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 freaks 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. (The History of Robertson County (with Biographical Appendix)
Reprinted from GOODSPEED.S HISTORY OF TENNESSEE, Originally Published 1886
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The Bell Witch incident is one of the most well-known hauntings in the United States. It’s frequently stated that it’s the only known incident of a ghost legally being responsible for the death of a person, the patriarch of the Bell family, John Bell Sr. But is it a case of a story being told so long that people simply assume it to be true?
I first came across the Bell Witch in high school, from a little red book titled An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by Martin Van Buren Ingram. Ingram insisted that much of his information was gleaned from the diary of a son of John Bell, Richard, who wrote about the events in a manuscript titled “My Family’s Troubles,” of the haunting some 24 years after the fact, when he was thirty years of age.
It can be assumed that when the only primary source material for a story was written more than a quarter century after the events in question, by a person who was only six years old when it happened, that the details are going to be a bit fuzzy. Adding to the problems is that Bell’s diary has never been located, or in fact apparently seen by anyone except Ingram. Ingram doesn’t help his own case, having certainly falsified other sources in his book.
So what can you say about the Bell Witch with any degree of certainty? That it’s a damned scary story, based on a real family, in a real place.
Adams, Tennessee is just off Interstate 24, about an hour north of Nashville, tucked away in the rolling hills and meandering bends of the Red River. At the time of the haunting there was basically nothing here, aside from the Red River Church, the first church West of the Cumberland mountains, which was founded in 1791. While Adams never grew much beyond a hamlet, it was dealt a particularly harsh blow when Highway 41 was bypassed by the Interstate highway system. Today, the only place hopping is a barbecue joint which by the accounts I heard, is quite tasty. If you see out-of-state plates on a car, there’s a pretty good chance they are following the signs to the Bell Witch Cave.
I first stopped by in August of last year, only to be told by the owner that the cave was flooded and not open to the public, and to come back in October when they had special events planned. He did let me browse the bookstore, where I stocked up on Bell Witch literature, some homemade jelly and we were on our way. I can’t say he was the friendliest proprietor of a public attraction I’ve ever come across, but then again, I’m sure he gets his share of weirdos.
Obviously you’re not going to get a skeptical analysis from the materials you buy at the Bell Witch Cave bookstore. Instead what I learned was more or less what I already knew.
John Bell was thirty two when he married Lucy Williams, who was only twelve, They lived at the time in North Carolina, but when the crops failed for a second time in 1804, they packed up and moved west.
The Bells settled in a community of farms known at the time as Red River in the early 1800s. Bell expanded the farm, built a large cabin and from documented sources, appeared to prosper, and the family grew to three sons and a daughter.
It was in 1817 that Bell was walking through a field on his plantation and spotted a bizarre looking critter sitting, staring down a corn row. Bell said it had the head of a rabbit and the body of a dog, and he took several pot shots at it with his rifle. It escaped unharmed and he went on home, unfazed and not thinking any more about it.
Till later that night, after dinner as the family sat around the fire-lit cabin, they began hearing banging on the walls from the outside.
This is where a visit to the Bell Witch Cave in Adams comes in handy, for it’s only after being there that you get an idea of how utterly terrifying this must have been. The area is mostly cleared for farming now, but around the rivers you still get a feel of how wild the area was. There were many ways to die at the hand of nature back in the early days – bears, wolves, wildcats, snakes, spiders, the heat, the cold – a wide variety of elements which could tip the scales into tragedy. Many of these must have gone through the Bell family’s mind, only to be dismissed as the pounding grew louder and louder. As the nights went on, the pounding grew more vicious and the family grew scared.
At the time, you kept things like this to yourself. Things were kept in the family, and dealt with by the family. They kept a secret that the children’s blankets were being pulled from them during the night by invisible hands, and it was only when their youngest daughter, Betsy began getting beat up by the entity that they went to their neighbors with their problem.
Up till then, the source of the encounters stayed relatively quiet, except for whisperings which sounded like an old woman singing hymns. But as time went on she grew bolder, singing louder, quoting scriptures and started carrying on conversations with the family and neighbors who came by to witness the strange goings-on at the Bell cabin.
Betsy started courting a neighbor, Joshua Gardner, and eventually the two announced their engagement. The witch didn’t care for the match, and made her opinion known to Betsy, in no uncertain terms. The witch became a third wheel whenever the two lovebirds met, and eventually they had to break it off. Still it was reported that the Bell Witch acted quite kindly to Betsy, even helping to nurse her through an illness, providing fruit to keep her alive, though one has to wonder how horrifying it must have been for Betsy to eat it knowing not where it came from. How terrifying would it be to eat from the same invisible hand which slapped your face and tore at your hair?
The witch’s favorite victim though was John Bell himself. She cursed “Old Jack Bell,” repeatedly told him and anyone who would listen that she would eventually kill him, beat the living shit out of him on a regular basis, caused his tongue to swell so that he could hardly breathe, talk or swallow, and in the end, claimed to have been what did him in, when he died in 1820. According to family legend, a bottle of mysterious liquid was found near his bed, in the place of his medicine, which she claimed she had poisoned him with.
And those are just the highlights of the legend. There are tales of Andrew Jackson coming to witness the events, though there is no historical evidence that this could have taken place. There were intrigues involving one of the Bell’s neighbors, a misunderstanding which gave the witch her name, Kate. There are other stories of intrigues, romance involving Betsy and her school teacher, even incest, made famous in the film version of the events, An American Haunting, starring Cissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. It should be noted that most anyone associated with the story today believes the incest angle is abhorrent and certainly untrue. It’s also worth mentioning that at the time of the haunting, Bell was pushing seventy and after the events started, tended to be in rather poor health.
With each new book, movie and article, the legend grows, as its been growing since the publication of Ingram’s book in 1894. A second book appeared in 1934 by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, whose grandfather was John Bell Sr. The details match up pretty well with Ingram’s book, and includes a few other elements which Ingram never mentioned. All this points to the idea that both Bell and Ingram were indeed drawing on family traditions and stories, which Ingram admits to. Or it’s possible that Bell drew from elements of Ingram’s book to provide details which family history never passed down.
What you can take away from all that is that one of two things happened. Either Dr. Bell saw a good thing and played the family name as a reason to rewrite Ingram’s book, adding enough detail to lend an air of authenticity. Or something really did happen on the Bell family farm in 1827, that was still being talked about a couple of generations later. I tend to go with the latter, as other members of the Bell family were outraged at Dr. Bell’s Book, known as the Black Book in contrast to Ingram’s book, which is known as the Red Book. After all, much of my own family came from the same area, and one thing you do not do, according to the older generations, is tell tales on the family. Family secrets are meant to stay secret.
Which means that for someone in the twenty-first century, trying to separate fact from fiction is now, and forever will be, impossible. Or in my case, go to the Bell family farm in Adams, Tennessee and see for myself if old Kate might still be around.
Which is what I did.