The Bell Witch is the name given to an invisible entity that is identified by many as the cause of the Bell Witch Haunting - a series of supposedly real events said to have been experienced by the family of Adams Station, Tennessee (Robertson County) settler John Bell, between 1817 and 1821.
It is alleged that many of these events were witnessed and documented by hundreds of people - among them future President of the United States Andrew Jackson - and that as a result the episode represents one of the most famous and heavily documented instances of a haunting in history. This view has been seriously challenged by skeptical investigators.
The Bell Witch is believed by some to be the spirit of Kate Batts, an old neighbor of John Bell who was involved with him in a dispute of the sale of a slave or piece of land (story variations tend to differ slightly). She swore on her deathbed to get even and after she died, the haunting began. Rumor has it that the spirit once referred to itself as "Kate Batts' witch". There is no documentation of this, however, and many now believe that the ghost had nothing to do with Kate Batts. Indeed, modern researchers have found that Mrs. Batts actually outlived Mr. Bell. The stories of a piece-of-land or slave-sale conflict, involving John Bell do have documentation, although in neither case is there any connection to Kate Batts. One has a connection to a distant cousin of hers.
The "witch" reportedly manifested herself as an invisible presence at first, gnawing on the bedposts, scratching at the walls, and jerking the blankets off of sleeping family members and guests. Two of those guests were one of John Bell's closest friends and his wife, who spent the night after John Bell disclosed the witch's haunting. Later, those in the house heard horrid noises, like that of someone strangling or choking, lips smacking, and loud gulping. Eventually the spirit began trying to speak, first whispering faintly, then later gaining power, enabling this entity to speak directly to anyone in the room. Often she would converse, sing, shriek, curse, and physically interact with the Bell family and other witnesses - most times with a high degree of physical violence. 'Kate', as everyone eventually called her, did not hesitate to slap, pinch, or claw those whom she considered deserving of her wrath. Once, during the haunting, an entire 'family' of spirits, who called themselves a 'witch family', appeared to arrive and began speaking with those in the house. These spirits called themselves 'Black Dog, Jerusalem, Mathematics, and Cypocraphy.' Later, these spirits left, and only Kate remained to torment those in the house. It is notable to see that in our recorded history, this is one of few poltergeist cases where the entity could actually speak. The spirit also seemed to have a divine knowledge of things, such as being able to quote any scripture in the Bible flawlessly, predict the future, sing any hymn or song requested of it, or see events unfolding great distances away, accurately reporting the events later. Guests at the Bell farm were often horrified when the spirit would attack them verbally and divulge the most secret events of their lives to onlookers. (From ; Our Family Trouble - Story of the Bell Witch)
She tormented the family, especially John and his youngest daughter Betsy, while being indifferent to others and even especially fond of Mrs. Bell. She often referred to Mrs. Bell as 'Luce', and often said to others in the house, "Luce is a good woman." Later during the haunting, when Mrs. Bell became gravely ill with pleurisy, the spirit even deigned to stop the more terrifying antics so that Mrs. Bell could rest more easily. She would offer to sing hymns to her, or any song Mrs. Bell requested in the hopes of making her feel better. Once, when the afflicted woman was especially ill and others feared for her life, she stopped eating completely. The spirit pleaded with her to eat something, and when she wouldn't, the spirit offered to get her some walnuts from the nearby forest, in hopes of tempting her to eat. Minutes later, those in the room witnessed Kate return, and heard her ask Mrs. Bell to hold out her hands. When she did, they reported a shower of walnuts fell into her outstretched palms. When she did not eat them right away, the spirit asked her, " Say, Luce...why don't you eat the nuts? " To this Mrs. Bell responded, " I have no way to crack them, Kate." Seconds after this, witnesses reported hearing cracking sounds, and saw the shells crumbling beneath some unseen force. Later, Mrs. Bell recovered from her illness, and Kate soon went back to her normal antics.
The Bell Witch is said to have stopped Betsy from marrying a neighbor boy named Joshua Gardner, but for reasons unknown, allowed her to marry her schoolteacher Richard Powell. This leads some to claim that perhaps the haunting events were a hoax perpetrated by Powell. However, it was not explained in theory how Powell could have managed to slap, pinch and claw people without being noticed. Nor were theories forthcoming for other miraculous events that fascinated those who witnessed them, such as the moving of objects, predicting the future, divulging secrets, and the eventual poisoning of John Bell. The witch allegedly predicted the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Great Depression.
The death of John Bell, on December 20 1820, is claimed to have been caused by the Bell Witch. She is said to have declared that she replaced his medicine with poison and gave him a dose of it as he slept. When this 'medicine' was tested on a house cat, the animal went into convulsions and died. "I've got Old Jack this time!", she laughed to the others, "He'll never get up from that bed again!" At his funeral, the witch is said to have sung loudly and joyously.
The witch departed soon afterwards, promising to return in seven years, which she did. The next time that she left, she promised to return in 107 years, in 1935. Some believe that the Bell Witch still resides in Adams, Tennessee. There are also claims that the Bell Witch still haunts the area on the property once owned by the Bells. On that land is a cave, which has since become known as the Bell Witch Cave. Guided tours are available to the public at certain times of the year.
The earliest written account is in the Goodspeed History of Tennessee published in 1886 by Goodspeed Publishing. No author is given, although Albert Virgil Goodpasture (1855-1942) is a possibility. Page 833 reads:
- A remarkable occurrence, which attracted widespread 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 performance 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 yet not wholly extinct.
The most famous account is the Red Book, the 1894 An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by Martin Van Buren Ingram (said to be based on the earlier Richard William Bell's Diary: Our Family Trouble) who lists the following people as witnesses:
- General Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the US
- Joel Thomas Bell, son of John Bell, Jr.
- Rev. Joshua Featheton
- Dr. J.T. Mathews
- Mr. E. Newton
- R.H. Pickering
- J. Gunn
- D. T. Porter
- J.I Holman
- Wm Wall
- W.H. Gardner
The Black Book was written much later, and published in 1934 by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell great-grandson of John Bell.
Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham includes the story of the Bell Witch.
The Guidebook for Tennessee, published by the US Govt Works Project Administration in 1939 also contains an account that differs from Ingram's on pages 392-393.
A 2004 investigation by the Middle Tennessee Skeptics concluded that the tale of the Bell Witch is a fabrication founded entirely on later elaborations of the diary of Richard William Bell. Bell's diary was written some 30 years after the events they purport to describe, which took place when the author was a child of 5-10 years old. The investigation turned up no evidence that any of the other alleged participants in the events ever recorded anything of their supposed experiences. In particular, there is no record in Andrew Jackson's journals of his ever having visited the Bells, or of any encounter by him with a supernatural being. This analysis directly conflicts with claims of Bell Witch supporters that the story is the most documented haunting in history.
- The Bell Witch - Site owned by researcher Pat Fitzhugh.
- The Bell Witch of Tennessee
- Electronic version of the 'Red Book'
- Prairie Ghosts - The Bell Witch
- Bell Witch: The Movie - A fictionalised account of the Bell Witch legend.
- The Bell Witch Haunting - A 2004 DVD movie.
- An American Haunting - A big budget feature being distributed by Lions Gate Films