Bell Witch

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For the 2007 film, see Bell Witch: The Movie. For the EP by Mercyful Fate, see The Bell Witch (EP).
An artist's sketching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894

The Bell Witch or Bell Witch Haunting is a poltergeist legend from Southern folklore, centered on the 19th-century Bell family of Adams, Tennessee.

An artist's drawing of Betsy Bell, originally published in 1894

John Bell Sr., who made his living as a farmer, resided with his family along the Red River in northwest Robertson County in an area currently within the town of Adams. According to folklore, beginning in 1817, his family came under attack by an invisible entity commonly described at the time as a witch.

In the 1894 book An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, author Martin Van Buren Ingram stated that the poltergeist's name was Kate, after the entity claimed at one point to be "Old Kate Batts’ witch," and continued to respond favorably to the name.[1] The entity frequently abused the Bell family verbally, physically and psychologically. The physical activity centered on the Bells' youngest daughter, Betsy, and worsened after she became engaged to a local named Joshua Gardner.[2]

Several accounts say that during his military career, Andrew Jackson was intrigued with the story and was frightened away after traveling to investigate.[3] Other stories claim the family was haunted by scratching noises outside their door after Bell found a half-dog, half-rabbit creature. Some versions end with the Bell patriarch being poisoned by the witch.[4] Accounts vary with the witch being someone who had been cheated by Bell or a male slave that Bell had killed.[5][6]

Early written sources[edit]

The Saturday Evening Post[edit]

The Green Mountain Freeman in Montpelier, Vermont on Feb 7, 1856 republished a story regarding the Bell Witch legend and ascribed the story to the Saturday Evening Post. The unidentified author described the apparition as the 'Tennessee Ghost' or 'Bell Ghost,' and stated the event occurred 30 years or more from the time the article was written. There are three human characters in the account, Mr. Bell, his daughter Betsey Bell, and Joshua Gardner. The author stated that the voice, which spoke freely about the house from all directions, would not manifest itself until the lights were extinguished at night. The phenomenon attracted wide interest. The author claimed to have become well acquainted with Mr. Gardner. When the ghost was asked how long it would remain, it replied, "until Joshua Gardner and Betsey Bell get married." The author goes on to state that Betsey Bell had fallen in love with Joshua Gardner and had discovered the skill of 'ventriloquism'. The author states that Ms. Bell then used her skill to attempt to convince Joshua Gardner to marry her. When they did not marry, the apparition disappeared.[7]


M. V. Ingram, in his An Authenticated History Of The Bell Witch, wrote that a Saturday Evening Post article had been retracted:

About 1849 the Saturday Evening Post, published either at Philadelphia or New York, printed a long sketch of the Bell Witch phenomenon, written by a reporter who made a strenuous effort in the details to connect her with the authorship of the demonstrations. Mrs. Powell was so outraged by the publication that she engaged a lawyer to institute suit for libel. The matter, however, was settled without litigation, the paper retracting the charges, explaining how this version of the story had gained credence, and the fact that at the time the demonstrations commenced Betsy Bell had scarcely advanced from the stage of childhood and was too young to have been capable of originating and practicing so great a deception. The fact also that after this report had gained circulation, she had submitted to any and every test that the wits of detectives could invent to prove the theory, and all the stratagems employed, served only to demonstrate her innocence and utter ignorance of the agency of the so-called witchery, and was herself the greatest sufferer from the affliction.[8]

— Martin V. Ingram, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch: Chapter 9

The Daily American[edit]

On April 28, 1880 an article was published in The Daily American newspaper, regarding a 'haunted house' in Springfield, Tennessee where knocking on the floor was heard. The author reported that several hundred people visited the home attempting to witness the phenomenon with many camped out over night despite the home owners asking them to leave. The author of the article took the opportunity to mention the Bell Witch legend:

It is an actual fact that several hundred intelligent people of Springfield and vicinity have been so excited over the noise as to go night after night to listen to it.... About thirty years ago Robertson county had a sensation similar to this known as the "Bell Witch," and people came from all parts of the country, even as far as New York, to hear or see her.[9]

The journal Studies in Philology, in 1919, published a study of witchcraft in North Carolina by folklorist Tom Peete Cross. Cross cites a column from the Nashville Banner where it mentions the paper had sent a reporter to Robertson County in the 1880s, John C. Cooke, to investigate reports of the possible reemergence of Bell Witch phenomenon.[10]

Nashville Centennial Exposition[edit]

Another account of the Bell Witch legend was reportedly published in 1880 as apart of a sketch of Robertson County written for Nashville's Centennial Exposition. The author of the article is unknown and the article is undated. Dates in the sketch end at 1880. In this account, the Bell entity did not explicitly poison John Bell.

