Legends of the City of Mexico | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in July 2019 with all known ATU Classifications. Further study of ML Types is recommended.

Legend of the Accursed Bell

THIS story, Señor--it is about the accursed bell that once was the clock-bell of the Palace--has so many beginnings that the only way really to get at the bones of it would be for a number of people, all talking at once, to tell the different first parts of it at the same time.

                For, you see, the curse that was upon this bell--that caused it to be brought to trial before the Consejo of the Inquisition, and by the Consejo to be condemned to have its wicked tongue torn out and to be banished from Spain to this country--was made up of several curses which had been in use in other ways elsewhere previously: so that one beginning is with the Moor, and another with Don Gil de Marcadante, and another with the devil-forged armor, and still another with the loosing of all the curses from the cross (wherein for some hundreds of years they were imprisoned) and the fusing of them into the one great curse wherewith this unfortunate bell was afflicted--which happened when that holy emblem was refounded, and with the metal of it this bell was made.

                Concerning the Moor, Señor, I can give you very little information. All that I know about him is that he had the bad name of Muslef; and that he was killed--as he deserved to be killed, being an Infidel--by a Christian knight; and that this knight cut his head off and brought it home with him as an agreeable memento of the occasion, and was very pleased with what he had done. Unfortunately, this knight also brought home with him the Moor's armor--which was of bronze, and so curiously and so beautifully wrought that it evidently had been forged by devils, and which was farther charged with devilishness because it had been worn by an Infidel; and then, still more unfortunately, he neglected to have the armor purified by causing the devils to be exorcised out of it by a Christian priest. Therefore, of course, the devils remained in the armor--ready to make trouble whenever they got the chance.

                How Don Gil de Marcadante came to be the owner of that accursed devil-possessed armor, Señor, I never have heard mentioned. Perhaps he bought it because it happened to fit him; and, certainly--he being a most unusually sinful young gentleman--the curse that was upon it and the devils which were a part of it fitted him to a hair.

                This Don Gil was a student of law in Toledo; but his studies were the very last things to which he turned his attention, and the life that he led was the shame of his respectable brother and his excellent mother's despair. Habitually, he broke every law of the Decalogue, and so brazenly that all the city rang with the stories of his evil doings and his crimes. Moreover, he was of a blusterous nature and a born brawler: ready at the slightest contradiction to burst forth with such a torrent of blasphemies and imprecations that his mouth seemed to be a den of snakes and toads and scorpions; and ever quick to snatch his sword out and to get on in a hurry from words to blows. As his nearest approach to good nature was after he had killed some one in a quarrel of his own making, and as even at those favorable times his temper was of a brittleness, he was not looked upon as an agreeable companion and had few friends.

                This Don Gil had most intimate relations with the devil, as was proved in various ways. Thus, a wound that he received in one of his duels instantly closed and healed itself; on a night of impenetrable darkness, as he went about his evil doings, he was seen to draw apart the heavy gratings of a window as though the thick iron bars had been silken threads; and a stone that he cast at a man in one of his rages--mercifully not hitting him--remained burning hot in the place where it had fallen for several days. Moreover, it was known generally that in the night time, in a very secret and hidden part of his dwelling, he gave himself up to hideous and most horrible sacrileges in which his master the devil had always a part. And so these facts--and others of a like nature--coming to the knowledge of the Holy Office, it was perceived that he was a sorcerer. Therefore he was marched off--wearing his devil-forged armor, to which fresh curses had come with his use of it--to a cell in the Inquisition; and to make sure of holding him fast until the next auto de fé came round, when he was to be burned properly and regularly, he was bound with a great chain, and the chain was secured firmly to a strong staple in the cell wall.

                But the devil, Señor, sometimes saves his own. On a morning, the jailer went as usual to Don Gil's cell with the bread and the water for him; and when he had opened the cell door he saw, as he believed, Don Gil in his armor waiting as usual for his bread and his water: but in a moment he perceived that what he saw was not Don Gil in his armor, but only the accursed armor standing upright full of emptiness; and that the staple was torn out; and that the great chain was broken; and that Don Gil was gone! And then--so much to the horror of the jailer that he immediately went mad of it--the empty armor began slowly to walk up and down the cell!

                After that time Don Gil never was seen, nor was he heard of, again on earth; and so on earth, when the time came for burning him at the auto de fé, he had to be burned in effigy. However--as there could be no doubt about the place to which the devil had taken him--everybody was well satisfied that he got his proper personal burning elsewhere.

