The Bell Witch
The Bell Witch or Bell Witch Haunting is a poltergeist legend from Southern United States folklore, involving the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee. The legend is the basis of the films An American Haunting (2006) and The Bell Witch Haunting (2004), and may have influenced the production of The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Strange animals on the farm
John William Bell moved his wife Lucy, and family from North Carolina to Tennessee after purchasing a plot of land and a large house from a local farmer. He eventually increased his land holding to over 300 acres of land. John became a popular figure in the community. He was named an Elder of the Red River Baptist Church.
According to the legend, the first manifestation of the haunting occurred in 1817 when John William Bell, Sr. encountered a strange animal in a cornfield on his large farm in Robertson County, on the Red River, near Adams, Tennessee. The animal, described as having the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, vanished when Bell shot at it. This incident was quickly followed by a series of strange beating and gnawing noises manifesting outside and eventually inside the Bell residence. Betsy Bell, the family’s younger daughter and the only daughter still living at home (Bell’s oldest daughter Esther married Alexander Bennett Porter July 24, 1817), claimed to have been assaulted by an invisible force.
The haunting begins
The sounds continued through the night. Each time a sound was heard, John and his sons would rush outside to catch it to no avail. The sounds then moved into the house. The children claimed something was gnawing on their bedposts during the night and by morning; something was yanking the covers off of their beds and tossing their pillows across the room. They heard sounds of chains dragging along the floors and noises that sounded like dogs growling. Occasionally they would hear gulping noises that sounded like someone who was having trouble swallowing.
It was at this time that Mr. Bell felt a strange affliction coming on him, which he could not account for. It was stiffness of the tongue, which came suddenly, and for a time, when these spells were on, he could not eat. He described it as feeling like a small stick of wood crosswise in his mouth, pressing out both cheeks, and when he attempted to eat it would push the victuals out of his mouth.
Kate, the Bell Witch, begins to speak
As time passed, the family began hearing faint whispers and soft singing which sounding like an old woman singing hymns. The encounters soon turned violent and seemed to especially target one specific family member. Bells youngest daughter, Betsy, began experiencing brutal encounters. Her face and body covered with welts and red handprints found on her face, arms, and back.
In John Bell’s own words, “The persecutions of Elizabeth were increased to an extent that excited serious apprehensions. Her cheeks were frequently crimsoned as by a hard blow from an open hand, and her hair pulled until she would scream with pain.”
The family was initially instructed to keep the incidents quiet but John eventually reached his wit’s end and told a close family friend, neighbor James Johnston.
Johnston and his wife spent the night with the Bells and encountered one of the most terrifying nights of their lives. Their bed was shaken, covers floated off onto the floor, and they were repeatedly slapped, pinched, and punched. At one point, James Johnston leapt off the bed and shouted, “In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!” The remainder of the night was peaceful.
Bell Witch Strength Grows
The entity’s strength continued to grow reaching a point where its voice was loud and unmistakable. John recounted how he questioned the witch and eventually gleaned a response: “Finally, in answer to the question, “Who are you and what do you want?” the reply came, “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.” This was uttered in a very feeble voice, but sufficiently distinct to be understood by all present.”
Then followed the question, “How were you disturbed, and what makes you unhappy?” The reply to this question was, “I am the spirit of a person who was buried in the woods near by, and the grave has been disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered, and one of my teeth was lost under this house, and I am here looking for that tooth.”
This statement revived the memory of a circumstance that occurred some three or four years previously, and had been entirely forgotten. The farm hands while engaged in clearing a plot of land, discovered a small mound of graves, which they supposed to be an Indian burying ground, and worked around it without obliterating the marks. Several days later Corban Hall, a young man of the neighborhood, came to the Bell place, and was told the circumstance of finding the Indian graves. Hall thought the graves probably contained some relics which Indians commonly buried with their dead, and proposed to open one and see, to which ‘Drew agreed, and they proceeded to disinter the bones.
