Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Paper Recounts Burial of the Bell of St. Paul's Church in Eastchester To Save it from the British During the Revolutionary War

On April 28, 1898, Charles Pryer read a paper entitled "The Old Historic Buildings of Westchester County" before The American Numismatic and Archaeological Society of New York City. Included in his paper was an account of the burial of the bell of St. Paul's Church of Eastchester during the Revolutionary War to save it from the British. The pertinent excerpt of the paper is transcribed below, followed by a citation to its source.

"We think most of us would have liked to have looked out of the upper window of the old Manor-house [the so-called "Pell Manor House" known today as Pelhamdale and located at 45 Iden Avenue] one morning toward the close of October, 1776. There on [Page 37 / Page 38] the flats, and on the Albany pike near the homestead, was drawn up the entire army of Sir William Howe for one last review, before marching to attack Washington, then occupying a strong position on Chatterton Heights, near the village of White Plains. This army of Howe's consisted of about ten thousand men, regulars and Hessians, and must have made a fine appearance on that fair autumn morning. Sir William and his staff, with some of the gentry of the neighborhood, lunched under a clump of old chestnuts, several of which are still standing. In this same vicinity and overlooking almost the same scene stands the old East Chester Church, erected some years before the close of the seventeenth century (rebuilt in 1765), and now a venerable and picturesque building surrounded by a spacious churchyard, in which lie buried many who were laid to rest when good Queen Anne was on the throne, and when the Indian arrow and the stone scalping-knife were oft seen in these parts outside the cases of a museum. The structure is of stone, and substantial rather than beautiful, as most of the edifices in this county are that were erected at this early period, but in over two centuries the old bell has never failed to ring at the proper time to call the people together, except on one occasion. Now let us examine into the cause of this omission of the time-honored signal of worship to give its accustomed warning. It was during the Revolution. Howe had driven Washington to North Castle and had himself returned to New York, leaving the section of the country lying between the two regular armies a prey to those irregular and disorderly bands known under the name of Skinners and Cow Boys. The former were nominally on the Continental side, while the latter favored the Royalists; both, however, robbed and plundered indiscrimately and without regard to the politics of their victims. It can readily be understood that they necessarily became the terror of the country, and that all valuables were kept out of sight. As the autumn of the momentous year 1776 declined into winter, and the snow covered the devastated and bleeding land, the people that still remained in their war-haunted homes gave up all their social gatherings and met their friends and neighbors only at the services in the old church.

It was a winter evening, the stars glistened on the snow-clad earth, and the ice-crystals gleamed in the frosty air. The voice of the priest at his vesper hymn floated out from the church upon the still night air:

Ore te per illum crucem
Quam tuliste tristem trucem, etc.

Scarcely had the last words died upon the lips of the speaker, when the doors of the church were violently burst open and a man, in semi-military apparel, rushed in, shoouting: 'Save your lives and property! The Skinners will soon be upon us!' The poor fellow was evidently much wearied from his exertions, and sank down in the nearest seat exhausted. The people gathered round him with a storm of questions: 'How long before they will be here?' 'Where did you see them?' etc.; but they did not waste much time in idle curiosity, and in a moment or two had decided upon a plan to save some of their effects. A few of the strongest went up into the belfry, unhung the bell, and let it down outside the church by means of the rope, then they scattered to their several houses and in an incredibly short time collected all their valuables of gold and silver and returned to the church. These articles, with all the coins in their possession, they put into the bell, and then a couple of the strongest men carried it, not without some difficulty, to a neighboring orchard, [Page 38 / Page 39] where with picks and shovels they dug a hole and buried their treasure, being careful to replace the snow on the spot, so that in the night and at a little distance, it looked as white as the rest of the ground. Scarcely had they returned to their homes before the marauders were upon them and many of the houses were searched, but as we know few things of value were found, so the desperadoes had to content themselves with taking all the horses and cattle they could get in the vicinity, and driving them to their camp.

There was one other singular fact, however, in connection with the old bell; among those who disposed of their coins and silverware at this midnight burial were two brothers, one a very respectable member of society, and the other a drunken ne'er-do-well; both, however, had put money in the general receptacle, and both were in a hurry to get it back in their possession, and by a singular coincidence they both decided to excavate the treasure upon the same evening. There was no connivance between them, as they were not on good terms, owing to the dissolute habits of one, as before stated. The drunken brother is supposed to have arrived at the spot first and started work, taking, as was his custom, drink after drink from a large black bottle that he always carried, until he was more or less under the effect of potations, though the cold air and the hard labor of removing the frozen ground prevented his becoming actually intoxicated. About the time he reached the bell containing the treasure a lantern appeared, evidently carried by somebody coming to the same spot, and, he naturally thought, upon the same mission. Before, however, he could collect his somewhat befogged brains, his brother appeared upon the scene, and immediately accused him of stealing the money. From this the quarrel soon became so heated that words led to blows, and the two men shortly grappled in a desperate struggle, the result of which was, the last comer, and the better of the two brothers, was left dead upon the ground, where he was found next morning by some of the near residents. Of course before long the entire neighborhood was aroused, and a search for the murderer made, but he was never seen more. The strangest part of the entire incident was, that the contents of the bell were not disturbed beyond the amount put in the general pool by the murderer. Even the dead brother's portion was left entirely intact. A few days after the old bell was re-hung in the church tower, and, so far as history is concerned, there is nothing to make us suppose that it was ever removed again."

Source: Pryer, Charles, "The Old Historic Buildings of Westchester County" in The American Numismatic and Archaeological Society of New York City List of Meetings Held and Papers Read Before the Socity Under the Direction of the Committee on Papers and Publications 1898-1899, pp. 37-39 (NY, NY: 1899).

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