Legend of The Bell Witch

The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: The Podcast.


Introduction: The Red River

The Red River runs for over a hundred miles through South-central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee.  A tributary to the Cumberland river, it’s named after the river’s unique watercolor, caused by clay and silt deposits containing iron oxides.  In 1778, Thomas Kilgore built a fort on the banks of the Red River near present day Cross Plains, but native hostility was so great he abandoned it in less than a year, a scenario that played out over and over for the next decade til unfair treaties and American coercion pressed the Native tribes west.

By the time Tennessee was granted statehood in June of 1796, this region which would become Robertson County, had a population of almost 4,000.  Most of the early settlers to migrate here were of English or Scot-Irish origin. Primarily farmers looking to cultivate tobacco, depending heavily on the use of slave labor to make a profit; eventually giving Robertson County the reputation as the “Home of the World’s Finest Dark Fired Tobacco.”  

But it’s also during this era, in the early nineteenth century, that one of the most well documented hauntings in American History occurred, right here in Robertson County on the Red River. A legend so infamous, it purportedly caught the attention of a future President; gripping a small Tennessee community for years, and terrorizing a family for generations. A legend known as “The Bell Witch.”

...my name is Brandon Schexnayder and you are listening to Southern Gothic.

The Bell Family

In 1804, North Carolina farmer John Bell Sr relocated his family to the Red River bottomland in Robertson County, Tennessee near the present day city of Adams.  There John purchased land on the Red River and built home for his family, consisting of his wife Lucy and four sons Jesse, John Jr. Drewry and Benjamin. He became one of the area’s most successful planters,and over time would increase his holdings to 398 acres of property, clearing a number of them for planting.  Also a religious man, John Bell Sr. was named an Elder for the Red River Baptist Church, the center of this community since it was built in 1791. Bell and his wife also continued to have three more children named Richard, Joel and Elizabeth, who they also called Betsy,.

Unfortunately in 1817, only a decade after settling in to their new home, the Bell family would find themselves at the center of an epic haunting, that began after John Bell himself came across an unknown animal sitting amongst the rows of corn growing on his property.  The creature was said to have had the head of a rabbit on the body of a dog. Shocked by the appearance of such a beast, Bell raised his gun and shot at it. Missing, as it had already disappeared. But this mysterious animal encounter was just the beginning for the Bell family.


The Haunting

That same evening, the Bell’s began hearing the sounds of someone beating on the walls of their log cabin, the noise only abating when night finally turned into day.  Yet the following night, the sounds returned, again and again, night after night; becoming louder and more forceful each evening. Each night, when the noises began anew, John Bell and his sons would rush out of the home in an attempt to catch the culprit in the act, but disappointingly they never found any evidence of the cause.

Over the course of the following weeks, the unexplained activity eventually began to manifest inside the cabin itself.  The youngest Bell children would often wake in the middle of the night, complaining of the sounds of rats gnawing on their bed posts.  Yet there were no rats discovered, and the bed posts showed not signs of such damage. The children would also often claim their bed covers and pillows were being forcibly pulled from them in the night and thrown to the floor.

The whispers started next.  the sounds were too low to be distinct about what was being said, but its tone and rhythm reminded them of the sounds of a feeble woman singing hymns.  Like the beatings on the walls, the whispers would strengthen over time, the voice becoming loud; in addition to hymns, it would quote scripture. And most terriginingly, it could carry on an intelligent conversation with members of the family.  Notably, it is said the entity once quoted word-for-word two religious sermons that were given on the same day thirteen miles apart.

As the days, weeks, and then months passed, so did the supernatural activity, and although the entire Bell family were victims to these supernatural events, it was the youngest daughter, Betsy Bell, who endured the most brutal physical encounters.  The entity would frequently pull Betsy’s hair or slap her relentlessly; tormenting her, and leaving her with visible welts and bruises in the shapes of hand prints.

The story spreads

Initially John Bell told his family to stay silent about these unexplained disturbances, but eventually he felt he needed to tell someone, confiding in his close friend and neighbor James Johnston.  Possibly unsure of the validity of his friend’s claims, Johnston and his wife offered to spend a night in the Bell family home. Unfortunately, that evening they too would experience the same terrifying noises, bangings, and whispers.  It is said that Johnston jumped from the bed and exclaimed, “In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!” But no reply was given, and the rest of the night passed peacefully.