Kate became more vocal. It would sing hymns and quote scriptures. In one incident, the Bell Witch, as it had come to be known, quoted the complete text of two sermons that had been given simultaneously at two different churches over 13 miles apart. It made it clear that her name was “Kate”.
Kate’s pretentious for religion
Kate, the Bell Witch, made great pretentious for religion taking Mr. Johnson for a model of Christianity, calling him “Old Sugar Mouth,” frequently observing “Lord Jesus, how sweet old Sugar Mouth prays; how I do love to hear him.” Kate delighted in scriptural controversies, could quote any text or passage in the Bible, and was able to maintain a discussion with the ablest theologians, excelling in fervency of prayer and devotional songs – no human Voice was sweet. Kate made frequent visits to North Carolina, John Bell’s old neighborhood, never absent longer than a day or an hour, but always reporting correctly the news or events of the day in that vicinity. With all of these excellent traits of character, Kate behaved badly toward visitors and all members of the family except Mrs. Lucy Bell, to whom the witch was devoted, declaring that “Old Luce” was a good Woman, but manifesting very great aversion for “Old Jack” – John Bell, Sr. He was most detestable and loathsome in the eyes of Kate, for which no cause was ever assigned. But the witch often declared its purpose of killing him before leaving the place.
During this time, Betsy Bell became enamored with Joshua Gardner, a local Tennessee man. After a brief courtship, they announced their marriage. During their engagement, the Bell Witch took a particular keen interest in taunting and tormenting them. No matter where they went, the witch followed them and tormented them. Finally, on the day after Easter in 1921, they broke off the engagement.
John Bell’s Death
By the fall of 1920, John Bell’s health mysteriously began declining. By the end of the year he was so weak and sick that he was bedridden and confined to the house. He experienced episodes of twitching and had difficulty swallowing water and food. Each time he went into convulsions, the Bell Witch would slap his repeatedly and shout in her old shrill voice, “Old Jack Bell”, as she often referred to him. Finally, John breathed his last breath on December 20, 1820. His funeral was one of the largest the country had ever seen. As family and friends left the graveyard, the Bell Witch began laughing loudly and singing a song about brandy. Witnesses claim the singing did not end until the last person left the graveyard.
Soon after his death, the family found a strange vial hidden in a cupboard. John Bell Jr. fed a few drops to the family cat which died instantly. John Jr. threw the vial into the fireplace and it burst into bright blue and green flames. The entity then spoke up, exclaiming joyfully, “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!” After John’s death, the activity declined with very sporadic “visits”, mostly centered on John Bell Jr.
Pat Fitzhugh’s retelling of the Bell Witch legend concludes with a statement to the effect that some people believe that the spirit returned in 1935, the year when the witch claimed it would return (“one hundred years and seven” past 1828), and took up residence on the former Bell property. Other sources say that 1935 brought nothing out of the ordinary to the Bell descendants or the surrounding community.
Andres Jackson Visits
Andrew Jackson, later to be President of the United States, is alleged to have visited the Bell Family and to have witnessed the phenomena. According to legend and the diary of Dr. James Killian, Jackson arrived prepared to spend the night in mid 1817, but was so overwhelmed with fright by what he witnessed that Jackson fled. Killian, a devoted abnormalist and cryptid hunter was originally at a loss to explain the phenomena.
Other Published Accounts
The earliest written account is at page 833 in the Goodspeed History of Tennessee, published in 1887 by Goodspeed Publishing.
The most famous account is recorded in what has come to be called the Red Book, the 1894 An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by Martin Van Buren Ingram, which cites the earlier Richard William Bell’s Diary: Our Family Trouble. Richard Williams Bell lists several witnesses, including General (later President) Andrew Jackson. However, no mention of the Bell Witch was ever made by Jackson in any of his letters, journals or papers. The complete text of the book may be read here.
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 Works Project Administration in 1939, also contains an account that differs from Ingram’s on pages 392–393.
A Pennsylvania woman named Jacquito also saw the ghost once, and then died of a fatal heart tumor.