and requested that she bring in the folder containing inmate disciplinary reports for his review. The folder contained all reports filed by employees of rules violations committed by inmates over the past weekend. Disposition was pending.

NYCHS appreciates having John N. Miskell's permission to present his 1992 monograph The Bell: Auburn Prison.

All © rights involving The Bell: Auburn Prison. text are reserved to and by its author John N. Miskell.

Other than on the cover (see top left), no images appeared in his 1992 paper.

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Deegan did not expect to find any reports of major consequence for he knew that conditions had been relatively quiet in the institution during the past two days. Discipline and order had been maintained without any incidence of serious misconduct.

As he sifted through the usual variety of reports of inmate insolence, poor housekeeping, inmate-to-inmate violence, possession of contraband, and, refusal to work, a report of making homemade booze caught his eye.

Not that making alcoholic beverages was real news. The superintendent knew that inmates from time immemorial schemed of ways of making and hiding homebrew until it ferments; it was one way of breaking up the monotony of living inside a prison.

For some inmates the brewing process is a lucrative albeit illegal business, and the end product is much in demand by their cellmates.

The efforts of enterprising inmates to conceal the brew while it ferments are often ingenious. And, while the batch may be well hidden, officers familiar with the distinct odor emanating from a mixture of raw dough, sugar, juice, potatoes or maybe some fresh fruit or cereal are often able to locate an open container regardless of how well or where it is stashed away.

The officer who had signed the report had made a routine tour through the former steel shop building. Ordinarily there was nothing to report of his weekly inspection of the building, for the shop had been closed for years and the area was being used for miscellaneous storage.

Yet on Sunday the officer had written that he found five gallons of homebrew "bubbling under the bell." He had charged the inmate porter assigned to clean the building with the rules violation.

The superintendent put the report down and thought for a moment about manually operated bells in use in the prison prior to the installation of a system of electrically operated alarm and call bells and watchman's clocks in 1890.

From his study of prison history he knew that bells pulled by ropes or lanyards or held by hand were regularly used to signal orders or sound alarms in the days before the invention of radio, telephone or television. Mentally he reviewed the daily routine:

  • Fifteen minutes before opening the prison in the morning, a bell was rung by the guard at the front gate for the officers and guard to assemble;

  • soon after a small bell was rung in the wings where the convicts lodged, by an officer on night duty, for the convicts to rise, dress, and prepare to come out of their cells.

  • At the end of fifteen minutes, the bell at the front gate was rung again to notify the assistant keepers to pick up their keys from the key room, proceed to their respective galleries and unlock the convicts, then escort the men to the workshops before going to breakfast.

    Bells signaled when inmates were to be marched to the mess hall (shown here in 1895 Auburn Daily Advertiser photo), when they were to be seated to eat, and when they were to be marched back to their shops.
  • Sometime between seven and eight o'clock in the morning, according to the season, a large bell in the center of the yard was rung as a signal for breakfast. The convicts formed lines in their shops and were marched to the mess hall where they took their place at the table.

  • The steward keeper rang a small hand held bell and the men instantly sat down to eat their meal. Twenty minutes or so later the steward rang his bell again and the men rose and were escorted back to their shops. At twelve o'clock noon they dined again, then returned to work as they had after breakfast.

  • On the approach of night the convicts washed their face and hands in the shops, and, at the ringing of the yard bell, they formed a line according to the number of their cells, and marched to the washroom near the kitchen where their mush and molasses and a tin cup of water were placed in rows by the cooks. Picking up their supper without breaking a stride, they marched to their cells. There they ate their meager supper in silence.

  • At an early hour the men were required by a ringing of the hall bell to take off their clothing and go to bed, not to get up again, but from necessity, until the ringing of the morning bell almost ten hours later. It was a long night.

The superintendent mused to himself, times certainly have changed, and not all for the better. He picked up the report for a second time and thought - what "bell" is the officer writing about? Being thoroughly familiar with the institution, he knew that there never had been anything but small shop bells used in the industrial shop area; in fact, he didn't know of the existence of any bell in the entire facility large enough to conceal a five gallon pail.

Noting that the officer had needed assistance when moving the bell because it was so heavy, Deegan became more interested; he wanted to know more about this bell. He picked up the telephone and asked the chart sergeant to relieve Jack Farrington, the reporting officer, from his work assignment and direct him to come to the warden's office for an interview.

Within minutes officer Farrington arrived in the administrator's office. He quickly affirmed the details of his written report. He also mentioned that he had to search for quite awhile before he found the fermenting concoction that smelled so strongly. An old timer who had worked in the prison for years, Jack was able to provide additional information about the bell.

The cover of retired Deputy Superintendent John N. Miskell's "The Long Watch of Cooper John" features a bell tower detail section from an 19th century illustration of Auburn Prison.