It should come as no surprise that once James Johnston learned of and experienced the nightly terrors inflicted upon the Bell family, it was only a matter of time before the people of Red River Community knew the story as well.  In fact, the news of the continual haunting of the Bell’s spread so rapidly that people travelled from afar to witness for themselves the mysterious events. One such visitor was said to be Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a Major General in 1819 when he visited the Bell family home; after hearing stories of the claim from the elder Bell sons, John Jr., Drewry, and Jesse, who had served under his command at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.  

The future president arrived at the Bell’s property in the company of several men, horses, and a wagon.  Purportedly, upon arriving on Bell property these horses suddenly stopped, and despite spending some time attempting to urge the animals forward, the horses pulling the wagon, refused to continue on.  Eventually, Jackson proclaimed, “By the eternal, boys! That must be the Bell Witch.” In response, an unknown female voice called out that the men could now proceed to the house, and that she would visit with them later.  Suddenly, without prompting, the horses continued up the path to the Bell house.

That evening was initially quiet; however, one of Jackson’s men, a self proclaimed quote, “witch tamer,” began boasting and taunting the entity.  He proclaimed that the reason no activity occurred was a result of its fear of him and what he could do to it. Without warning, the supposed witch tamer suddenly began to scream, his body violently jerking about in all directions, as though he was being beaten and stuck with pins; until eventually he was sent flying head first, out the door of the house, presumably the result of a kick to his behind.  The same female voice the men had heard earlier in the day returned and threatened to expose and torment another fraud within group if they continued to stay in the house. Jackson’s men begged to be allowed to leave the farm, however the major-general insisted on staying so that the second so-called fraud could be identified.  Unfortunately, it is unknown what happened next, but the following morning witnesses were said to have seen Jackson and his men in nearby Springfield, headed in the direction of Nashville.

Through all of this, young Betsy Bell continued to be the primary target of the entity’s mischief, with everything supposedly came to a head when Betsy decided to marry.  Her husband-to-be was Joshua Gardner, a young man who lived in the same community, and although the couple had their parent’s permission to marry, they did not have the permission of the entity.  It is said that Betsy and Joshua Gardner were unable to spend time together or go to the nearby fields, river, or cave without being followed by the unwelcome taunts of the entity following them. Continually, demanding that Betsy not marry her beloved.  Perhaps Betsy’s patience wore thin, or she finally began to agree with the entity, for on Easter Monday, 1821 Betsy met Joshua at the river and called off their engagement, causing these supernatural disturbances to fade.

Yet in spite of its focus on Betsy, it was her father, John Bell, Sr., that this entity truly hated.  Perhaps the anger and hatred was a result of that initial encounter, when Bell shot at the unknown animal, or perhaps this entity was someone he had scorned in life.  Supposedly, after the banging noises began in their home, John Bell Sr.’s health began to decline.  He began to experience episodes of facial twitching and a paralysis of his mouth which left him with difficulties in eating swallowing.  By the fall of 1820, he would be left confined to his house. Reveling in Bell’s illness, the entity would remove his shoes when he tried to walk or slap his face when he began to experience seizures. It’s voice could be heard all over the farm, cursing and chastising ‘Old Jack Bell’

John Bell Sr.’s Tragic Death

December 20, 1820, John Bell Sr. died after slipping into a coma.  Following his death, a vial of unidentified liquid was found in the cupboard of the family home.  Unsure of its origin, John Jr., gave some to the family cat, who immediately laid down and died. The entity’s response to this  discovery was swift, joyfully exclaiming, “I gave Ol’Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!” Bell Jr., threw the vial into the fireplace, bursting into bluish flames which shot up the chimney. John Bell’s funeral was one of the largest ever held in Robertson County, TN. As family and friends left the graveyard, the entity could be heard laughing and singing a song about brandy.  The singing didn’t stop until the last person had left the site.

After John Bell’s death, the entity’s presence was almost non-existent, save for its demand on Betsy’s potential marriage. It seemed as though with John Bell’s death the entity had fulfilled its purpose. Ot is said that in April 1821, the entity spoke to Widow Bell, saying that it was leaving and would return again for a visit in seven years.  In 1828, the entity did return. Most of the activity centered around John Bell Jr., who discussed with it such things as the origin of life, Christianity, and the need for a mass spiritual awakening. The entity would also, apparently, give what would become accurate predictions of the American Civil War and other future events. Before the entity departed once more, it promised to return in 107 years, when it would visit with the most direct descendent of John Bell Sr.  

