Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Swiss Bell-Ringers,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1118-1120 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1118, continued:]


This jeu d’esprit is characteristically Poe’s but was overlooked for more than a century. It was first printed in the New York Evening Mirror with an introductory note by N. P. Willis, in the issue of October 10, 1844, and was reprinted from the same type in the Weekly Mirror of the twelfth.

The introductory paragraph is a clear enough ascription to our author, for surely the Mirror had no “regular ally . . . of a very humorous critical vein” except Poe. In his long essay on “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” (SLM, April 1836), Poe had discussed several elaborate mechanical toys, citing David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic and the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, and he had almost certainly observed other automata when Maelzel’s Exhibition — which included a trumpeter — visited Richmond in December 1835.

Poe’s new article was timely. The bell-ringers, “grandly calling themselves the Campanolgians,” first appeared in New York “between the farces” on September 12, 1844, at Niblo’s, and “made a sensational hit.” They appeared at the Tabernacle on October 7, 11, and 16, and again at Niblo’s on November 7.* In the Broadway Journal, October 18, 1845, it was noted (2:231) that “The Bell Ringers, under the direction of Mr. Corbyn, have been literally coining money the past week in New-York, Boston and other places. They are at present in this city, and all who have not heard them, [page 1119:] would do well to visit them this week, as they start en route for Mexico in a few days and will not return probably for two years.” But they were soon back and continued to be popular entertainers in the New York area during the rest of the decade.

Our text is from the columns of the Mirror.


One of the regular allies of the Mirror, a man of a very humorous critical vein, has taken it into his head to prove the Swiss Bell-ringers to be an automaton. We have argued the point with him till we are tired, and have at last sent to beg a copy of their board-bill with affidavits that their stomachs are not wooden and do kindly entertain rolls and sausages. While these documents are coming, we publish the skeleton of our friend’s hypothesis: —

The Swiss Bell-ringers. — The readers of the Mirror scarce need be told, — as most of them have seen and heard for themselves, — that the Swiss Bell-ringers enter, to the number of seven, white-plumed and fancifully costumed, and each armed with four or five hand-bells of various sizes, which they deposit on a cushioned table before them, retaining one in each hand, which they are continually changing for others in their armory, putting down and taking up with the rapidity of jugglers, and all the while ringing the changes upon them with a delicate harmony and precision, which are as perfect in a symphony of Haydn as in “Miss Lucy Long.”(1) The writer alludes to them now only to say, that they may be heard again to-night, and to correct the erroneous but common idea that these Bell-ringers are real living beings. The writer is firmly convinced that they are ingenious pieces of mechanism, contrived on the principle of Maelzel’s Automaton Trumpeter and Piano-forte player (exhibited here some years ago), but made so much more perfect and effective by the application to them of the same power which operates in the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph,(2) but which should here be called Electro-tintinnabulic.(3) A powerful electric battery under the stage communicates by a hidden wire with each of them, and its shocks are regulated and directed by the skilful musician and mechanician who secretly man[a]ges the whole affair. This explains the precision with which they all bow at the same instant, as if moved by the same soul (and so they are — an electric [page 1120:] one), and keep such perfect time and order. For this reason, too, they arrange so carefully their surplus bells before them in such exact spots, just as Maelzel’s Automaton Chess-player always insisted on the pieces being placed exactly on the centre of the squares, so that his mechanically-moved fingers might not miss them. Their very number shows that they were contrived in imitation of the music of the seven spheres,(4) and any lurking doubt of the truth of our theory will be at once removed by noticing how they electrify their hearers.


[page 1120, continued:]


1.  “Miss Lucy Long” or “Take your time, Miss Lucy,” a Negro minstrel song ascribed to Billy Whitlock by Sigmund Spaeth in his History of Popular Music in America (1948), p. 88, was long very popular. For a text, see Heart Songs Dear to the American People, ed. Joe M. Chapple, p. 289.

2.  The telegraphic schemes of Samuel F. B. Morse were much in the public eye in 1844; his famous initial telegram had been sent from Washington to Baltimore on May 24 of that year. There are other references to the telegraph in “Moving Chapters” and “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.”

3.  Tintinnabulic here means tintinnabulous. Compare “The Bells,” line 11, and note concerning words related to tintinnabulation (Mabbott, I, 435, 439).

4.  The music of the spheres, says the Century Dictionary under “Harmony,” is “according to the fancy of Pythagoras and his school, a music imperceptible to human ears, produced by the movements of the heavenly bodies . . . The seven planets produced severally the seven notes of the gamut.”



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1118:]

*  See George C. D. Odell, Annals of the New York Stage, V, 77, 145, and numerous further mentions. Odell comments (p. 77) on their opening at Niblo’s: “This was the first performance of that kind of musical jugglery ever heard in New York, and our ancestors were astonished and delighted. For a while these people were as much discussed as had been Ole Bull or Castellan.”




Although the writer is jesting in this brief piece, there was indeed some hoaxing in the Swiss Bell Ringers. In his autobiography, P. T. Barnum describes how he came to originate this group of performers:

Having heard, while in London in 1844, of a company of “Campanalogians, or Lancashire Bell Ringers,” performing in Ireland, I induced them to meet me in Liverpool, and there engaged them for an American tour. One of my stipulations was, that they should suffer their moustaches to grow, assume a picturesque dress, and be known as the “Swiss Bell Ringers.” They at first objected, in the broad and almost unintelligible dialect of Lancashire, because, as they said, they spoke only the English language, and could not pass muster as Swiss people; but the objection was withdrawn when I assured them, that if they continued to speak in America as they had just spoken to me, they might safely claim to be Swiss, or any thing else, and no one would be any the wiser.

As in other cases, so in this, the deception as to birth-place was of small account, and did no injury. Those seven men were really admirable performers, and by means of their numerous bells, of various sizes, they produced the most delicious music. They attracted much attention in various parts of the United States, in Canada, and in Cuba.

[[The Life of P. T. Barnum, written by himself, New York: Redfield, 1855, p. 345.]]


In the second paragraph of the introductory material, TOM misquotes the commend in the mirror to say “. . . a very humorous turn” rather than “. . . a very humorous critical vein.” The latter form is how the phrase actually appears in the Mirror.


[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Swiss Bell-Ringers)