Out of the blue one afternoon awhile back, I found myself singing an old song that has become part of the traditional folk repertoire, despite the fact that we know its composer’s name: “My Grandfather’s Clock,” written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work. Work is also known for composing “The Ship that Never Returned” which was, if I remember right, recorded by The Kingston Trio, and the rousing “Marching Through Georgia,” a tribute to General W.T. Sherman’s March to the Sea of 1864–and, though I shouldn’t admit it, southern girl that I am, my alltime favorite march tune.
“My Grandfather’s Clock” was based on a story from England that was told to Henry Clay Work in 1875. The story told of two brothers who jointly owned a “longcase” clock, one of those gorgeous old timepieces that stand six feet or more tall. The clock began to lose time when one brother died, and stopped completely when the second brother died at the age of ninety. In Work’s song, the clock belonged to his grandfather, and is described as a member of the family, “bought on the morn of the day that he was born/And. . .always his treasure and pride/But it stopped short, never to go again when the old man died.” Work includes one spooky element: in the third verse, when the old man lies dying, the clock “rang an alarm in the dead of the night/An alarm that for years had been dumb.”
Stories of clocks being connected in some way to a death are not that uncommon, come to find out. Here are two of my favorites:
One is about a cuckoo clock owned by the actor John Barrymore, who died on May 29, 1942.
According to Dennis William Hauck in THE NATIONAL DIRECTORY OF HAUNTED PLACES (1994), the clock had not worked in years. A friend of Barrymore’s decided to set the hands at 10:20, the exact time of Barrymore’s death, as a tribute to the great actor’s memory–only to find the clock’s hands already set to 10:20–although they had been set at a different time for many years.
The other story was told by our Monroe County, Tennessee historian, the late Sarah Sands, in one of her volumes. The clock involved, yet another longcase, was owned by three sisters, older women who had never married and who shared a home across what was then the main channel of the Little Tennessee River (since obliterated by the Tellico Dam) in Blount County. The clock had been inoperable for many years. The sisters died within a three year time span, and each time one of them died, the broken clock chimed. After the death of the third sister, it never made another sound.