At one time a vial of poison was found in the flue of the chimney, and being taken down, Dr. George B. Hopson gave one drop to a cat, causing its death in seven seconds. The witch claimed to have put the poison there for the purpose of killing Mr. Bell. Being asked how it was going to administer the poison, it said by pouring it into the dinner pot. It is remarkable that, although he enjoyed good health up to the time of this event, Mr. Bell died within [ ] days after the vial was found, being in a stupor at the time of his death. From this time the people visited the house less frequently, although the witch would now and then be heard.[11]

This is in contrast to the Ingram account where John Bell was already suffering from an unknown affliction and bedridden for sometime. John Bell's son, John Bell Jr., found the vial in the cupboard after his father did not wake. The family called for Dr. Hopson, while the Bell Witch exclaimed she had fed the poison to John Bell. Alex Gunn and John Bell Jr. tested the poison on the cat with a straw, which "died very quick." John Bell died the next day on December 20, 1820.[12]

In the Centennial sketch, the entity described itself as one of seven spirits with three names given by the author: Three Waters, Tynaperty, and Black Dog.[11] The Ingram account also described a family of spirits. In addition to Kate, the other members of the 'family' had the names of Blackdog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem. Blackdog was described as the apparent leader of the group.[1]

Goodspeed's History of Tennessee[edit]

Another written account prior to Ingram's book was in the Goodspeed Brothers' 1886 History of Tennessee, published almost 70 years after the events. The single paragraph fails to mention Andrew Jackson or the elder Bell's death.

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 a woman's attributes, such as voice. 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 discomfort 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.[13]

Paranormal investigator Benjamin Radford, as well as Brian Dunning, conclude that there is no evidence that Andrew Jackson visited the Bell family home. During the years in question, Jackson's movements were well documented, and nowhere in history or his writings is there evidence of his knowledge of the Bell family. According to Dunning, "The 1824 Presidential election was notoriously malicious, and it seems hard to believe that his opponent would have overlooked the opportunity to drag him through the mud for having lost a fight to a witch."[14][15]

Accounts from February, 1890[edit]

The Daily American published an article on February 18, 1890 of an alleged series of events from Adam's Station, Tennessee with the title, "A Weird Witch: More Tales of a Mulhattanish Flavor from Adams Station." In the late 19th century, Joseph Mulhattan was a known hoaxer of newspaper articles.[16] The article was republished in the Courier-Journal a few days later with the subtitle "More Tales of a Fishy Flavor." In the account, the entity was referred to only as the witch. The article reports that a Mr. Johnson was visiting Buck Smith and were discussing a recent visitation of the ghost at his home. They heard a knocking at the door, and when they opened the door, the knocking began at another door. They sat down and the dog began to fight with something invisible. Two minutes later, the door flew open and fire spread across the room blown by a cyclonic wind with the coals disappearing as they tried to put it out. That evening Mr. Johnson started home on his horse and something jumped on the back grabbing his shoulder as he tried to restrain the horse. He felt it jump off as he neared his home and move in the leaves into the woods.

A Mr. Winters reported taking a peculiar bird while hunting with great difficulty. After he returned home, he opened the game-bag to discover the bird had disappeared and in place was a rabbit which then also disappeared. While burning vegetation outdoors, Mr. Rowland described a visit at 9 P.M. of a half clothed man with one eye in his forehead that directed Mr. Rowland to follow him and dig at a large rock. The figure then disappeared. Mr. Rowland dug that night until exhaustion. He received help the next morning from Bill Burgess and Mr. Johnson and discovered something described as a "kettle turned bottom upward." They were unable to remove it as the soil began moving back into the hole. The report concludes saying that many people were visiting to see the witch.[17][18]

Martin Van Buren Ingram[edit]

