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The Ghost in the Clock Tower

Historic Courthouse in West ChesterOctober 31, 2014 | Malcolm Johnstone

The clock tower on top of the historic courthouse is among downtown West Chester's greatest, and oldest, icons. Designed by Thomas U. Walter and built in 1836, the tower sat atop the original courthouse of 1786 until that one was replaced by the current, larger courthouse in 1848. Isaiah Lukens constructed the clock, and the original bell still marks the hour, as it has for 178 years.

In the 1800's, before personal clocks and watches became affordable for anyone but the wealthiest residents, the courthouse clock was an important feature. It kept timely order for appointments that needed to be kept, school classes that needed to start, and trains that were departing.

But among the many legends sprinkled throughout the history of West Chester is that of the clock tower and the strange haunting that took place there.

It happened sometime in the decade before the Civil War -- the precise year is now forgotten -- but the event was clearly remembered by those who were there. It must have been late autumn, just before sunrise on a chilly morning, when the clock tower bell began to ring. Not in the measured way of counting the hours, but an erratic, almost frantic ringing.

And it didn't stop.

The townspeople quickly awoke, certain that some emergency was taking place. But when they gathered at the courthouse, nothing seemed out of place. When the Chief Burgess (equivalent to today's mayor) arrived, he sized up the situation and determined that the bell was being rung by a mischievous youth who must have sneaked into the tower. He ordered a deputy who had arrived from the nearby jail to join him as they went to the tower to arrest the culprit. They were quickly joined by the clock keeper, who had the only key to the tower door. Then they made their way to the scene of the ongoing crime.

Upon arrival to the base of the tower where the only door was located, the clock keeper tried to open it. He found that it was not only locked, but locked from the inside, something that no one thought could be done. Each man tried his hand to force the door open. But it wouldn't budge.

The clock tower bell continued to ring.

Meanwhile, out on the street, an eerie dawn broke, shrouded by fog and bone-chilling cold. People in the crowd soon became alarmed when they began to smell smoke. Not the smoke of stoves and fireplaces, but a smell of a smoldering fire. It was coming from a wood cabin, maybe a half-block away, next to a grove of trees. There was just enough morning light to see that smoke was pouring out of the single cabin window. As people gathered, the cabin door burst open. A young mother, barely able to walk, reached the safety of the outside carrying her young daughter. The father ran out next, coughing and gasping. Then to the horror of the crowd, turned and ran back in. Seconds later he stumbled out again, overcome by smoke. The mother cried that her little boy was still inside.

The bell rang louder, faster.

Men in the crowd, many of them volunteers with the West Chester Fire Company, quickly organized a bucket brigade. One man wrapped a shirt around his head and prepared to run into the house to save the boy. But just before he reached the door the smoke flashed into flame and the crowd could only watch as the fire from the cabin lit the early morning sky. As the fire brigade worked to contain any further disaster, the mother, father, and daughter were helped to the safety of the Assembly Building, a noble structure that once stood next to the courthouse and was used as a public building on High Street.

The bell did not stop clanging. The men at the entrance to the tower could not pull the door open or break it down. And the townspeople outside felt nothing but hopelessness.

As the young family approached the stoop of the Assembly Building entrance, there was the sound of a small voice. It came from the pathway between the Assembly Building and the courthouse. It could barely be heard over the clattering of the bell, still ringing incessantly. But a mother knows the sound of her own child and she recognized that single word that made it through the noise: "Mom?"

The young boy stood in his night clothes, shivering and bewildered. Barely believing what he was seeing, the father stood, caught his balance, and ran to his son, hoisting him to his shoulders.

At that moment, the bell stopped ringing.

Meanwhile, the Chief Burgess, the deputy, and the clock keeper, trying to figure out how big of an ax they would need to break down the door, were relieved the bell was now quiet. The clock keeper decided to try one last time to unlock the door and curiously found that it opened easily, as if it had never been locked. Spending no time thinking about this new mystery, the trio, bent on finding whoever was in there, climbed the last narrow flight of stairs to the clock in the tower, which was now simply ticking, as always, with a slow but sure rhythm.

Outside, there was relief that the boy and his family were safe. It was determined that the heat of the fire that started at the foot of his bed woke the youngster up, but the smoke put him into what could only be called a trance. And one that led him to wander outside to the safety of that place where the bell rang.

The Chief Burgess suddenly slammed through the courthouse doors onto High Street and bolted into the crowd. He was seething.

"We found no one in the tower," he shouted. "If there is anyone who knows anything about this, I need to hear it now." The crowd was silent.

The clock keeper then chimed in. "Whoever was ringing the bell knows everything there is to know about the tower and the clock. Who among you is aware of such a person?"

A young man, maybe fifteen-years-old, shyly spoke up. "My grandfather," he said. "He told me that he helped build the tower and knew how to repair the clock if it broke. He told me he would teach me all about it someday." People in the crowd nodded. They knew him. There was no one who had even half the knowledge he did. That must be the man.

"And where is your grandfather?" asked the Chief Burgess, glaring at the boy.

"I suppose he's at St. Agnes Cemetery," said the boy. "That's where we buried him last year."

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