Governor John Cromwell Bell Jr.



January 2, 1947 - January 21, 1947




October 24, 1892


March 21, 1974


Governor John Cromwell Bell Jr.
Photo courtesy of Capitol Preservation
Committee and John Rudy Photography


John C. Bell Jr. was governor for the shortest period in Pennsylvania history, serving only nineteen days. Bell was born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia on October 25, 1892. His father was John Cromwell Bell, a former district attorney of Philadelphia and attorney general of Pennsylvania under Governor John K. Tener, and his mother was Fleurette DeBenneville (Myers) Bell. At a young age, the future governor wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. He was graduated from Episcopal Academy in 1910, the University of Pennsylvania in 1914, with a degree in liberal arts (A.B.), and obtained his law degree (LL.B.) at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1917.

While attending college, Bell was an accomplished athlete in soccer and tennis. He was a member of the University of Pennsylvania's varsity soccer team, 1911-1914, and team captain in 1912 and 1913 under coach Douglas Stewart, who coached the team for a total of 34 years. In 1913, Bell was selected for inside right forward on the All-Intercollegiate Soccer Team. He was also a member of the University of Pennsylvania varsity tennis team, 1913-1914. His brother, DeBenneville "Bert" Bell (1895-1959), was also a noted University of Pennsylvania athlete in football and was inducted into their hall of fame in 2000. He was also a 1963 charter inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a team owner and commissioner (1946-1959) of the National Football League (NFL). Bert Bell was responsible for pioneering the way professional teams draft players, league television policies, and player anti-gambling measures, as well as building the image of the NFL. While Bert Bell was changing football, John Bell chose a path in politics and law, although he had some post-academic athletic success. Bell continued to play tennis and was one of the top ten players in America, reaching the national doubles finals in 1926, 1929, 1931, 1932, and 1936 and was a co-champion of the Court Tennis Doubles in Philadelphia, 1930-1935.

Following law school, Bell became a member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Pennsylvania Bar Association, American Bar Association, and became a senior partner of the law firm Bell, Murdoch, Paxson and Dilworth. The year after graduating from law school, on June 29, 1918, Bell married Sarah Andrews Baker. They raised three sons and two daughters. A year later he became assistant city solicitor of Philadelphia, serving until 1922 when he became assistant district attorney of Philadelphia and was in that office from 1922 to 1925.

During the 1930s, Bell began to be noticed by Republican Party leaders and was known for his conservative views. Bell opposed the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and wrote booklets that were widely distributed in Pennsylvania, including Can We Think and Dare We Speak (1934), What Do You Know About the New Deal? (1935), and New Deal Fairy Tales (1936). In 1938 he became finance chairman for primary gubernatorial candidate Arthur H. James, chairman of the Republican State Committee Speakers' Bureau, and vice chairman of the Republican State Finance Committee. After James was elected governor, he appointed Bell secretary of the Commonwealth's Department of Banking, a position Bell held from 1939 to 1942.

In November 1942, Bell was elected lieutenant governor to serve second in command to Governor Edward Martin. Bell defeated Democrat Elmer Kilroy, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, by more than 235,000 votes. Although Pennsylvania elects its lieutenant governor separately from the governor, Bell's conservative views were compatible with Governor Martin. He worked closely with the governor at a time when more than one million Pennsylvanians were in the armed forces and more than 33,000 sacrificed their lives during World War II. In 1946, nearing the end of his term, Governor Martin was elected to the U.S. Senate. In order to avoid losing senate seniority with the new session of Congress, Martin resigned his office, leaving Bell to succeed him for the remaining nineteen days of his term. In doing so, Bell became the first constitutional governor in Pennsylvania history who was not elected to the office. Although his term of office was measured in days rather than years, Bell immediately moved into the executive mansion where he hosted a number of social events in preparation for newly elected Governor James H. Duff. In Bell's own words in a newspaper interview twenty years later, he simply said of his role as governor, "You might say I kept the state's administrative train on the track and permitted business to continue in an orderly manner."

Bell's biggest impact on Pennsylvania would come with another high office. In 1950, Governor Duff appointed Bell to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On August 1, 1961, he became chief justice of the court. His conservative views were often controversial. He often dissented if he felt court decisions were too liberal, especially in regard to rights of defendants at the expense of "law abiding people." At the time, the courts were flooded with petitions for habeas corpus and appeals, even after a conviction had been sustained. He also felt that judges should not be part of the political process and advocated that judges be nominated by a panel of lawyers and appointed by the governor for a term of ten years without being elected by the public at large.

Chief Justice Bell also battled one lawyers' organization and a Pittsburgh court. In March 1965, he resigned from the Philadelphia Bar Association in protest of their policies. In 1966, he ordered an investigation of the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court for irregularities, but the court was cleared in the investigation. He also favored more conservative judicial changes in Pennsylvania's constitution, which was revised in 1968.

After twenty-one years with the court, Bell retired in January of 1972 at age seventy-nine, returning to his home in Wynnewood, Montgomery County, but he continued to be active. Until his death, he was appointed a special assistant to the local district attorney. During his life, he was also a member of the Society of Sons of the Revolution, the Colonial Society of Pennsylvania, and, from his university days, a lifetime member of the Delta Psi Fraternity. John Cromwell Bell Jr. died on March 21, 1974, and is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Asaph, Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County.