That entity became known as the Bell Witch, and in 1934, only one year shy of the promised 107, Nashville physician, and the closest living descedendent Dr. Charles Bailey Bell published a book about his ancestor’s haunting.  Unfortunately no follow-up was ever published. He died in 1945 and it is unknown if the Bell Witch promised to ever return again.

The Documentation

Today, the legend of the Bell Witch is considered one of the most documented hauntings in American history. However, were it not for Martin V. Ingram, the story may have long ago faded into obscurity.  Ingram was born in Kentucky, on June 20, 1832.  During the Civil War he served the Confederacy as a member of the Nashville Battalion, until an injury at the Battle of Shiloh resulted in his discharge. In 1866, with no prior experience he began a career in editing and publishing; actively working in the newspaper industry until 1881, when poor health and family tragedy limited his interest and ability to continue.  

Sometime between 1890 and 1892 Ingram would travel to Adams Station, once the community of Red River and Ceder Hill Tennessee, “for the purpose of viewing the grounds where historic and most intensely thrilling events were enacted seventy-five years ago.”  There he would interview individuals, who “were then living and familiar with the wonderful phenomena that awakened such widespread sensation.” Ingram would then write several reports about the Bell Witch; published over several days in July of 1892, in the local newspaper, the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle.   

Ingram would then compile his reports and additional research into a single, larger work book, with the lengthy title An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch.  The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era. The Mysterious Talking Goblin that Terrorized the West End of Robertson County, Tennessee, Tormenting John Bell to His Death. The Story of Betsy Bell, Her Lover and the Haunting Sphinx.  Or as we reference it today: An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch. Mysteriously the initial publication of the book had to be postponed when the printers were forced to evacuate their building.  Apparently the witch had come to the press for a visit, demonstrating maniacal singing, laughter, prayers, moaning, clapping, and rattling the roof. Nevertheless, by July 1894, Ingram’s book was in print and a review found in the newspaper from Hopkinsville, Kentucky identifies the work of a factual accounting of events.  

The introduction of Ingram’s book included a letter from James Allen Bell, a grandson of John Bell Sr.; the letter explains that John Bell’s sons had decided that none of their family papers be made public until the last immediate family member of had died.  An event which occurred in 1891, when the youngest member of the family, Joel Egbert Bell passed. It is believed that Ingram had developed a friendship with Joel Bell prior to his death, and it is from Joel that Ingram received insight; however, being the youngest, his knowledge of the events came mostly from listening to the tales of his mother and siblings, not his own actual memories.

Ingram’s introduction also speaks of a family notes and a diary, given to him by James Allen Bell, that had been written by Richard Williams Bell, when he was 35 years old in 1846.  Richard Bell had been between 6 and 10 years old when the entity first manifested itself at the Bell family home and he was about 17 when it returned in 1828. This family manuscript, totalling about 90 pages, is the only known firsthand account of the Bell Witch; yet, it also casts a shadow over the legitimacy of the legend.  It is believed that no one outside of Ingram ever actually saw the Bell family manuscript, leading some to question the papers existence, suggesting that the entirety of the Bell Witch legend was conceived of by Ingram himself, the product of a newspaper man’s imagination and ability to capture the public’s attention.

This has come to be known as the “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” or  “Ingram Hoax,” based on the premise that if the events of the Bell Witch were so frightful and extraordinary that folks came from all over to see the disturbance for themselves, then there should have been volumes written about it, and since nothing was published prior to Ingram’s book in 1894, Ingram must have made the whole thing up. But the flaw in the theory hinges on the belief that no other written sources dating prior to Ingram’s publication would ever be found.  

One such article was purportedly published in 1849 in The Saturday Evening Post.  Believed to be the earliest written public record concerning the events surrounding the Bell family, it like the Bell Manuscript, has been lost.  A reprint of the article in the February 7, 1856 edition of the Vermont newspaper The Green Mountain Freeman, was published under the title “The Tennessee Ghost.” The article begins with the following lines:

“I am reminded of another ghost of which I have not before thought for years, that made a great noise and created a tremendous excitement at the time.  It made its appearance in Robertson country, Tenn., some thirty years ago, or upwards, at the house of an old Mr. Bell. Hence I call it the “Tennessee Ghost,” or perhaps I had better call it the ‘Bell Ghost,’ as it seemed to have visited his house on account of a daughter he had familiarly called, ‘Miss Betsey Bell.’”