                Then it was, Señor, that the Holy Office most wisely ordered that that devil-possessed and doubly accursed armor should be melted, and refounded into a cross: knowing that the sanctity of that blessed emblem would quiet the curses and would hold the devils still and fast. Therefore that order was executed; and the wisdom of it--which some had questioned, on the ground that devils and curses were unsuitable material to make a cross of--was apparent as soon as the bronze turned fluid in the furnace: because there came from the fiery seething midst of it--to the dazed terror of the workmen--shouts of devil-laughter, and imprecations horrible to listen to, and frightful blasphemies; and to these succeeded, as the metal was being poured into the mould, a wild outburst of defiant remonstrance; and then all this demoniac fury died away--as the metal hardened and became fixed as a cross--at first into half-choked cries of agony, and then into confused lamentations, and at the last into little whimpering moans. Thus the devils and the curses were disposed of: and then the cross--holding them imprisoned in its holy substance--was set up in a little townlet not far from Madrid in which just then a cross happened to be wanted; and there it remained usefully for some hundreds of years.

                At the end of that period--by which time everybody was dead who knew what was inside of it--the cross was asked for by the Prior of a little convent in that townlet near Madrid, who desired it that he might have it refounded into a bell; and as the Prior was a worthy person, and as he really needed a bell, his request was granted. So they made out of the cross a very beautiful bell: having on one side of it the two-headed eagle; and having on the other side of it a calvario; and having at the top of it, for its hanging, two imperial lions supporting a cross-bar in the shape of a crown. Then it was hung in the tower of the little convent; and the Prior, and all the Brothers with him, were very much pleased. But that worthy Prior, and those equally worthy Brothers, were not pleased for long, Señor: because the curses and the devils all were loose again--and their chance to do new wickednesses had come!

                On a night of blackness, without any warning whatever, the whole of the townlet was awakened by the prodigious clangor of a bell furiously ringing. In an instant--seeking the cause of this disturbance--everybody came out into the night's blackness: the Señor Cura, the Señor Alcalde, the alguaciles, the Prior, the Brothers, all the townsfolk to the very last one. And when they had looked about them they found that the cause of the disturbance was the new bell of the convent: which was ringing with such an excessive violence that the night's blackness was corrupted with its noise.

                Terror was upon everyone; and greater terror was upon every one when it was found out that the door of the bell-tower was locked, and that the bell was ringing of its lone self: because the bad fact then became evident that only devils could have the matter in hand. The Señor Alcalde alone--being a very valiant gentleman, and not much believing in devils--was not satisfied with that finding. Therefore the Señor Alcalde caused the door to be unlocked and, carrying a torch with him, entered the bell-tower; and there he found the bell-rope crazily flying up and down as though a dozen men were pulling it, and nobody was pulling it--which sight somewhat shook his nerves. However, because of his valorousness, he only stopped to cross himself; and then he went on bravely up the belfry stair. But what he saw when he was come into the belfry fairly brought him to a stand. For there was the bell ringing tempestuously; and never a visible hand was near it; and the only living thing that he found in the belfry was a great black cat with its tail bushed out and its fur bristling--which evil animal for a moment leered at him malignantly, with its green eyes gleaming in the torch-light, and then sprang past him and dashed down the stair.

                Then the Señor Alcalde, no longer doubting that the bell was being rung by devils, and himself not knowing how to manage devils, called down from the belfry to the Señor Cura to come up and take charge of the matter: whereupon the Señor Cura, holding his courage in both hands, did come up into the belfry, bringing his hisopo with him, and fell to sprinkling the bell with holy water--which seemed to him, so far as he could see his way into that difficult tangle, the best thing that he could do. But his doing it, of course, was the very worst thing that he could have done: because, you see, Señor, the devils were angered beyond all endurance by being scalded with the holy water (that being the effect that holy water has upon devils) and so only rang the bell the more furiously in their agony of pain. Then the Señor Alcalde and the Señor Cura perceived that they could not quiet the devils, and decided to give up trying to. Therefore they came down from the belfry together--and they, and everybody with them, went away through the night's blackness crossing themselves, and were glad to be safe again in their homes.

                The next day the Señor Alcalde made a formal inquest into the whole matter: citing to appear before him all the townsfolk and all the Brothers, and questioning them closely every one. And the result of this inquest was to make certain that the bell-ringer of the convent had not rung the bell; nor had any other of the Brothers rung it; nor had any of the townsfolk rung it. Therefore the Señor Alcalde, and with him the Señor Cura--whose opinion was of importance in such a matter--decided that the devil had rung it: and their decision was accepted by everybody, because that was what everybody from the beginning had believed.

