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The Sinister Case of the Bell Witch

Among all of the supposed hauntings that have gripped certain people and places throughout history there are some that truly stick out. Whether it be because they are infused with a certain peculiar sense of dread or evil, that they are so intense or even deadly, or that they are simply so mind-bogglingly and striking as to stick and twist into in the mind like splinters, these are the hauntings that truly enthrall us and make us think. One such bizarre and frightening case has truly resonated within the world of the weird, and it is a profoundly menacing haunting carried out by some wicked unknown thing that has gone on to be one of the most famous ghostly encounters in American history.

The story begins in 1804, with the scene set by a humble farmer by the name of John William Bell and his wife Lucy, who moved into a swath of rural land out in Robertson County in northern Tennessee, in what was then called Red River and would go on to become the area of the town of Adams, and where they worked the land as their family grew to include eight children. It was a simple but peaceful life, and for years this family lived out on their isolated farm with no intrusions or incidents. However, in 1817 the first signs of what would become one of the most-well known and frightening hauntings ever would begin to emerge from some dark, unknown place, to creep out from the fringe into the solitude of this happy family and change their lives forever more.

Perhaps the first sign that something was not quite right on the farm began with a strange creature sighted stalking about by John as he was out walking about the property one evening and saw what he would describe as a large, dog-like creature with a rabbit’s head skulking about in the shadows. The startled John apparently fired at this strange intruder, but rather than killing it the thing just vanished into nothing. In the coming days one of the Bell’s slaves would also claim to see a massive black hound on the land, even following him about, and other apparitions began to be sighted as well, such as a creepy giant bird sighted by John’s son, Drew, and the spectral form of a girl dressed in green, seen swinging from a tree branch by their daughter Elizabeth, often nicknamed Betsy.

This would have already been quite unsettling enough, but things would intensify as their farmhouse began to be besieged by unexplained phenomena from realms unknown. As with many hauntings the occurrences started out rather innocuous, such as anomalous noises, strange thuds and bangs in the night, but there were also decidedly more menacing things heard in the late night hours, such as the sounds of something gnawing or scratching at the walls and door, and also what sounded like shifting, rattling chains. There would also be the sound of a disembodied woman’s voice singing or laughing. This would all gradually escalate, with the disturbances gaining volume and intensity, snowballing into something truly unusual and often keeping the family awake through the night, before graduating into something even more terrifying.

The apparent haunting began to manifest itself in more concrete, physical ways, with blankets pulled off beds, objects moved or knocked over, sometimes with violent and irresistible force, utensils slapped out of hands, food pulled from mouths, food spilled on the kitchen floor, and most disturbing of all, physical assaults on the family members. It began mostly as pushes, prods, and pinches, but quickly got out of hand when the unseen entity began slapping, punching, pulling hair, and scratching, often with such force that it would leave welts, bruises, and scratches. Although most of the family members were targeted, it seemed like little Betsy received the worst of the entity’s wrath, routinely suffering injuries and on one occasion she was even stuck with pins by the malevolent force. The only one the spirit seemed to leave alone was Lucy Bell, who it remained indifferent or even seemingly friendly towards at times.

While at first John Bell tried to keep this all within the family, and shunned the idea of telling anyone else about their ordeal, the attacks and ghostly phenomena got so relentless and threatening that he eventually reached out to others for help. One of the first people he approached with his dilemma was a neighbor by the name of James Johnston, who allegedly witnessed many of the phenomena first hand. It was Johnston who surmised that the entity was actually intelligent and could speak if prompted to do so. Indeed, the ghost would become known for talking to both the family and visitors alike, and it was soon after this that the mysterious wraith would properly introduce itself.

The Bell cabin

Once the entity got started speaking she was allegedly quite the talkative one, often giving sermons or quoting scripture from the Bible, as well as gossiping on what the neighbors were up to. The entity also liked to mimic other people’s voices, which she was allegedly very good at, getting accents and voice pitch down perfectly. In addition to all of this, the spirit finally properly introduced herself, and by the the spirit’s own admission she was “the witch of” a woman named Kate Batts, who had been a neighbor of the Bells and had sworn to haunt the family in death due to perceived slights against her, as well as apparently a bad business dealing over a slave. The vengeful and spiteful entity had firmly latched onto this poor family like some parasite, and seemed to show no signs of going anywhere, indeed becoming ever bolder and more violent.

