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The Bell Witch

Forty miles north of Nashville Along Highway 41 in the beautiful farm lands of Adams, Tennessee, stands Tennessee Historical Marker 3C38, entitled The Bell Witch. The marker tells the following tale:

To the north was the farm of John Bell, an early prominent settler from North Carolina. According to legend, his family was harried during the early 19th century by the famous Bell Witch. She kept the household in turmoil, assaulted Bell, and drove off Betsy Bell’s suitor. Even Andrew Jackson, who came to investigate, retreated to Nashville after his coach wheels stopped mysteriously. Many visitors to the house saw the furniture crash about them and heard her shriek, sing, and curse.

The entity known as the Bell Witch is truly unique and will challenge any previous notions of what you think of as a witch. The entity entered the Bell’s life quietly and eventually over time ragged into a violent and malevolent poltergeist. There is nothing strange about that part of the tale, as poltergeists are often known to rage, and violence is common. What really makes this tale unique is three things. First, this entity spoke, plainly and in English, second, it affected an entire community of hundreds of individuals, revealing many of their individual secrets, and finally, it actually murdered or claimed to have murdered John Bell.

No one in the Bell family could have possibly predicted how terribly things would have turned out when in the early 1800s, John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to Robertson County, Tennessee. The family settled in and became well respected members of the community of Red River, which later became Adams, Tennessee.  The Bell’s were farmers, so they purchased a large home and 1000 acres, clearing 328 acres for planting.  The Bells had five older children but had three more after moving to Tennessee.  Elizabeth (Betsy) was born in 1806, Richard  in 1811, and Joel in 1813. They lived quietly in the community for 13 years before the incidents of the Bell Witch.

The haunting started in the simplest of ways. With John Bell inspecting his corn field in 1817. As he was inspecting the field he encountered a strange-looking animal sitting in the middle of a corn row. The animal had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, and the appearance was so shocking that John lifted his rifle and shot at it several times to run it off. The animal vanished and Bell thought nothing more about the incident. That is until after dinner when the Bells began hearing something “beating” on the outside walls of their log house.

The mysterious sounds became nightly events and continued to increase with frequency and intensity. Bell and his sons often hurried outside to catch the culprit but always returned empty-handed.  In the weeks that followed, the sounds started to enter the home and the Bell children began waking up at night frightened, complaining about scratching and gnawing noises on their bedposts. These noises were originally thought to be rats but none were ever seen by the family. The noises continued and soon the scratching sounds were joined by sounds of chains being drug through the house, stones being dropped on the wooden floors, and gulping and choking sounds. It wasn’t long before the children began complaining that their bed covers were being pulled off them and that their pillows were being yanked from under their heads as they slept. All this by a seemingly invisible entity.

Soon, the Bells began hearing faint, whispering voices, which were too weak to understand at first but sounded somewhat like an old woman singing. The encounters escalated, and soon the entity focused its attention on the Bells’ youngest daughter, Betsy. Her encounters were violent and brutal. The entity was tormenting her, poking her with pins, pulling her hair, and slapping her relentlessly to the point of leaving welts on her face and body. Initially the disturbances were kept a secret as John insisted that no one needed to know the “family trouble” but the disturbances were escalating and poor Betsy was being nearly driven to madness. After 1 year of silence John eventually decided to share the secret with his closest friend and neighbor, James Johnston.

Johnston and his wife were invited to spend the night at the Bell home and the Johnsons experienced the same terrifying disturbances that the Bells had.  James after being slapped repeatedly and having his bed covers removed sprang out of bed exclaiming, “In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!” There was no response, but the remainder of the night was quiet. After several nights of witnessing these strange events, Mr. Johnson suggested that more people should be told. The Bell family reached out to the community and despite the community’s good efforts to keep things quite a subdued human nature spread the story quickly. 

The entity’s voice strengthened over time and soon it was loud and unmistakable. It sang hymns, quoted scripture, carried on intelligent conversation, and once even quoted, word-for-word, two sermons that were preached at the same time on the same day, thirteen miles apart. When asked who and what it was, the entity gave several different identities, but one of them, “Kate”, stuck. It stated that it was the witch of a neighbor woman named Kate Batts, and from then on, it was called “Kate” the “Bell’s Witch”. Was the spirit actually Kate? Unlikely, as no one seemed capable of uncovering its origins nor the true purpose of its presence. It wasn’t long before thousands of people were coming from miles around to hear and experience the terrifying events of the Bell home.

Word of this supernatural phenomenon soon spread outside the settlement, even to Nashville, where then-Major General Andrew Jackson took a keen interest. John Bell, Jr., Drewry Bell, and Jesse Bell, John Bell’s eldest sons, had fought under General Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.  In 1819, Jackson decided to visit the Bell farm and see what all the hoopla was about.  Jackson’s entourage consisted of several men, some well-groomed horses, and a wagon.  As they approached the Bell property, the wagon seized. 

After several minutes of cursing and trying to coax the horses into pulling the wagon, Jackson proclaimed, “By the eternal, boys! That must be the Bell Witch!”  Then, suddenly, a disembodied female voice told Jackson that they could proceed and that she would see them again later that evening. The wagon unseized and they were able to proceed across the property to the Bell home where Jackson and John Bell conversed while Jackson’s entourage waited to see if the entity would manifest as she said.