Clarksville, Tennessee newspaper publisher Martin Van Buren Ingram was reported to have traveled to Chicago in 1893 to publish his An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch which was released in 1894.[19][20] In the introduction to the book, Ingram published a letter dated July 1, 1891 from former TN State Representative James Allen Bell of Adairville, Kentucky. Bell, a son of Richard Williams Bell and a grandson of John Bell, Sr., explained that his father had met with his brother John Bell Jr. before his death and they agreed no material he had collected should be released until the last immediate family member of John Bell Sr. had died. The last member of the family and youngest son of John Bell Sr., Joel Egbert Bell died in January 1890.[21]

Now, nearly seventy-five years having elapsed, the old members of the family who suffered the torments having all passed away, and the witch story still continues to be discussed as widely as the family name is known, under misconception of the facts, I have concluded that in justice to the memory of an honored ancestry, and to the public also whose minds have been abused in regard to the matter, it would be well to give the whole story to the World.[22]

— J. A. Bell, 1891 Letter, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch

J. A. Bell expressed the belief that his father's manuscript was written when he was 30 years old in 1846. He claimed his father gave him the manuscript and family notes shortly before his death in 1857. Richard Williams Bell was roughly 6 to 10 years of age during the initial manifestations of the Bell Witch phenomenon. The contributions of Richard Williams Bell, approximately 90 pages in length, are recorded in Chapter 8 of Ingram's work, entitled Our Family Trouble.[23]

According to Brian Dunning no one has ever seen this diary, and there is no evidence that it ever existed: "Conveniently, every person with firsthand knowledge of the Bell Witch hauntings was already dead when Ingram started his book; in fact, every person with secondhand knowledge was even dead." Dunning also concluded that Ingram was guilty of falsifying another statement, that the Saturday Evening Post had published a story in 1849 accusing the Bells' daughter Elizabeth of creating the witch, an article which was not found at the time.[14]

Evaluation[edit]

According to Radford, the Bell Witch story is an important one for all paranormal researchers: "It shows how easily legend and myth can be mistaken for fact and real events and how easily the lines are blurred" when sources are not checked.[15] Dunning wrote that there was no need to discuss the supposed paranormal activity until there was evidence that the story was true. "Vague stories indicate that there was a witch in the area. All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, and the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into."[14]

Dunning concludes, "I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction."[14] Radford reminds readers that "the burden of proof is not on skeptics to disprove anything but rather for the proponents to prove... claims".[15]

Joe Nickell has written that many of those who knew Betsy suspected her of fraud and the Bell Witch story "sounds suspiciously like an example of “the poltergeist-faking syndrome” in which someone, typically a child, causes the mischief."[24]

Bell Witch in popular culture[edit]

Signs at the entrance to the Bell Witch Cave promote ghost tourism in Adams, Tennessee.

There have been several movies based, at least in part, on the Bell Witch legend, including The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Bell Witch Haunting in 2004, An American Haunting in 2005, Bell Witch: The Movie in 2007, and The Bell Witch Haunting in 2013.

Charles Faulkner Bryan, as apart of a Guggenheim Fellowship, composed The Bell Witch, a cantata which premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1947 with Robert Shaw conducting the Juilliard Chorus and Orchestra.[25]

Ann Marie DeAngelo and Conni Ellisor choreographed and composed a ballet entitled The Bell Witch for the Nashville Ballet.[26]

A play by David Alford, Spirit: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, performed in Adams, TN during the Bell Witch Fall Festival in late October.[27]

The Danish metal band Mercyful Fate have a song titled "The Bell Witch" on their 1993 album In the Shadows.[28]

Seattle-based doom metal band Bell Witch took their name from this legend.[29]

The American television series Ghost Adventures filmed an episode at the Bell Witch Cave.[30]

An American television series - "Cursed: The Bell Witch" - based on the latest members of the Bell family trying to end the curse. It premiered October 2015 on the A&E Network.[31]