                Therefore--because such devilish doings affected the welfare of the whole kingdom--a formal report of all that had happened was submitted to the Cortes; and the Cortes, after pondering the report seriously, perceived that the matter was ecclesiastical and referred it to the Consejo of the Inquisition; and the members of the Consejo, in due course, ordered that all the facts should be digested and regularized and an opinion passed upon them by their Fiscal.

                Being a very painstaking person, the Fiscal went at his work with so great an earnestness that for more than a year he was engaged upon it. First he read all that he could find to read about bells in all the Spanish law books, from the Siete Partidas of Alonzo the Wise downward; then he read all that he could find about bells in such law books of foreign countries as were accessible to him; then, in the light of the information so obtained, he digested and regularized the facts of the case presented for his consideration and applied himself to writing his opinion upon them; and then, at last, he came before the Consejo and read to that body his opinion from beginning to end. Through the whole of a long day the Fiscal read his opinion; and through the whole of the next day, and the next, and the next; and at the end of the fourth day he finished the reading of his opinion and sat down. And the opinion of the Fiscal was that the devil had rung the bell.

                Then the Consejo, after debating for three days upon what had been read by the Fiscal, gave formal approval to his opinion; and in conformity with it the Consejo came to these conclusions:

1. That the ringing of the bell was a matter of no importance to good Christians.

2. That the bell, being possessed of a devil, should have its tongue torn out: so that never again should it dare to ring of its lone devilish self, to the peril of human souls.

3. That the bell, being dangerous to good Christians, should be banished from the Spanish Kingdom to the Indies, and forever should remain tongueless and exiled over seas.

                Thereupon, that wise sentence was executed. The devil-possessed bell was taken down from the belfry of the little convent, and its wicked tongue was torn out of it; then it was carried shamefully and with insults to the coast; then it was put on board of one of the ships of the flota bound for Mexico; and in Mexico, in due course, it arrived. Being come here, and no orders coming with it regarding its disposition, it was brought from Vera Cruz to the Capital and was placed in an odd corner of one of the corridors of the Palace: and there it remained quietly--everybody being shy of meddling with a bell that was known to be alive with witchcraft--for some hundreds of years.

                In that same corner it still was, Señor, when the Conde de Revillagigedo--only a little more than a century ago--became Viceroy; and as soon as that most energetic gentleman saw it he wanted to know in a hurry--being indisposed to let anything or anybody rust in idleness--why a bell that needed only a tongue in it to make it serviceable was not usefully employed. For some time no one could tell him anything more about the bell than that there was a curse upon it; and that answer did not satisfy him, because curses did not count for much in his very practical mind. In the end a very old clerk in the Secretariat gave him the bell's true story; and proved the truth of it by bringing out from deep in the archives an ancient yellowed parchment: which was precisely the royal order, following the decree of the Consejo, that the bell should have its tongue torn out, and forever should remain tongueless and exiled over seas.

                With that order before him, even the Conde de Revillagigedo, Señor, did not venture to have a new tongue put into the bell and to set it to regular work again; but what he did do came to much the same thing. At that very time he was engaged in pushing to a brisk completion the repairs to the Palace--that had gone on for a hundred years languishingly, following the burning of it in the time of the Viceroy Don Gaspar de la Cerda--and among his repairings was the replacement of the Palace clock. Now a clock-bell, Señor, does not need a tongue in it, being struck with hammers from the outside; and so the Conde, whose wits were of an alertness, perceived in a moment that by employing the bell as a clock-bell he could make it useful again without traversing the king's command. And that was what immediately he did with it--and that was how the Palace clock came to have foisted upon it this accursed bell.

                But, so far as I have heard, Señor, this bell conducted itself as a clock-bell with a perfect regularity and propriety: probably because the devils which were in it had grown too old to be dangerously hurtful, and because the curse that was upon it had weakened with time. I myself, as a boy and as a young man, have heard it doing its duty always punctually; and no doubt it still would be doing its duty had not the busybodying French seen fit--during the period of the Intervention, when they meddled with everything--to put another bell in the place of it and to have it melted down. What was done with the metal when the bell was melted, Señor, I do not know; but I have been told by an old founder of my acquaintance that nothing was done with it: because, as he very positively assured me, when the bell was melted the metal of it went sour in the furnace and refused to be recast.

