Bell Witch The famous pre–American Civil War haunting of the Bell Witch involved poltergeist phenomena and spectral creatures, and, according to legend, tormented one man to death. The haunting excited the curiosity of many people, including General Andrew Jackson. The story exists in several versions, three of which are presented here. The first is probably closest to the true anecdote, as it allegedly is based on the diary of one of the Bell sons, Richard Williams Bell. The third version has a modern sequel. The different versions Demonstrate how stories change in retelling.
John Bell was a prosperous farmer who owned 1,000 acres near Adams, Tennessee. He had a beautiful wife, Lucy, and eight children. They were all devout Baptists and model citizens. In 1817, their lives inexplicably were turned upside down. The first signs were spectral creatures witnessed by Bell. One was a large, doglike thing that vanished when Bell fired upon it with his shotgun. The other was a large, turkeylike bird.
Following the appearances of the creatures, the home was plagued with knockings, Rappings, and scrapings on the outside doors and windows. Sounds that resembled giant rats gnawing the bedposts and giant dogs clawing the floor were heard. These phenomena went on for about a year, and then covers began to be pulled off beds and invisible hands slapped faces and pulled hair. Particularly tormented was the Bells’ 12-year-old daughter, Betsy, who was slapped, pinched, bruised and stuck with pins. Betsy was so afflicted that at first the family suspected her of perpetrating a trick on everyone else.
At first Bell was determined to keep the haunting a secret, but it became intolerable for the family. Bell at last confi ded in a neighbor, James Johnson, who discovered the offending spirit seemed to be intelligent, for it would temporarily desist when beseeched in the name of the Lord. Johnson advised forming an investigatory committee. With that, word went out, and the Bell home became the object of great curiosity.
The spirit began to whistle and then to speak. It gave various identities. It said it was “a Spirit from everywhere, Heaven, Hell, the Earth. I’m in the air, in houses, any place at any time. I’ve been created millions of years. That is all I will tell you.” On another occasion, it said it was the spirit of a person who had been buried in the woods nearby, and whose grave had been disturbed. The bones had been scattered about, and a tooth was under the Bells’ house. The spirit was looking for the tooth. The Bells searched, but no tooth was found.
On yet another occasion, the spirit said it was the ghost of an immigrant who had died and left a hidden fortune; it had returned to reveal to Betsy the location of the money. The spirit gave a location, and the Bell boys dug for hours without finding a thing. That night, the spirit laughed over the joke.
The townspeople came to think of the spirit as a witch. The spirit agreed, saying, “I am nothing more nor less than old Kate Batts’ witch, and I’m determined to haunt and torment old Jack Bell as long as he lives.” Kate Batts was a hefty local woman married to an invalid. She had once been dissatisfi ed with business dealings with Bell and had threatened to get even. She was still alive. From then on, the spirit was called “Kate.”
“Kate” made almost daily appearances at the Bell home and visited everyone else in Robertson County as well, abusing them with her caustic tongue. She made predictions about the future, including the Civil War and the two World Wars of the 20th century. But her primary purposes were to torment “Old Jack,” as she called Bell, and to torment Betsy in order to dissuade her from marrying a young man named Josh Gardner. “Kate” did not disturb Lucy Bell, nor Betsy’s favorite little brother, John Jr.
“Kate” grew so famous that General Andrew Jackson decided to visit and bring along a “witch layer,” a professional exorcist. Just outside the Bell farm, however, the Jackson carriage suddenly stopped and the wheels refused to budge. “Kate’s” voice then manifested, promising to appear that night in the home. The carriage became unstuck.
Later in the evening, “Kate” manifested with phantom footsteps and a voice. The witch layer attempted to shoot her with a silver bullet (see SILVER) but was slapped about and frightened out of the house.
John Bell fell victim to repeated bouts of illness, for which “Kate” claimed responsibility. While he lay sick in bed, twitching and jerking, the spirit cursed him continuously. Finally, the ordeals wore him down and he told one son that the end was coming. He went to bed and never recovered.
His family found him in a stupor on the morning of December 19, 1820. A strange bottle was found in the medicine cabinet. When the liquid was administered to a cat, the animal went into convulsions and died. “Kate” exultantly declared that she had poisoned him with the liquid while he was asleep. Bell died the next morning. “Kate” shrieked in triumph.
The torments of Betsy began to diminish, encouraging her to announce her engagement to Gardner. That brought on a renewed attack from “Kate.” In despair, Betsy broke the engagement and married another man, Dick Powell.
“Kate” announced to the Bell family that she would leave for seven years and marked her pledge with a cannonball- like object that rolled down the chimney and burst like smoke. As promised, “Kate” returned seven years later and plagued Mrs. Bell and two sons with scratchings and the pulling off of bed covers. They kept the return a secret, and the torments stopped after two weeks.
Before “Kate” left a second time, she visited the home of John Jr. and pledged to return in 107 years—in 1935— when she would bring bad tidings for Tennessee and the entire country. The year came and went without incident, but the area around the Bell farm is said to be haunted still.