Rumors soon spread of the haunting and this malignant spirit, and curiosity seekers from all over the region began making trips to the Bell property in the hopes of seeing what was coming to be called “The Bell Witch.” Such was the notoriety of the case at the time that according to many versions of the tale it drew the attention of none other than future president of the United States General Andrew Jackson himself. By most accounts Jackson was skeptical at first, and actually arrived at the farm with the intention of proving this all to be a hoax. For Jackson and his team this was all a bit of good fun, and not a single one of them thought they would really see anything supernatural. However, as they approached the Bell property something very strange indeed purportedly happened, and according to a version of the account in M. V. Ingram’s 1894 book, An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch the events would unfold as follows:

Just then, traveling over a smooth level piece of road, the wagon halted and stuck fast. The driver popped his whip, whooped and shouted to the team, and the horses pulled with all of their might, but could not move the wagon an inch. It was dead stuck as if welded to the earth. Gen. Jackson commanded all men to dismount and put their shoulders to the wheels and give the wagon a push, but all in vain; it was no go. The wheels were then taken off, one at a time, and examined and found to be all right, revolving easily on the axles. Gen. Jackson after a few moments thought, realizing that they were in a fix, threw up his hands exclaiming, “By the eternal, boys, it is the witch.” Then came the sound of a sharp metallic voice from the bushes, saying, “All right General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again to-night.” The men in bewildered astonishment looked in every direction to see if they could discover from whence came the strange voice, but could find no explanation to the mystery. The horses then started unexpectedly of their own accord, and the wagon rolled along as light and smoothly as ever.

The perhaps understandably upset Jackson was still not swayed by these spooky events. After all he was a seasoned General and wasn’t going to let a mere ghost scare him. He ended up staying the night at the creepy Bell farm, where the witch purportedly kept her promise that she would “see you again tonight.” According to most versions of the story, Jackson and his men were positively accosted by the witch, pinched, slapped, screamed at, and having their blankets relentlessly torn away. So savage was this spectral assault that Jackson was reportedly officially freaked out by now, and is said to have proclaimed as he left, “I’d rather fight the British in New Orleans than to have to fight the Bell Witch.”

The Bell Witch was indeed known for making such quick believers out of staunch skeptics. Another initially very skeptical visitor was allegedly an unnamed Englishman who came to the farm with every intention of debunking it all. He arrived for his investigation and that evening the Bell Witch supposedly began to perfectly mimic his British accent and speech cadence. Later on that very same evening the witch is said to have woken the man with the voices of his own parents, which terrified him because the spirit should not have known what they sounded like. He apparently left first thing in the morning and apologized to the Bells for doubting them as he hi-tailed it out of there.

The Bell Witch would haunt the family for years, with the increasingly threatening phenomena culminating with John Bell suddenly falling into a coma and dying after falling mysteriously ill in December of 1820. According to the tale, a bottle of poison was found near his limp body, by some accounts in his medicine cabinet, and the witch would gleefully gloat that she had force-fed it to him as he slept. The eternally evil and unrepentant Bell Witch is even said to have continued to torment the dead man at his own funeral, where she cackled, sang joyfully, and giggled maniacally in full view of shocked guests. After this she also claimed to have ruined Betsy’s marriage plans by attacking her then fiancé, a man named Joshua Gardner, by cursing him with never-ending choking attacks, said to feel like “a sharp stick in the mouth.”

Not long after Betsy’s engagement disintegrated, it appears that the sinister Bell Witch considered her dark, grim work done, appearing before the family to tell them that she was going away for awhile, but would return in seven years time. After that the paranormal activity stopped completely, but true to the cruel witch’s word it would begin again in 1928, during which time she briefly terrorize the family and make ominous predictions about the future before finally vanishing again, saying that she would appear again in 1935, although it is unknown if she kept this promise as well.

Although the Bell Witch stopped haunting the Bell Farm, it is by no means the last anyone saw of her, and the legend continues from there. The most popular and spookiest story is that the witch did not ever really go away, but rather took up residence in a gloomy abandoned cave not far away by the Red River, which lies on a Native American burial ground no less, never a good sign, and where she apparently resides to this day. Among the many bizarre phenomena reported from here are the sounds of laughing, moaning, rasping, wheezing, and the voice of an old woman whispering or beckoning from the inky darkness. There are also other sinister tales of being choked, pushed, slapped, or having hair pulled in and around the cave, and others have told of being paralyzed in place or of having what feels like an immense weight placed upon them, as well as being embraced with a vice-like grip.

Of course apparitions of an old woman are often seen prowling about, and animals apparently steer well-clear of the area. One of the most notorious legends about the Bell Witch Cave is that if one is to take even a small stone from the cave, it will bring them hauntings, great misfortune, and even death. Although this entity is almost always described as malevolent and violent, there is at least one account of a child being saved from being stuck in a hole by the witch, who pulled the kid out and reportedly even gave safety tips for exploring the cave, before vanishing, a rare show of kindness in this villainy. The cave continues to attract seekers of the macabre and paranormal investigators, and anyone who is feeling brave enough can take a tour of either the cave itself or a replica of the original Bell cabin, which is furnished with some of the items originally owned by the Bells.

