The Bell Witch haunting is one of the most famous American hauntings on record, not only for the extent of the hauntings but because it is credited as the only American haunting to result in the death of a living person.
The story is certainly alive and well and is still being told in modern day; it has been 200 years since the death of John Bell Sr (1750 – 1820), and longer since the bulk of the haunting took place. To date, there are a half dozen movies based on the story with more having been influenced by it; there is a doom metal band called Bell Witch, and several songs by other musicians based on the tale. It has spawned other stories and even traveled in a slightly altered form to become folklore in Mississippi, where several Bell children settled in their adulthood.
The story itself is the story of the Bell family. In the very early years of the nineteenth century, John Bell Sr came to Robertson County, Tennessee with his wife, Lucy Bell (formerly Lucy Williams) and their young children and settled along the Red River, near the modern town of Adams. Bell had been a barrel-maker in his youth, but was now turning his efforts to farming. He was quite successful in this, and by the time of his death his farm would boast more than three hundred acres of land. He developed a good name for himself as well, and would eventually become an elder at the local church (though later excommunicated for unscrupulous business dealings). He had a good life along the Red River for well over a decade, he and his wife had nine children, and they were well-liked as a family.
The “family trouble”, as the Bells would one day call it, began late in 1817. In the earliest days of the haunting, a strange creature was spied around the Bells’ farmland by a number of people. A strange mixture of dog (sometimes two-headed) and rabbit, it was large and dark and utterly unsettling. An enslaved man at the farm, Dean, saw this same creature, among other bizarre and supernatural sights, multiple times on his walks in the evening to visit his wife who lived as an enslaved person on a nearby farm, and John Bell himself saw the creature lurking around on occasion.
In early 1818, seemingly supernatural activity had started within the farmhouse. The children would report hearing the sounds of rats gnawing on their bedposts in the night, but upon examination neither rat nor bite mark would be found. After this came knocking sounds and the heavy sound of chains being dragged across their wooden floors, which was heard by all the family. In time, the children would be bitten at and scratched and pinched by the air itself. Their bedsheets would be yanked off the bed while they were in bed, and the pillows would be snatched from under their sleeping heads and thrown to the floor. John Bell Sr woke one day to find that his mouth was paralyzed.
One of the most famous parts of this story, or perhaps infamous, is the treatment of the Bells’ daughter, Betsy. All sources seem to agree that she was an uncommonly beautiful girl, and perhaps this is why the increasingly violent manifestations, allegedly those of a witch, centered around her. She was pinched and scratched more and worse than the other children, leaving her black and blue and bloody. Her hair was yanked and she was kept awake at night. She was abused and miserable. The family tried to relieve her suffering by having her stay with friends and family, but the abuse followed her wherever she went.
By contrast, the entity was utterly enchanted by Lucy Bell, the mother of the family. Lucy was a well-liked woman, but it seemed especially enthralled with her. It lavished her with praise, brought her fruit and nuts when she was sick, and sang her praises. Author Pat Fitz Hugh correctly points out that this can hardly be called genuine kindness on the entity’s part, given the emotional suffering Lucy would have endured in watching her family be harassed and abused.
All the while, John Bell became sicker and sicker; no one was sure what ailed him, or how to cure him of his mysterious malady.
In desperation, the Bell family reached out to their good friend James Johnston for help. He and his wife agreed to spend a night in the Bells’ home. Having been as harassed and abused as the Bells had been throughout the night, they agreed in the morning that it was an authentic, malicious spirit.
Around this time, the entity began to whisper to them. Barely-heard snatches of a disembodied voice at first, and then growing in power as it appeared to be getting stronger and stronger. When asked who it was, it claimed at various times to be “Old Kate Batts’ witch” (Kate Batts herself was alive and well; she allegedly had a sharp tongue and a wicked temper, and was said to actually be a witch. In the chief source for the Bell’s story, An Authenticated History, author MV Ingrams spends an entire chapter of his book insulting her), the spirit of a disturbed grave who had lost a tooth under the house (no tooth was ever found), the ghost of an immigrant who had buried treasure nearby (no treasure was ever found, despite the wild goose chase “Kate” led them on) and the ghost of a poor murdered peddler.
It is said that in 1819 Andrew Jackson, the man who would one day be the seventh president of the united states but was then an army general, heard stories of the Bell Witch and, given that the Bell’s sons had served under him, chose to visit the farm itself to investigate. The beginning of this part of the story is the same in all versions — Jackson and his men found their carriage wheels stuck fast on their way to the farm, and nothing they could do would loosen them. It was the work of the witch, who spoke to them: she would see General Jackson later that evening. The stories differ here: one version says that the general and his men went straight on past the farm house, never to meddle in such things again. The other, more heroic version, states that Jackson did indeed continue on to the Bell homestead, where one of his men who claimed to be a “witch layer” was harassed and humiliated by the witch, but Jackson himself stayed the night, speaking with both the family and the witch herself long into the night.