The Bells never understood why they were singled out for such an unearthly attack. It is not known what the real Kate Batts had to say about it. Theories have been advanced that Betsy may have been a poltergeist agent. She was the right age, around puberty, and her strict Baptist upbringing may have caused repressed sexual guilt. She also may have had subconscious resentment toward her father. However, there is no evidence that she was unhappy or repressed. And, while the spirit did plague Betsy the most, it roved all over Robertson County and meddled in everyone’s affairs. Perhaps the intense resentment and hatred bottled up in the real Kate Batts created a Thoughtform that took on a life of its own.
John Bell was a wealthy planter in North Carolina who hired a foul-tempered overseer. The overseer abused the slaves and, some say, had an eye for Bell’s oldest daughter, Mary. Bell and the overseer had many clashes, which escalated until Bell lost control and shot the overseer to death. At his trial, Bell pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.
After that, however, the Bell fortunes began to turn sour. The crops failed and he had to sell his slaves. Soon, he was broke. He sold his land and moved his family to Tennessee to start over again on a small piece of land near the home of Andrew Jackson.
Strange things began to happen in the Tennessee home. The children awoke in their beds each morning to find their hair tangled and their nightclothes snatched off. An old black woman told Bell his family was haunted by a witch, the “ha’nt,” or ghost, of the dead supervisor. She offered to spend a night under the children’s bed to find out for sure. In the middle of the night, the Bells were awakened by a horrible scream. They found the woman in a panic, claiming the ha’nt had pinched her, stuck her with pins, snatched the kinks out of her hair and whipped her.
The terrified Bells told their neighbors, including Jackson, who did not believe in ha’nts. As soon as he said so, he was struck by an invisible force which knocked his hat off his head and sent it flying. Mary, meanwhile, began to suffer nightmares in which a cold and heavy weight pressed the breath and life out of her chest. (See Old Hag.) The ha’nt appeared in her mirror and spoke to her.
These phenomena continued as Mary grew older. The ha’nt scared off all her boyfriends so that she received no marriage proposals. One night, the ha’nt spoke to the Bells from the andiron in the fireplace, telling them that he was in love with Mary and wanted to marry her. The Bells refused. The next day, Mary began to droop about, and her condition worsened over time until she was so ill she could not get out of bed. For a month she lay in bed, not responding to the ministrations of a doctor. One night, as her mother held her hand, she sat up suddenly and said she saw the ha’nt, and thought she was going to love him. Her face lit up with happiness and she died.
On the day of her burial, a great black bird with a bell tied around its neck appeared in the sky over the funeral procession. The bell tolled the most mournful note ever heard. The bird continued to circle over the mourners until Mary’s grave was covered, and then flew away, the sad tolls of the bell lingering in the air.
In the early 1800s, John Bell of North Carolina became engaged to a widow, Kate Batts. He soon discovered she had a nasty temper. He tried to break the engagement, but she refused to allow it. One day, she fell on his farm, hit her head on a bucket and knocked herself unconscious. Bell thought she was dead, and he dragged her body into the root cellar and locked the door.
She awoke the next night, however, and began moaning and calling to John for food and help. He ignored her pleas, and two days later, she died. John surreptitiously took her body away and left it on her own farm, where it was found by a neighbor.
Happy to be rid of Batts, Bell married another woman and moved to a farm near Adams, Tennessee, north of Nashville. His happiness was shortlived, for soon after their arrival, horrible hauntings began. A huge black bird with fiery eyes and a terrible stench dive-bombed him while he was plowing his field. At home, strange noises were heard, and his three sons (presumably by a previous marriage) were awakened by what sounded like a giant rat gnawing at their bedposts.
The poltergeist phenomena were followed by a disembodied spirit, whom the family called “Kate Batts’ witch,” and who exhibited great hatred for Bell. One morning in 1820, the spirit announced that she had poisoned Bell during the night. He was, in fact, dead.
The family was haunted by the Bell Witch for one more year. Then, after a seven-year absence, the spirit returned again to torment the family with knockings, scratchings and the like. Once again, the spirit left and swore to return.
The Bell Witch hauntings did not end with the death of John Bell in 1820, or the end of his family. After the death of Lucy Bell, the land was divided, and Joel Bell inherited the piece on the Red River. Joel eventually sold the land to his brother, Richard, who had the farm adjoining John Bell’s property. Family members and visitors continued to experience odd phenomena, such as the mysterious breakage of objects, howling noises outside the house, and bed linens being torn off the beds.
The property continued to be plagued by strange noises, odd shapes, and unexplained Ghost Lights, even into the present. In 1969, one of John Bell’s descendants died of a mysterious malady that struck suddenly, and resembled the malady described as having struck Bell himself. It appeared to be a nerve disorder that caused the woman’s throat and mouth to swell and stiffen and impaired her ability to talk and swallow.
