For whom the bell tolls

Milford residents hear courthouse 'death bell' after 33-year silence

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  • The cupola atop the Pike County Courthouse on Broad Street holds the mysterious "death bell" (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

By Marilyn Rosenthal

— Late one April night, the residents of Milford heard an unaccustomed sound.

The tolling of the courthouse "death bell" is a borough tradition that was quiescent for 33 years. Then, at 10:10 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26, the bell sounded, marking the jury's decision to hand trooper killer Eric Matthew Frein the death penalty.

"It was the most serious order I have ever received from a court in my 34 years as Sheriff of Pike County," said county Sheriff Phil Bueki. "It was very solemn and done with total respect for the law."

Pike County tradition calls for the sheriff to toll the bell 13 times when the jury delivers a death sentence. The last time was in 1984, when Barry Gibbs received the death penalty for murdering a public safety officer.

Before that it was Herman Paul Shultz sentenced to death, hanged at the county jail in 1896 for the murder of his wife, according to Lori Strelecki. Joyous celebrations in the borough marked the event, she said.

A tight spaceThe "death bell" sits inside the cupola atop the 19th-century courthouse. One cannot see the bell from the street. The route to ring the bell is arduous and somewhat dangerous.

In the hallway of the courthouse, next to the holding cell, is a little wooden door. One needs a ladder to get to the attic beyond, where a 100-foot rope hangs from the attic entrance.

It is a very narrow space. Several little steps in a jagged pattern must be mounted to get to the rope, which threads through a pulley attached to the bell.

The bell — made of black metal and approximately 500 pounds — is out of reach. Pulling on the rope rings the bell.

Bells have different tones and rhythmic patterns used for different types of communication. When we say "bells are ringing," it usually means the standard ding-dong pattern. "Chiming" refers to a single ding. When "tolling" — from the English tradition of "telling" people in the community about a death — a bell is rung every four to six seconds.

Serving as the county courthouse before 1873 was the 1815 stone building that now serves as the county jail. The older building had no bell — but it did have a very loud horn:

"At first there was no bell upon the court-house, and when the judges and lawyers and persons interested were to be summoned, the sheriff mountain the cupola and blew most piercing blasts upon a huge tin horn," says the Statement of Significance by Pike County Historian George Fluhr for the National Register of Historic Places. "This was superseded by a huge triangle, upon which the sheriff or a tipstaff dealt resounding blows that were not unmusical, and this, in turn, gave way in 1844 or 1845 to the bell which for many years announced at proper seasons that justice was about to be judicially administered."

'The prisoner stands committed'When the jury in the Frein case announced its decision, some people in the courthouse gallery shouted "Yes!" Others clapped.

District Attorney Ray Tonkin later characterized this as an expression of great relief.

Judge Gregory H. Chelak polled each juror to make clear the decision was unanimous. Then the judge said, "The prisoner stands committed."

These words set in motion the next series of actions, as is the law and tradition of the Commonwealth, passed down from models of English law.

As Pike County's chief law enforcement officer, Bueki led the prisoner by the arm into the courtroom holding cell. Frein, in leg irons and handcuffs, walked slowly.

It was now time for the sheriff to ring the courtroom bell.

When people talk about a bell tolling, they often refer to the 17th-century poet John Donne, who wrote: "For whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee.”

The rest of the quote is not as familiar. Donne felt that, because we are all part of humankind, any person's death is a loss to all of us:

Each man's death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

Related story:"Judge refuses to overturn death sentence of police sniper":

Editor's note: This article was updated from the original to include information about the 1815 courthouse.

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