One of the men in the group claimed to be a “witch hunter” and after several uneventful hours, he pulled out a shiny pistol and a silver bullet proclaiming that it could kill any evil spirit it came into contact with.  He went on taunting the entity and saying that the reason nothing had happened to them was because whatever it was. It was too “scared” of his silver bullet. Immediately, the man screamed, his body jerking in different directions. He continued to scream as he was severely beaten and stuck repeatedly with what he described as pins. The entity continued to beat the man, eventually throwing him out the front door.  Angry, the entity spoke up and announced that the man was a fraud and that there was yet another “fraud” in Jackson’s party, and that if they stayed she would identify and torment that man the following night.

Terrified, Jackson’s men begged to leave the farm.  But Jackson thought it might be interesting to stay and find out who the other “fraud” was.  What happened next is unclear, but Jackson and his man were enroute to Nashville by the next morning. Jackson became US President 10 years later and was quoted once as saying, “I had rather face the entire British Army than to spend another night with the Bell Witch.”

The entity did however almost get caught. As she took a liking to William Porter, one of the town’s bachelors. Porter was a good friend to the Bells and he would often come to their home and engage Kate into conversation late into the night so that the Bells could get some rest. He and Kate talked so often that they had become friendly to the point that Porter had no fear of the spirit. 

One cold night lying in bed at his own home, he felt the covers being pulled back off his bed and heard Kate’s familiar voice saying that she had come “to spend the night with him and keep him warm.”

Porter told the witch that if it was going to spend the night with him it had to behave itself. He soon felt something sliding into bed with him and then felt the covers being pulled off him as Kate rolled up in them and left him exposed. Porter said he suddenly realized that the form in the bed next to him was clearly outlined under the bedcovers and he had an idea. 

He grabbed the form, covers and all, and began carrying it towards the fireplace with the intention of throwing the whole thing into the fire, but the weight got heavier and heavier as he approached the fireplace and what he described as “an awful stench” began rising from the covers. He had to drop the load and run from the house to get his breath. Kate never again tried to get into his or anybody else beds after that. Perhaps, it was this encounter that turned her against Joshua Gardner. 

Betsy had become enamored with a local young man named Joshua Gardner and soon the young couple, with the blessing of their families, were planning to marry. But the entity didn’t like Joshua and repeatedly told Betsy not to marry him. Betsy and Joshua could get no piece and the entity followed them wherever they went  taunting them incessantly.  The witch whispered taunts and threats in Betsy’s ear, promising imminent doom to the couple if they were married. Feeling threatened, Betsy met Joshua at the river and broke off their engagement. The disturbances against Betsy decreased after she ended the engagement, but with Joshua gone the entity refocused its dislike on John Bell, vowing relentlessly to kill him. She signaled this intent with curses, threats, and afflictions. 

Bell started to fall ill and was plagued with episodes of facial twitching, difficulty swallowing, paralysis of the tongue, feelings of a stick in his throat, and seizures. Symptoms lasted weeks and then would resolve for months only to return. This continued for over a year until his declining health confined him to the house where the entity continued to plague him. Her voice was heard all over the farm cursing and tormenting “Old Jack Bell, “ as she referred to him. 

John Bell weary and torment slipped into a coma on December 19, 1820.  John Bell, Jr went to retrieve some medicine from the cupboard and instead found a small vial of unidentified black liquid in a smoky vial where his father’s medicines had been kept.  The entity then spoke up, exclaiming joyfully, “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!”  John Bell, Jr. curious about the concoction, gave some of it to the cat, which died instantly. John, Jr. quickly threw the vial into the fireplace, where it burst into a bright, bluish flame and shot up the chimney. The family sent for the doctor but the entity told them it was useless saying, “I’ve got him this time.”, “He’ll never get up from that bed again.” John Bell died the next day. 

John Bell’s funeral was one of the largest ever held in Robertson County, Tennessee.  As family and friends began leaving the graveyard, the entity laughed loudly and began singing a song about a bottle of brandy. Each verse of the song got more vile and crude. Running off the mourners.  It is said that her singing didn’t stop until the very last person left the graveyard.  The entity’s presence was almost nonexistent after John Bell’s demise, as if its purpose had been fulfilled.

In April of 1821, the entity visited John Bell’s widow, Lucy, and told her that it would return in seven years.  The entity as promised returned in 1828, visiting John Bell, Jr. with whom the entity discussed such things as the origin of life, civilizations, Christianity, and the need for a mass spiritual reawakening.  Of particular significance were its nearly accurate predictions of the Civil War and other events. The entity even predicted the end of the world by fire. 

The entity stayed for three weeks, vowing to visit John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years in 1935. The closest living direct descendant of John Bell at that time was Nashville physician, Dr. Charles Bailey Bell.  Dr. Bell wrote a book about the “Bell Witch,” and published it in 1934.  No follow-up was published and Bell never recounted any experiences with the witch. Dr. Bell died in 1945.

The cause of the Bells’ torment more than 200 years ago, remains a mystery.  Whether the tale is based on fact or fiction is up to debate. Truthfully we may never know. But what we do know is that the legend of the Bell Witch has haunted and captivated imaginations for over 200 years. 

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