It is also said that 1819 was the year in which the witch began to threaten to kill “Old Jack” Bell, who was by this time incredibly weak and fading fast.
In 1820, this threat came to pass. John Bell Sr allegedly was fed a mysterious substance by the witch, after which he died. This substance was later tested on the poor family cat, who promptly died as well, leaving no doubt as to what sort of substance was in the bottle. The witch, not yet finished with “Old Jack”, sang ribald drinking songs loudly at his funeral to the family’s dismay.
The haunting did not immediately stop with John Bell’s death. The following year, the Witch implored and nagged at Betsy until she called off her engagement to her fiance Joshua Gardner, promising to go away for seven years if she would. Betsy does so, perhaps fearing that her love would die as her father had done, and the witch was, surprisingly, as good as her word.
The witch kept her word to return to the family, as well. She returned to Lucy and the boys in 1928. In some versions of the story they simply changed tact and chose to ignore her entirely rather than engage with her, after which she simply left. In other versions, she and the boys discussed philosophy and civilization, before she again left. In some versions, she told them she would return to their descendants in 107 years.
Interestingly there actually was a descendant of the family, a Dr. Bailey Bell who was alive 107 years later and was even fascinated by the lore of the family witch. He wrote a book on the subject in 1934. If the witch did return to him in 1935 as promised, however, he went to his grave a decade later without telling anyone about it.
There may have been another return of the witch that she hadn’t announced: in 1868, in the area of the Bell farm a man named Mr. Smith claimed to have occult powers from the witch. Tom Clinard and Dick Burgess alleged that he had been practising witchcraft on them. They claimed that he made them see old grey horses and hobgoblins in the night, and proclaimed if they could do it all again, they would kill him again. They had been attempting to arrest Smith for his use of witchcraft, leading to the conflict that resulted in Smith’s death. They were found Not Guilty.
In 1880, the Bell Witch’s work was attributed to a haunted house in Tennessee, where clangs and bangs were heard, but no speech from the witch as with the Bells. There were accusations of fakery, none of which were solidly proven.
There’s also the Bell Witch Cave. The cave exists on what was once the Bell’s property, and though it doesn’t have a place in the original story, since that time it has been and continues to be the site of numerous phenomena. The Witch herself once rescued a young boy in the cave, and it’s said that the cave was where she resided when she wasn’t tormenting the Bell family.
Sources of the Legend
Our primary source of information for the inside happenings of the Bell Witch haunting is a book published in 1894 by Martin Van Buren Ingram, called An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch. Ingram calls himself a compiler of data in the preface of the book, some of which was “written by Williams Bell, a member of the family, some fifty-six years ago, together with other corroborative testimony by men and women of irreproachable character and unquestionable veracity.” Ingram himself makes reference to news articles of the day, none of which survive.
The legend survives through oral tradition as well. In addition to the stories still told in Tennessee, the tale of the Bell witch made its way to Mississippi, with some of the names and motivations changed, where it’s still told today. The young heroine of the story is now called Mary, and a love story has been added, but the story remains very much intact.
Pat Fitzhugh brings up the possibility of John Bell Sr’s illness and death being due to a neurological disorder, rather than that of the witch (however much and loudly she took credit for it). The science of neurology, despite the concepts being two hundred years old, was still very much in its infancy in the 1820s. It would be 50 years before electrodes would be used to study neurology, and all the advances that would bring. Bell’s symptoms mirror those we now know to be those of neurological illness, though of course without the patient to examine there’s no way to know for sure.
Skeptic Joe Nickell believes it possible that the whole haunting was a hoax perpetrated by Betsy, as another example of “poltergeist faking syndrome”. Ingram himself admits that two of the Bell brothers took frequent boat trips down to New Orleans in 1815 – 1818, where they learned ventriloquism, which they then taught to their sister Betsy. Certainly the timing of the early days of the hauntings lines up with the acquisition of their new talent. Ingram himself does not believe this theory to be true, pointing out that the hauntings brought no good to the family.
It’s impossible to say whether this was a legitimate haunting or an elaborate trick that coincided with the neurological illness of John Bell Sr., ending in his death. All witnesses have been dead for well over a century, and the original farm house fell into ruin long, long ago. All we can do is speculate, and wonder if the world will hear from “Old Kate Batts’ witch” again one day.
1868 article in the Courier-Journal: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/7660018/the-courier-journal/
An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by Martin Van Buren Ingram https://web.archive.org/web/20021022185219/http://bellwitch02.tripod.com/the_red_book.htm
Bell Witch Folklore Centre https://web.archive.org/web/20020924085754/http://bellwitch02.tripod.com/
Bell Witch Cave official site
Pat Fitzhugh’s Bell Witch site
The Bell Witch Poltergeist by Joe Nickell
The Terrifying True Story of the Bell Witch