A Haunting in Tennessee: The Horrifying Phenomenon of the Bell Witch

The Bell Witch cabin

Our Tennessee Witch 1817 fragrance (a limited edition of 2021 that will likely be back for a second act), has a very special meaning for me.  Many years ago now, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the infamous Bell farm in Adams, Tennessee, not far from Clarksville, and to venture into the Bell Witch Cave, known as one of the nation's most haunted places.  A visit is like going back in time to a simpler era, and you'll find that any afternoon is a good one to spend driving through the tobacco fields of this atmospheric region, the broad, dark leaves shadowing the sunlit fields, and the towering trees cooling the hot country roads. 

One of the most famous true ghost stories in known history played out on this pastoral stage, so long ago now that many doubt it was anything more than a dream.  But the long family legacy, the urgent tales passed down through generations, and the lingering curse that has become well known through the recent television series, "The Curse of the Bell Witch," have all joined together to assure that this "story" will never really be explained away as just an old folktale created around the fireside.

The story of the Bell Witch centers on the family of John Bell, a farming family who lived in northwest Robertson, County, Tennessee, in the earliest days of the 19th century.  Their homestead stood along the scenic Red River, just outside the modern town of Adams. According to lasting legends, the family was terrorized by a disembodied spirit from 1817 to 1821, which spoke from out of thin air, sang, orated and harassed the family, singling out certain members, and which was believed to take the shape of various animals.

 In 1894, newspaper editor Martin V. Ingram published a book entitled, An, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. The book remains hotly debated even today, with many claiming it was just a work of fiction, though it referred to many known people of the time.

At the heart of the story was John Bell's neighbor, a woman named Kate Batts, with whom Bell had gotten into a squabble over land.  During the course of the years of attack on the family, the spirit claimed to be "Old Kate Batts' witch" --"witch" probably a term at the time referring to a witch's familiar spirit. 

Most of the troubling activity was focused on John and his youngest daughter, Betsy, the latter of whom bore the brunt of the spirit's physical attacks.

The events surrounding the "Bell Witch" began in 1817 when John Bell saw a bizarre creature that looked like a dog but disappeared. Around the same time, John's son, Drew, saw an enormous bird on the property, and Betsy saw the apparition of a young girl in a tree.  One of the Bell's slaves also reported seeing a large black dog following him many evenings when he went out to visit his wife.

Soon the phenomena moved into the house, and the family was plagued by the sound of teeth gnawing and chewing, knocking and pounding in the walls and on the doors, and the sound of dogs fighting, though none could be seen.

As the activity progressed it affected John and Betsy physically, with John reporting a feeling of paralysis in his mouth and Betsy having the bed sheets pulled off of her body and being pinched, slapped and "stuck with pins."

A friend of the family came to stay with the Bells and observe the phenomena himself.  When he returned to his own home that night, he turned in but awoke to find that the "witch" was in bed with him.  He wrapped the thing in his bedclothes and tried to throw it in the fire, but whatever he had felt inside the wrappings disappeared.

When the spirit began to speak, it astonished all who heard its voice.  It knew things no one could have known, including what people miles away were doing, and it delighted in causing trouble in families by reporting the doings of its members to neighbors. It was able to give long orations and to quote the Bible, and once even gave a sermon in two locations, thirteen miles apart, at the same time.

Many, many people came from all over the region to experience "The Bell Witch" for themselves, many of them skeptics who left staunch believers after experiencing the wrath of the witch.

One English native who came to investigate as a skeptic later told Bell that the witch had tormented his parents at their home in England after his visit to the Bell cabin.

The witch seemed to have a particular hatred for John Bell. Calling him "Old Jack," she promised him that she would eventually kill him--a vow which the spirit, incredibly, seemed to keep.

In n 1821, after nearly four years of torment, John Bell was found dead in his bed, with a vial of mysterious liquid next to him.  All believed that the Bell Witch has poisoned the patriarch just as she had said she would.

Soon after, the witch announced that it was going to depart, but that it would return again in seven years.  She did as announced, arriving to harass Lucy Bell and her sons in 1828, but the spirit left after a brief visit.

In one of the most infamous stories surrounding the Bell Witch, Andrew Jackson was said to have made the trip to the Bell farm after hearing of the spirit's activities.  According to the story, the fearless military man was so spooked by the Bell Witch that he said he'd rather face an entire army than tangle with this mysterious spirit 

Many truly disturbing aspects of the case are little known by most who know the general theme of the story, including the following details (recorded in the diary of John's son, Richard Williams Bell), which told of how an entire "witch family" of voices soon emerged from the previously singular spirit voice. There were, Richard wrote, four distinct members of this disembodied family, and they called themselves "Blackdog," "Mathematics," "Cypocryphy", and "Jerusalem:

"The next development was the introduction of four characters, assuming the above names, purporting to be a witch family, each one acting a part and making night hideous in their high carnivals, using the most offensive language and uttering vile threats. Up to this time the strange visitor had spoken in the same soft delicate voice, except when (im)personating some individual. Now there were four distinct voices. Blackdog assumed to be the head of the family, and spoke in a harsh feminine tone. The voices of Mathematics and Cypocryphy were different, but both of a more delicate feminine tone. Jerusalem spoke like a boy.  These exhibitions were opened like a drunken carousal, and became perfect pandemoniums, frightful to the extreme, from which there was no escape.  ...These demoniac councils were introduced by singing songs of every character, followed by quarreling with each other, employing obscene language and blasphemous oaths, making a noise like a lot of drunken men fighting.  At this stage of the proceedings Blackdog would appear as peacemaker, denouncing the others with vehemence and scurrility, uttering bitter curses and threats of murder unless the belligerents should desist and behave themselves, and sometimes would apparently thrash Jerusalem unmercifully for disobeying orders.  These carousals were ended only by the command of Blackdog, professedly sending the family away on different errands of deviltry, one or two remaining to keep up the usual disturbance in different rooms at the same time.  On one occasion all four appeared almost beastly drunk, talking in a maudlin sentimental strain, fuming the house with the scent of whiskey.  Blackdog said they got the whiskey at John Gardner's still house, which was some four miles distant.  At other times the unity appeared more civil, and would treat our company to some delightful singing, a regular concert of rich feminine voices, modulated to the sweetest cadence and intonation, singing any hymn called for with solemnity and wonderful effect.  The carousals did not continue long, much to the gratification of the family and friends, and our serious apprehensions were relieved.  These concerts were agreeable closing exercises of this series of meetings, and after they were suspended the four demons or unity never, apparently, met again. It was plain old Kate from that time on who assumed all characters, good or bad, sometimes very pious and then extremely wicked.



To this day, no one can really be sure what or who the "Bell Witch" was.  Parapsychologists have called this a poltergeist case, probably centered around the "agent" Betsy Bell, since she was the target of so much of the activity. In more recent years, the theory has come forth that Betsy was sexually abused by her father, and that the phenomena were somehow attached to this dark, hidden truth.  Others continue to believe that the whole thing was nothing but a folktale, with no truth to it at all.


Thanks for coming on this legend trip!

You can read Richard William Bell's full account of the Bell Witch "haunting" in the book, Our Family Trouble, available on Amazon here, and Ingram's full book here.

The old Bell farm and the Bell Witch Cave's website is here. 

The film, An American Haunting, is inspired by the Bell Witch story. Watch it on YouTube here.

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