A Ring Around Oxford

Every half hour, a hammer strikes the old bell in the clock tower atop Seney Hall with a melodious clang. Cast in 1796, it is the oldest historical item at Oxford College.

"The bell is a great symbol because of its mysterious acquisition by President Alexander Means in 1855 and because it has regulated campus life since that time," says Oxford College Dean William H. Murdy.

Over the decades, the bell has been used to mark much more than just the mere passage of time. At Oxford's annual Commencement ceremonies, the bell rings once in honor of each graduate. In 1936, to celebrate Emory's centennial, an electric wire was run from the bell to the desk of President Harvey W. Cox, and when he pressed a button it began to ring one hundred times.

Perhaps the most poignant ring came at the end of the War Between the States. According to a November 1936 article about the bell in the Emory Wheel, "Its lusty pealing one cold day in Jan., 1866, was signal for the reopening of the college after it had been closed during the Civil War and used as a barracks and hospital."

Ironically, the bell's ringing out the end of the war almost never happened. In 1862, Emory's trustees offered to give the bell to the Augusta Arsenal to be melted down into armaments. In a letter, a Confederate Army major declined the offer: "Whenever the patriotic offering shall be needed I will gladly inform you. At this time I have sufficient metal to keep the foundries working up to their ability."

The bell itself weighs about five hundred pounds and is made of a copper-and-tin alloy. On one side there is a cross, and directly opposite is a figure of the Virgin Mary, her hands folded in prayer. There are also several inscriptions, written in a mixture of Latin and Spanish, including the date the bell was cast and a short poem: "May my voice loud and clear, with sweet melody, Praise God, and worship Him."

The bell arrived at Oxford in 1855 and was a gift from Alexander Means, the fourth president of Emory College (1854-55). Its first home was in Oxford's original administration building, but when that structure was razed in 1872, it was hung from a tree on the Quadrangle (the tree limb was saved and is in storage). When Seney Hall was completed in 1881, the bell was moved to the clock tower, where it remains today.

A certain sense of mystery has always shrouded exactly how Means obtained the bell, and there are two primary competing stories. In 1931, the Emory Alumnus published an appeal to anyone who could shed light on the origins of the bell. The magazine subsequently received two letters. In the first, alumnus George W.W. Stone 1875C wrote, "When Napoleon overran Spain he seized a great number of convent bells and sent them into Paris to be molded into cannons. . . . Dr. Alexander Means went to Europe [in the mid-1850s], and while in Paris he bought this bell."

After reading Stone's letter, Sara E. Branham, a Washington, D.C., bacteriologist who was born in Oxford, replied to the contrary. "We literally grew up with that bell," she wrote, "and as children we of Oxford were told only one story. . . . Doctor Means and Queen Victoria were good friends, and she was so interested in the fact that Emory was in a town named Oxford after the English university town that she wished to express her interest by presenting a bell for the college clock."

Soon after this letter was printed, Branham's story was corroborated by President Means' granddaughter, Sue Means Johnson. Since then, the Queen Victoria version has been held by many as the truth. To reinforce that claim, a number of articles over the years have pointed to the fact that when Means visited Europe in the mid-1850s, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society by Queen Victoria, which provides a clear link between the monarch and Means.

Or does it? It seems as if everyone had taken Means' status as a Fellow of the Royal Society as gospel. Everyone, that is, except Jane J. King (now Walsh), who earned her degree from Oxford in 1977. In a folder about the bell in the library at Oxford is a letter King wrote to The Royal Society on November 13, 1975, seeking information about the bell and Means. In his reply, Royal Society librarian N. H. Robinson wrote, "I can only inform you that [Means] was not a Fellow of the Royal Society and we do not have any information about him. I cannot find his name mentioned in any of the standard biographies and I have been unable to trace any original correspondence. I am also not familiar with the story that Dr. Means was presented with a large bell by Queen Victoria."

While Robinson's letter doesn't eliminate the possibility that Queen Victoria presented the bell to Means, it doesn't clear up the mystery, either. The only thing that is certain is that every thirty minutes the bell will toll in Oxford.--J.D.T.

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