Tennessee author William Gay wrote a novel, published posthumously in 2015, entitled Little Sister Death, about the Bell Witch.[32]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Ingram, Martin (19 March 2003). "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: Chapter 8 - Part 3". Bell Witch Folklore Center. Phil Norfleet. Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  2. ^ Pat Fitzhugh (1 October 2000). The Bell Witch: The Full Account. The Armand Press. pp. 294–. ISBN 978-0-9705156-0-5. 
  3. ^ McCormick, James; Macy Wyatt (2009). Ghosts of the Bluegrass. University Press of Kentucky. p. 94. 
  4. ^ Fitzhugh, Pat. "Biographies: John Bell". www.bellwitch.org. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  5. ^ Hudson, Arthur Palmer; Pete Kyle McCarter (January–March 1934). The Bell Witch of Tennessee and Mississippi: A folk legend. The Journal of American Forklore. pp. 45–63. 
  6. ^ Monahan, Brent (2000). The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. St. Martin's Griffin. 
  7. ^ "Green-Mountain Freeman. (Montpelier, Vt.) 1844-1884, February 07, 1856, Image 1". Library of Congress: Chronicling America. 7 February 1856. Retrieved 23 November 2016. 
  8. ^ Ingram, Martin (10 March 2003). "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: Chapter 9". Bell Witch Folklore Center. Phil Norfleet. Retrieved 23 November 2016. 
  9. ^ "Springfield's Ghost". The Daily American. April 28, 1880. p. 1. Retrieved November 28, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  10. ^ Tom Peete Cross (1919). Studies in Philology. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 240–. 
  11. ^ a b Duggan, W. L. (1 January 1900). "SKETCHES OF SEVIER AND ROBERTSON COUNTIES". The American Historical Magazine. 5 (4): 310–325. Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  12. ^ Ingram, Martin (17 January 2003). "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch:Chapter 8 - Part 6". Bell Witch Folklore Center. Phil Norfleet. Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  13. ^ Godspeed Brothers (1886). History of Tennessee. Godspeed Publishing Co. 
  14. ^ a b c d Dunning, Brian. "Demystifying the Bell Witch". Skeptoid. Retrieved 2012-10-28. 
  15. ^ a b c Radford, Benjamin (January–February 2012). "The Bell Witch Mystery". Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. 36 (1): 32–33. 
  16. ^ "Hoaxes of Joseph Mulhattan". Museum of Hoaxes. Retrieved 29 November 2016. 
  17. ^ "A Weird Witch: More Tales of a Fishy Flavor from Adam's Station, TN". The Courier-Journal. February 21, 1890. p. 6. Retrieved November 28, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  18. ^ "A Weird Witch: More Tales of a Mulhattanish Flavor from Adams Station". The Daily American. February 18, 1890. p. 2. Retrieved November 28, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  19. ^ "A Clarksville Author". The Daily American. October 29, 1893. p. 10. Retrieved November 29, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  20. ^ "A Bell Witch". The Daily American. July 3, 1894. p. 2. Retrieved November 29, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read
  21. ^ Cook, Jack. "The Spirit of Red River". Bell Witch Legend. Retrieved 29 November 2016. 
  22. ^ Ingram, Martin (3 March 2003). "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: Chapter 1". The Bell Witch Folklore Center. Phil Norfleet. Retrieved 29 November 2016. 
  23. ^ Ingram, Martin (10 March 2003). "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: Chapter 8, Our Family Trouble". Bell Witch Folklore Center. Phil Norfleet. Retrieved 29 November 2016. 
  24. ^ Nickell, Joe. "The 'Bell Witch' Poltergeist". Skeptical Inquirer. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved September 16, 2015. 
  25. ^ Livingston, Carolyn (1 January 1990). "Charles Faulkner Bryan and American Folk Music". The Bulletin of Historical Research in Music Education. 11 (2): 76–92. Retrieved 26 November 2016. 
  26. ^ Staff. "Nashville Ballet presents 'Bell Witch' love story". The City Paper. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  27. ^ Herndon, Carleen (October 26, 2016). "Bell Witch back in town". The Tennessean. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  28. ^ "Mercyful Fate - In the Shadows". Encyclopaedia Metallum.
  29. ^ Davis, Cody (18 May 2016). "Former BELL WITCH Drummer/Vocalist, Adrian Guerra, Passes Away - Metal Injection". Metal Injection. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  30. ^ "Investigate Bell Witch Cave With Ghost Adventures". Travel Channel. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  31. ^ Young, Nicole (October 20, 2015). "A&E examines history behind Tennessee's Bell Witch". USA Today. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 
  32. ^ Akbar, Arifa (1 October 2015). "Little Sister Death by William Gay, book review: Writer's deal with the devil". The Independent. Retrieved 27 November 2016. 

External links[edit]