                If that is true, Señor, it looks as though all those devils in the bell--which came to it from the Moor and from the devil-forged armor and from Don Gil de Marcadante--still had some strength for wickedness left to them even in their old age.


This legend affords an interesting example of folk-growth. As told by Señor Obregón, the story simply is of a church bell "in a little town in Spain" that, being possessed by a devil, rang in an unseemly fashion without human aid; and for that sin was condemned to have its tongue torn out and to be banished to Mexico. As told by Señor Arellano, the story begins with armor that was devil-possessed because worn by the devil-possessed Gil de Marcadante. This armor is recast into a cross wherein the devils are held prisoners and harmless; the cross is recast into a bell of which the loosed devils have possession--and from that point the story goes on as before. As told in verse by Señor Juan de Dios Peza, the armor is devil-forged to start with; and is charged still more strongly with devilishness by being worn in succession by an Infidel and by a wicked feudal lord before it comes to Gil de Marcadante--from whose possession of it the story continues as before.

                A fourth, wholly Spanish, version of this legend is found in Becquer's La Cruz del Diablo. In this version the armor belongs in the beginning to one Señor del Segre, whose cruelties lead to a revolt of his vassals that ends in his death and in the burning of his castle--amid the ruins of which the armor remains hanging on a fire-blackened pillar. In time, bandits make their lair in the ruined castle. While a hot dispute over their leadership is in progress among them the armor detaches itself from the pillar and stalks into the midst of the wrangling company. From behind the closed visor a voice declares that their leader is found. Under that leadership the bandits commit all manner of atrocities. Again the country folk rally to fight for their lives. Many of the bandits are killed, but the leader is scatheless. Swords and lances pass through the armor without injuring him. In the blaze of burning dwellings the armor becomes white-hot, but he is unharmed. A wise hermit counsels exorcism. With this spiritual weapon the devil-leader is overcome and captured; and within the armor they find--nothing at all! In true folk-story fashion the narrative rambles on with details of the escape and recapture of the devil-armor "a hundred times." In the end, following again the wise hermit's counsel, the armor is cast into a furnace; and then, being melted, is refounded--to the accompaniment of diabolical shrieks and groans of agony--into a cross. A curious and distinctive feature of this version is that the devils imprisoned in the cross retain their power for evil. Prayers made before that cross bring down curses; criminals resort to it; in its neighborhood is peril of death by violence to honest men. So leaving the matter, Becquer's story ends. The scene of these marvels is the town of Bellver, on the river Segre, close under the southern slope of the Pyrenees. [1]


                Señor Obregón gives what is known of the bell's history in Mexico. It was of "medium size"; the hanger in the shape of an imperial crown supported by two lions; on one side, in relief, the two-headed eagle holding in its talons the arms of Austria; on the other side a Calvario--Christ, St. John, the Virgin; near the lip, the words "Salve Regina," and the legend: "Maese Rodrigo me fecit 1530." From the unknown time of its arrival in Mexico until the last quarter of the eighteenth century it reposed idly in one of the corridors of the Palace. There it was found by the Viceroy (1789-1794) the Conde de Revillagigedo; and by that very energetic personage, to whom idleness of any sort was abhorrent, promptly was set to work. In accordance with his orders, it was hung in a bell-gable, over the central doorway of the Palace, directly above the clock; and in that position it remained, very honestly doing its duty as a clock-bell, for more than seventy years. During the period of the French intervention, in December, 1867, a new bell was installed in place of it and orders were given that it should be melted down--possibly, though Señor Obregón gives no information on this point, to be recast into cannon, along with the many church bells that went that way in Mexico at about that time. Whatever may have been planned in regard to its transmutation did not come off--because the liquid metal became refractory and could not be recast. As this curious statement of fact has an exceptional interest in the case of a bell with so bad a record, I repeat it in Señor Obregón's own words: "Entonces se mandó fundirla; mas al verificarlo se descompuso el metal!"


[1]: "La Cruz del Diablo," with other stories of a like sort by Becquer, all very well worth reading, may be read in English in the accurate translation recently made by Cornelia Frances Bates and Katharine Lee Bates under the title Romantic Legends of Spain (New York, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.); and in the original Spanish, with the assistance of scholarly notes and a vocabulary, in the collection prepared for class use by Dr. Everett Ward Olmsted under the English title Legends and Poems by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer (Boston, Ginn & Co.).

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Legend of the Accursed Bell
Tale Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Book Title: Legends of the City of Mexico
Book Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1910
Country of Origin: Mexico
Classification: unclassified

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