Americas,  ER,  United States

The Legend of the Bell Witch

An artist's sketching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894
An artist’s sketching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894

This might be the most famous supernatural story in the history the United States.  It is definitely the most famous haunting in the state of Tennessee.  The story was so famous, it caught the attention of Andrew Jackson when he lived in the state.  The legend of the Bell Witch is over a hundred years old and has taken on a life of it’s own, with a Bell Witch Fest and Tours of the cabin and cave.  So what is the story?

Like many other people in the early 1800s, John Bell and his family moved west to the lush land of Tennessee.  They settled in the bottom land around the Red River along with several other families.  The resulting town changed names several times, and is now known as Adams, Tennessee.  It’s about an hour away from present day Nashville. At the time of the story, the town was known as Red River Station.  Bell bought several acres of land and build a large house for his family.  The Bell family prospered and in the following years grew their farm to 328 acres and had three more children.  John Bell became an Elder of the Red River Baptist Church and was considered a respected member of the community.  

Things were normal until 1817.  While out in the cornfield, John Bell found a strange animal sitting in the middle of a corn row.  It had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit.  Bell was frightened and took aim and fired several shots at the strange creature.  From that moment on, strange things started happening at the Bell farm.  Someone or something began beating on the outside of their home at night.  Bell and his sons went outside, but never caught the source of the noise.  As the days went on, the Bell children woke in the middle of the night frightened by “rats gnawing at their bedposts”.  Soon they complained of covers being pulled off of them in bed and pillows tossed to the floor.  They heard whispering voices outside their windows, which sounded like an old woman singing hymns.  Whatever it was soon concentrated its anger on young Betsy Bell, slapping her and leaving large bruises and welts on her face and body.  Bell could not make head nor tails of it.  He originally want to keep the “family trouble” a secret, but things got so bad he confided in his neighbor, James Johnson, who stayed the night at the farm.  The same entity tormented he and his wife until he called out in a loud voice, “In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!”  But that was not the end of the Bell Witch’s shenanigans.

The entity found its voice and identified itself as Katie Batts, a neighbor who John Bell had a bad experience with over selling slaves.  It sang hymns, quoted sermons word for word which were preached on the same day thirteen miles away.  She called family members by name and expressed a distinct hatred for John Bell, promising to kill him.  The Bell Witch grew famous, which was not always a good thing for the Bell family.  John Bell was eventually excommunicated from the church where he was an elder in 1818.  The excuse was a charge of usury over a slave sale, but many think the supernatural events at his home were the catalyst.

The Bell Witch even attracted the attention of General Andrew Jackson.  The eldest Bell son’s had fought under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and were overjoyed to see their former commander.  Jackson arrived with several men and horses and a wagon.  When they reached the edge of the property, the horses would not budge no matter what the men did.  A disembodied female voice told Jackson they could proceed and she would see them again that evening.  What did happen is a man who claimed to be a “witch tamer” in Jackson’s party got the Betsy Bell treatment and was beaten severely and literally got a quick kick to the behind.  So much for witch tamers.

Once Betsy Bell was older, like many girls, she became interested in a young man.  Joshua Gardner was a neighbor and he asked for her hand in honorable marriage.  It seemed like a good match-  to everyone but the Bell Witch.  The entity told Betsy over and over not to marry Joshua Gardner.  The entity followed them about and made their lives intolerable until on Easter Monday, 1821 Betsy broke their engagement.  Add into the strangeness, Betsy’s former schoolteacher, Richard Powell.  Powell arrived in the area around 1815, and was a frequent visitor to the Bell home.  It seems Powell had carried a torch for young Betsy and expressed a desire to marry her when she was no longer his student.  When he found out about her engagement to Gardner, he is on record as bowing out politely and wishing her well on her engagement.  Powell did end up marrying Betsy several years after her engagement to Gardner was broken.  However, several accounts allege Powell dabbled in the occult.  He was seen by witness reading a book in “Latin or Greek”, which he quickly hid if he saw anyone looking at it.  Other accounts tell of him speaking a language they did not recognize alone behind a locked door.  However, this account was from John A. Gardner, the brother of the jilted Joshua, so take it with a grain of salt.

The death of John Bell Photo Credit- Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.
The death of John Bell Photo Credit- Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.

The engagement broken up, the Bell Witch turned back to her original target- John Bell.  Bell had been having problems for some time- twitching in his face and difficulty swallowing.  His sickness grew worse with time and by the fall of 1820 he could not leave the house because of seizures.  If he tried to walk, the entity forcibly removed his shoes and when he had “spells” slapped his face.  A loud, shrill voice could be heard all over the farm cursing “Old Jack Bell”.  John Bell died on December 20, 1820 after slipping into a coma.  A small bottle of unidentified liquid was found in the cupboard, which John Bell Jr. fed to the cat, which died instantly.  The entity spoke and said, “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!”  Horrified, John Bell Jr. threw the bottle in the fireplace, where it burst into a blue flame and shot up the chimney.  During the funeral, the entity could be heard singing a song about a bottle of brandy and laughing uproariously.  Once the last person left the graveyard, the singing stopped.  The entity seemed to be at rest and was not seen often on the farm.

However that spring, the entity visited John’s widow, Lucy and told her it would return in seven years.  In 1828, the entity kept its promise and spoke extensively with John Bell Jr. making strangely accurate predictions of the Civil War.  After three weeks, the entity promised to return to John’s most direct descendant in 107 years.  This was 1935, and the closest living direct descendant was Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, a doctor in Nashville, TN.  Dr. Bell published a book on the Bell Witch in 1934, but made no mention of the promised visit.  He died in 1945.

Even today, there are strange occurrences near the old Bell farm.  Hazy orbs and human figures show in photography and the sound of voices can be heard in the fields.  No one is sure exactly what happened, just that something did.


Sources available on Request