Jack stated that the bell in question had been moved to the steel shop after it had been uncovered under a pile of scrap lumber in the basement of ward five in the Women's Prison complex.

That move had been made twelve years earlier when those buildings were scheduled for demolition to make room for the new school building since erected on the same site.

At that time no one seemed to know what to do with the bell, so it had been moved to the steel shop rather than hauled away to the dump. Later it was just forgotten.

Now an inmate used it as a place to hide his booze, booze he would never be allowed to enjoy, for Jack had poured it down the sewer.

After Jack left, John sat in his chair with his hands locked behind his head, thinking about how the prison had looked when he was growing up as a boy in Auburn, back to the days long before he first entered the heavy, wrought iron Front Gate to begin his career as a prison guard.

Searching his memory, Deegan recalled that there had been a large, free hanging bell in the bell tower located on the peak of the original Administration Building. Above the bell on a separate platform stood the statue of a revolutionary war soldier known as "Copper John."

Originally the bell was used as an alarm to warn the citizens of Auburn that there was trouble inside of the prison and to alert members of the local volunteer militia. The militia were expected to rush to the prison to provide assistance if needed.

The old administration building was removed and replaced with the present building during the major renovation of the prison during the 1930s. "Copper John" ascended to new eminence on top of the new building but, as the bell was no longer needed, it was replaced by an electric siren.

Was it possible, Deegan thought, that the bell hidden away in a musty old basement for nearly forty years was actually a valuable memento of the original prison built in 1817 - 1823?

In the next few days photographs of the original bell tower were located by Jim Hill in the identification office. Jim made several enlargements of the bell itself. Down in the maintenance shop Tex Stanton had the bell cleaned up before he examined it more closely. He furnished the information that the bell was made of rough bronze, stands 24" tail and weighs 250 pounds.

Above is prison bell tower detail from a 1853 Cayuga map etching.

A comparison of the bell in the photos and the bell on the state shop floor proved that the superintendent's hunch was correct; it was one and the same bell. There was only one exception, the bell in the photo had a clapper which was now missing. Without a clapper, the bell looked incomplete.

An extensive search of the storage area in the steel shop was made in an attempt to find the bell tongue, or clapper. Almost everything in the area was moved, but the search was fruitless; the clapper could not be found.

Then Willis Watkins, officer in charge of the search, recalled that a work gang known as the "coal gang" was allowed to shower in the building after shoveling coal or moving freight all day. Perhaps the officer formerly in charge of that gang might recall seeing the clapper someplace. He was retired now but still lived in the area, so Willis called him on the telephone.

Above: from page 280 of Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, a section showing prison bell tower.

Below: from circa 1840s woodcut of prison, front view. depicts prison bell tower.

Fortunately Jack McQueeney was home to take the call. He was asked if he had ever seen the bell clapper.

"Sure", he replied, "we used to use it to prop up the window near the washroom to let out the steam from the hot water when my gang showered. Have someone look in the window, the clapper is probably still there."

An officer was sent to the steel shop to check, but he found nothing. Another call was placed to Jack to see if he had any other ideas. . . His response was, "Did anyone open up the window and look between the window and the outside screen? That is where we put the clapper when showering was over, then the window was closed."

Sure enough when the officer looked again and opened the window, there was the clapper, leaning against the outside frame of the window.

Somewhere along the line the clapper had been twisted and bent, probably when it was separated from the middle of the bell. Now it needed to be repaired before re-assembly could be made. Bernie May, welding instructor in the school, volunteered to do the job. He skillfully heated, shaped and then welded the clapper back in place. The bell was now as good as new.

Deegan did not want the bell to become lost again; rather he wanted to put it on display in the front yard near the Front Gate where it could be seen by employees, visitors and passerby alike. He also wanted to have the bell placed in an elevated position so that it would be visible all year round.

George Spears, woodworking instructor in the school, was given the job of designing and fabricating a suitable standard for the bell.

"I can do it," George said,"if I am allowed to fasten the crown in a fixed position. That's the only way that I can balance everything. The clapper will still be able to move back and forth but the bell itself will remain stationary."

Spears was assured that it wouldn't be necessary for the bell to swing, for it would not ever be used again.

Within a week working under George's direction, inmates fabricated a wooden support platform complete with a shake shingle roof. After a coat of stain and three coats of spar varnish were applied the structure containing the bell was loaded on a flat bed truck and moved to a prominent spot in the front yard of the facility.

John Griffin, art instructor, then lettered the year 1817 in gold leaf paint on the yoke of the bell to indicate the year that the first 58 convicts were committed to the prison. They were taken from nearby county jails to aid in the erection of the prison buildings. The actual construction of Auburn Prison had begun on June 28, 1816, when the cornerstone was laid at the corner of the south wall. By the winter of 1817 the institution was ready to receive its first criminals.