Although the “Tennessee Ghost” remains the earliest known published article referencing the Bell Witch, it is not the only one.  In April 1880, a story was published in The Tennessean about a supposed haunted house in the local town of Springfield. The article notes that people are so excited by the prospect of a haunted home that they travel to the Springfield home to witness the event themselves.  The article goes on to mention that a similar event happened, quote “About thirty years ago Robertson county has a sensation similar to this known as the ‘Bell Witch,’ and people came from all parts of the country, even as far as New York, to hear or see her.”

That same year, Nashville hosted the Centennial Exposition. Believed to be written for the exposition was a sketch, or article, several pages long, accounting the story of the Bell Witch.  The article itself in undated and the author unknown. Notable elements of this version of the story include such things as the entity’s ability to speak several languages and ‘set the dogs’ on people it was not fond of. The entity was also said to be able to take the forms of various animals, including a rabbit, bear, and black dog. The main difference in  this account is its version of John Bell’s death, which is not explicitly caused by the entity.

In 1886, a short account of the Bell Witch legend was published in the History of Tennessee by the Goodspeed bothers.  Included amongst the history is a short account of the Bell Witch legend.  It identifies the entity as female, and makes note that the interest in the unexplained phenomenon was widespread throughout the region.  The variety and similarity of these stories published in the mid to late 1800s help prove that Ingram did not create the story of the Bell Witch; yet the question remains, who or what was the Bell Witch.

“Old Kate Batts”

Some versions of the legend say the entity is some kind of female spirit or one of a group a spirits that worked to undermine the Bell family.  However, more frequently, the entity is given the Kate. In An Authenticated History, Ingram writes that at one point the entity proclaims itself to be quote, “Old Kate Batts’ witch,”  and would thereafter respond favorably to the name Kate.

Kate Batts had been a resident of the Red River community, neighbor to the Bell family, and considered by many to be an eccentric woman.  After a heated quarrel with John Bell in life, it’s her spirit that most believe is the source of the haunting s. Interestingly, historical records indicate that Kate Batts was likely related to the Bell family; a niece of Lucy Williams Bell, John Bell Sr.’s wife, and therefore cousin to the Bell children, including Betsy.  There is unlikely to be any concrete historical documentation to prove whether Kate actually was a witch; but in all likelihood, she probably was not, instead made scapegoat for the supernatural events by the community due to her eccentricity.

Today, there are numerous theories surrounding the Bell Witch, the cause and reasoning behind the family’s disturbances.  And although researchers, scholars and folklorists each have their own ideas and standards of proof, one thing is largely agreed upon, that there was something very wrong occurring in the Red River Settlement between 1817 -1821.   But since the legend has been in a constant state of evolution since that time, from its first appearance in newspapers to Ingram’s in-depth book in 1898, it is now nearly impossible to parse out what is based in fact or fiction. For example, the entity identifying herself as Kate was not included in the story until Ingram’s work was published.  And the visit from Andrew Jackson, seems unlikely, based on lack of historical documentation.

And as for John Bell’s mysterious decline in health and eventual death, it was likely the result of a degenerative neurological disorder, about which during that time, very little was known and few treatments available.  His earliest symptoms mirror those of the usually non-fatal disorder Bell’s Palsy. An ailment discovered a few years after his death and named for its’ founder, Dr. Charles Bell, an unrelated anatomy professor. However, John Bell’s continuous worsening of health and the added onset of seizures seems to point to some other unknown fatal disorder.

Nevertheless, something occurred, and according to some it is still occurring.  

The Bell Family Farm

Nearly two centuries later the Bell Witch is still blamed for unexplained occurrences near the old Bell family farm.  People report the faint sounds of talking and children playing when there is no one nearby. Unexplainable ‘candle lights’ can be see dancing through the dark fields after the sun gone down, and photographs of the area are also known to show a mist, orbs of light, or the shadow of a human figure not present when the photo was taken.  

Today, what was once the Bell Family Farm, consisting of 328 acres of land, has since been divided up and sold countless times.  However, there remains a single tract of land which includes the location of the original Bell family home, as well as the Bell family graveyard.  This property is owned and maintained by a private foundation, and permission must be obtained to visit… from both the foundation, and the Bell Witch herself.