In 1964, the farm was bought by Bill and Frances Eden. They lived in the old farmhouse, but soon grew weary of the noises, apparitions, and other phenomena. Eden tore the house down and built a new one in its place—but the phenomena continued, suggesting that “place energy” might be a factor in the haunting. One eerie phenomenon was a tall figure in a long black cloak with the collar turned up who would walk up and down the road. Eden could not tell if it was male or female. The couple frequently heard voices, the sounds of a woman screaming, and raspy breathing.
The Edens popularized the cave as a tourist attraction.
After Bill Eden died at home, Frances moved, and the farm sat vacant for a few years. It was purchased in 1993 by Walter and Chris Kirby, tobacco farmers. They reopened the cave for tourism. Immediately upon moving in, they experienced haunting phenomena, which continues to the present.
In 2006, the film An American Haunting was released. The film was based on a novelization of the Bell Witch story, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan. The film portrays a fictional confl ict between John Bell and Kate Batts and emphasizes the affl ictions of Betsy as more Demonic in nature.
The Bell Witch Cave
The cave is located near the farmhouse in the center of a bluff overlooking the river. A disturbed Indian burial mound lies on the bluff above the entrance. The cave is small, but extends deep into the bluff. Due to the narrowness of the passage, visitors can enter only about 500 feet of the cave. In rainy weather, a stream issues from the cave.
Visitors have recorded Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) inside the cave. A bizarre photographic effect occurs at the entrance: many photographs do not come out at all, while others have missing people and objects or show objects not present when the photographs were taken. Mists also show up on photographs.
A Native American woman’s bones were discovered during construction work on a nearby road and were interred in the cave. The bones were stolen. Since then, bad luck seems to happen to people who take anything from the cave, such as a stone.
Glowing balls of light have been photographed inside the cave, and the apparition of a woman has been seen inside, floating along the passage. Troy Taylor and investigator Bob Schott filmed what appears to be an interdimensional doorway.
Explanations for the Bell Witch
From the beginning of the case, skeptics suspected the haunting was a trick intended to dupe people out of money. Evidence does not support this theory —too many people, literally hundreds of them, have witnessed phenomena. Given the unhappy events that took place, it is not likely that a family would engineer them deliberately.
Poltergeist expert Nandor Fodor called the Bell Witch “the greatest American ghost story” and believed it could be explained naturally as poltergeist activity generated by the youthful Betsy, a likely focal point. But other ghost investigators find that explanation unsatisfactory.
Batts’s eccentricity made people fearful of her, and rumors spread that she was a witch. But was she responsible for the spirit that plagued the Bell family? Batts was an outsider who did not get along well with others. She had the bizarre habit of asking every woman she met for a brass pin. She never explained why, and people evidently were too afraid to ask. However, it was well known that witches used pins and other personal items in their spellcasting, and so many assumed that Batts was collecting material for dark purposes. She was said to bewitch butter so that it would not churn. Batts also alienated people with her conceit. She considered herself above others and thought she was entitled to great social privileges.
Nonetheless, Batts was a devout Christian and made a great show of her faith. When word reached her that the spirit plaguing the Bell family identified itself as “the witch of Kate Batts,” she was furious. She vowed to legally prosecute whoever was spreading this vicious rumor—but of course no person was ever found, for the source was the spirit itself.
The identity of the spirit remains unknown to this day. The spirit said it was a Native American whose burial rest had been disturbed. The spirit also has been associated with a woman who was buried in North Carolina, but without compelling evidence. Another theory holds that the spirit was a poltergeist riled up by the animosity between Bell and Batts, and exacerbated by the budding sexual energy of the young Betsy. Still others think that Batts was indeed a witch who cursed the Bell family with a nasty spirit.
Beliefs about Batts being a witch followed her to her grave. She died after Bell, and also long after the haunting phenomena ceased. But no one would sit the night with her corpse, which was the custom at the time. Finally a woman volunteered to do so, if several other women sat with her. The group claimed they were plagued by black cats and menacing Black Dogs all night long.
Troy Taylor calls the Bell property and cave “one of the most haunted locations in America.” Taylor has proposed that the witch really was a nonhuman entity that was activated and released by the disturbance of the Indian burial mound when it was opened and desecrated long ago by two boys. The disturbance created an interdimensional portal or doorway through which the spirit was able to become active in the physical world. It probably was ancient in nature, and at first took forms it was familiar with—a black dog and a black bird. It then learned to speak. It was unhappy, perhaps even malevolent. The spirit may still move in and out of the portal, through the cave.
- Bell, Charles Bailey. The Bell Witch of Tennessee: A Mysterious Spirit. Paducah, Ky.: Image Graphics, Inc., 2001. First published 1934.
- Ingram, M. V. An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch. Union City, Tenn.: Pioneer Press, 2000. First published 1894.
- Taylor, Troy. Season of the Witch: The History & Hauntings of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2002.
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