The administration building was ready for partial occupancy late in 1818. Work continued and in 1822 the bell was hung in the belfry high above the front entrance to the building. There it remained in service for nearly 115 years.

A bell once stationed inside the prison is among the artifacts displayed in the Cayuga Museum "Both Sides of the Wall" exhibit through Aug. 32, 2003. Sometimes called (perhaps sardonically) the "family bell," such an inside bell would have been used to signal guards to march inmates to and from mess halls, shops and yards. (NYCHS © 2003 photo)

The prediction that the bell would never ring again proved to be incorrect. The surprise ringing of the bell came about in a rather unusual fashion. How it was activated is a story i n itself, interesting enough to be included here.

In the spring of 1979 striking custodial employees manning a picket line outside the front gate of the facility became bored at the inactivity and eerie quiet of the night. In the wee hours of the morning, after drinking a few beers, they schemed of a way to create some excitement on their own.

Aware that supervisory employees who had remained on duty during the strike were sound asleep on cots set up in offices in the nearby administration building, the COs devised a plan to wake everyone up. If they could manage it, the bell which had rung long and loud to protest the escape of four convicts over the front wall during the riot of July 28, 1929, (almost in the spot where they were picketing), would ring once again almost fifty years later. This time it would ring to protest the slow moving of the strike negotiating process which had already lasted for twelve long days.

Several physical changes which had taken place in the main entryway to the prison since 1970 made their task easier.

When the bell platform was originally placed in the front yard in 1970, it was positioned far from the inside of the low, stone front wall of the prison. That crumbling wall was removed in 1977 and was replaced by an iron bar fence which had formerly been used to separate Sing Sing prison from the Hudson river. This fence was erected at Auburn to keep curious people from wandering too close to prison buildings.

The second important assist for the guards was that the bell platform had been moved closer to the sidewalk on State Street when the inmate visiting room had been enlarged and the front facade of the administration building was revamped in 1977. That is why it was comparatively easy for the COs to reach the bell.

First they fashioned a hook out of metal reinforcing rods obtained from a nearby demolition site on Avenue "A" near the prison. They spliced the rods together with wire to make a single rod long enough to reach the bell.

After several tries they were able to snake the cumbersome hook through the fence and snare the bottom of the bell clapper. It took a strong pull to make the clapper move but finally they were able to strike it against the inside of the bell. It rang with a deep resonance.

The unfamiliar sound was startling: loud, low-pitched, and absolutely musical to the C.O.'s ears. Exhilarated, they began to shout, "Wake up, superintendent" and "Wake up, you lieutenants," and with several voices screaming in concert, "Wake up, you other so 'n so's," they kept ringing the bell.

The bell that had hung -- and sometimes had been rung -- in the prison administration building belfry for about 130 years from 1822 is among the artifacts displayed in the Cayuga Museum "Both Sides of the Wall" exhibit through Aug. 32, 2003. The bell, removed in the 1930s when its building was demolished and replaced, was stored away and nearly forgotten until the Spring of 1970.

John N. Miskell's monograph, transcribed into this web page by NYCHS, tells the story of its recovery and restoration. (NYCHS © 2003 photo)

Soon many lights in the building lit up as the sleeping employees wondered what was going on.

The strikers had accomplished their purpose, they had made the night exciting.

The clear, strong peal of a bell can be a captivating sound at times, but it was far more irritating than appealing for those employees inside who were scheduled to be up and on the breakfast serving line in a few short hours.

Only the officers on the outside of the fence enjoyed their prank that night.

Four days later the strike was abruptly settled.

All signs of the picket line were removed, including the infamous hook which vanished in thin air.

The prison soon returned to normal operation. The bell has been mute ever since that night.

Today the bell rests in quiet repose in a place of honor as a memorial of the past history of the prison. It serves as a reminder that historically Auburn Correctional Facility is the oldest prison still in operation in New York State.

Like the bell, the institution has stood the test of time, for it has survived fires, disturbances, riots, citizen protests and employee strikes; it has served its purpose well.

Meanwhile, inside, the struggle against homebrew continues to plague the administrators of the facility . . . .

John N. Miskell
February, 1992

To special presentation on Cayuga Museum
Both Sidies of the Wall

To Auburn&Osborne menu page.

To John Miskell's The Long Watch of Copper John.
To John N. Miskell's
'Executions in
Auburn Prison:
To John N. Miskell's
'Why Auburn?
Prison & Community
To John N. Miskell's
'Offering Hope:
Auburn Seminary,
Prison Connection'
To John N. Miskell's
'Medal of Honor
Rite at Auburn
Inmate Grave'