The Bell Witch Cave

The tale of the Bell Witch has gone on to become one of the most well known hauntings in American history and an iconic historical horror story, but of course it has left us to debate and speculate on was any of it true, and if so just what was the Bell Witch? There has been a lot of skepticism aimed at the case in recent years, and some of the elements swiftly debunked. For instance, it has been fairly conclusively shown that Andrew Jackson was never in that area at the time and that there is absolutely no evidence at all that he was ever at the Bell farm or even anywhere near it. However, many stories that originate in a grain of truth often pick up flourishes and exaggerated elements over the years, so what of the rest of the tale? Is there any truth to it at all? This depends largely on who you ask.

One of the main criticisms as to the veracity of the case is that although there are countless books and articles written on the Bell Witch account, they all invariably lead back to one main source, Martin Van Buren Ingram’s 1894 book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, which is the first real tome written on the case and which was released a full 75 years after the fact. Ingram, who was the owner of a local newspaper, based his book on interviews with alleged living witnesses and leaned heavily on the notes of one of John Bell’s sons, Richard Bell, who was only 6 years old when the hauntings began and who apparently did not put his experiences to paper until 30 years later, which leaves one to wonder just how much that was there is true and how much had been warped by time.

By the time Ingram received this diary from John’s grandson, Allen Bell, every single firsthand witness to the hauntings themselves was long dead, and the actual notes themselves have disappeared, leaving us to wonder if they ever even existed at all, or that if it did it whether they may have been a clever fake or forgery. Adding to this is that Ingram is known to have falsified some of his newspaper article sources, and much of the information he includes in his book is completely untraceable and unable to be corroborated in any way. In the end, we simply don’t know how true any of Ingram’s book is, and since most other works about the Bell Witch rely heavily on it this potentially taints them as well. There are very few other reliable sources about these events and only scattered newspaper articles prior to Ingram’s work on the matter, although there are a few, such as Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee, written in 1886, which describes the case thus:

A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The feats it performed were wonderful, and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. A volume might be written concerning the performances of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted. It is merely introduced as an example of superstition, strong in the minds of all but a few in those times, and not yet wholly extinct.

However, this account does not cover a lot of the events and incidents that have become intertwined with the greater Bell Witch legend, and it is a bit worrying because it seems as though Ingram could have made up a fair bit of it or used a hoaxed source. The owner of a newspaper, Ingram would have certainly had a lot to gain from such a sensationalized account. In this view, the tale of the Bell Witch is merely a bit of an urban legend and folklore started by an opportunistic charlatan, and another skeptical theory is that Betsy Bell or even her family could have hoaxed the whole thing or that it was all based on local superstitions.

But what if any of it is true? Although there are certainly parts that could have been embellished or exaggerated, is there any chance that some of the account really did happen the way it is described? If we assume for a moment that any of it happened, then obviously the witch could not have been Kate Batts, as this woman was actually alive and well during John Bell’s lifetime, as skeptics love to point out. Yet, evil entities and demons are very well known for trickery and deception, and it absolutely does not matter who the entity “says” it is. If it was real, then this could very well have been some dark spirit merely claiming to be Kate Batts to give itself an identity people could understand.

Could this have been some sinister evil spirit, even a demon, that had decided to target this family for reasons we may never fathom? Others have variously said that it could have been witchcraft aimed at the family, an vengeful Native spirit angry that its burial grounds had been disturbed, a trickster entity from the spirit world, an evil entity cojured up by Batts, or even a psychokinetic outburst from one of the family, which would fit into some modern theories on the poltergeist phenomenon originating in living people rather than the dead. For his part, Richard Bell is said to have written of his ideas on the origin of the phenomenon in his supposed diary:

Whether it was witchery, such as afflicted people in past centuries and the darker ages, whether some gifted fiend of hellish nature, practicing sorcery for selfish enjoyment, or some more modern science akin to that of mesmerism, or some hobgoblin native to the wilds of the country, or a disembodied soul shut out from heaven, or an evil spirit like those Paul drove out of the man into the swine, setting them mad; or a demon let loose from hell, I am unable to decide; nor has any one yet divined its nature or cause for appearing, and I trust this description of the monster in all forms and shapes, and of many tongues, will lead experts who may come with a wiser generation, to a correct conclusion and satisfactory explanation.

Whatever truth any of the case of the Bell Witch holds, it has become legendary, sparking innumerable articles and books, countless discussions and debate, and serving as the inspiration of the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project and the basis of the 2005 movie An American Haunting, among others. What happened to this family out on that secluded farm all those years ago? What sort of dark force invaded their lives, if any? Did it ever even happen at all? Regardless of the answers to these questions the Bell Witch is a classic, very spooky case from another time, an account deeply buried in mysteries and myth, and which we may never really know the full extent of.

 

I’d like to thank Glenn Harrison of Hardcore Paranormal for his input and help with putting this article together.