The Bell Witch Haunting: The Original Ghost Story Of The American South

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By: Alex Postrado

Poltergeists are — without a doubt — a staple of the quintessential ghost movie.

Nowadays, we commonly see them in action, in films like Paranormal Activity, Conjuring, and even the eponymous Poltergeist franchise.

However, before we’ve even had any of our current pop culture references, poltergeists first brought terror to people in the form of eerie tales and stories of hauntings.

Arguably the best and most recognizable of all that is the legend of the Bell Witch.

Centered on the Bell family of northwest Tennessee, this era-defining tale remains very much alive today — especially in terms of influence — despite the fact that the original ordeal actually happened more than 200 years ago!

Continuously attracting the attention of believers and skeptics alike, who wants to hear the centuries-old story of the Bell Witch?

Meet the Bell Family

John Bell was the patriarch of the 19th-century Bell family.

Son of North Carolina residents William Bell and Ann Jones, he married a fellow local, named Lucy Williams in the year 1782.

The two started a family — eventually settling in the small town of Adams, Tennessee in 1804 — with their children Jesse, Drewry, Benjamin, Richard Williams, Joel Egbert, John Jr., Zadok, Esther, and Elizabeth.

But, what could have been a quiet life changed a little over a decade later when a bunch of disturbances occurred in the home of John Bell.

The Bell Witch Haunting

Just like the typical paranormal fare, it started with weird sudden noises such as knocking on doors, pounding on walls and gnawing on furniture.

Soon, it was followed by the sound of chains being dragged across the floor. And before long, the family found themselves in the company of unidentifiable creatures that at times resemble dogs and other times, rabbits.

One said encounter prompted Bell to shoot at the animal, but to his surprise, it mysteriously vanished.

Drew Bell, one of John’s sons, also saw an extraordinarily large bird once on their property.

Even the slaves of the Bell family seemed to have had their share of hauntings. In fact, a servant, named Dean, said that — on more than a few occasions — a headless black wolf or dog followed him on his way to see his wife.

At one point, he even claimed to be transformed into a mule, then chased by a witch causing him to always carry his ax with him, along with a charm made by his wife to protect him from whatever evil is lurking in the Bell’s farm at night.

Nevertheless, it was John’s daughter Elizabeth — more commonly known as Betsy — that first saw a figure that looked more humanlike rather than an animal.

Outside the Bell’s house, there was an oak tree. And it was where Betsy allegedly witnessed a girl, swinging from the branches — dressed in all green.

It was around this time that things quickly took a turn for the worse.

John Bell began showing signs of paralysis in his mouth. On top of that, the paranormal events intensified — causing the family to experience torture right before their eyes.

Beddings were pulled, skin was scratched, hair was yanked, and in the middle of all the torment was Betsy, who suffered the worst among the family — enduring long nights of abuse “until her body was covered in bruises“.

After some time, the purported witch finally revealed her voice, even saying that she is a spirit that was once very happy but has been disturbed.

With this information, John Bell decided to ask the help of his long-time friend, James Johnston, to which the man agreed.

During the evening of his stay at the Bell’s residence, though, he immediately experienced the haunting firsthand.

This completely convinced Johnston that all the disruption was indeed caused by a spirit — the likes he had previously read in the Bible.

Soon, the supposed witch, haunting the Bell family, became the talk of the town. And people across the Southern States and nearby started traveling in hopes of seeing the Bell Witch with their own eyes.

Among the curious was future US president Andrew Jackson.

At the time, he was still in the military and three of John Bell’s oldest sons served under him. Because of that, the news of the Bell Witch haunting ultimately reached him.

Intrigued by the alleged paranormal occurrence, Jackson and his troop went to investigate, to see it for themselves.

But, just as they arrived, the witch wasted no time taunting them, even holding their carriage wheels still — scaring Jackson and his men away for good.

Though, the Bell Witch was never known to be one-dimensionally evil.

As a matter of fact, it is believed that John Bell’s wife, Lucy, was particularly favored by the witch.

Accounts say that the Bell Witch once explicitly said that Lucy was the “most perfect woman living“. Moreover, it was claimed to have sung her to sleep and even cared for her on days when she was sick.

Similarly, John Jr. was also allegedly respected to a degree by the Bell witch — that is despite him calling the entity the Spirit of the Damned”.

And while it was Betsy and the family slaves that suffered most of the beating and the torture from the wrath of the Bell Witch, John Bell Sr. remained its ultimate target.

It is said that the Bell Witch had always been hell-bent on killing the patriarch of the family.

And she has repeatedly signified this intention “through curses, threats, and afflictions” until the 20th of December 1820 — the day John Bell tragically met his end.

A memorial to the events mentioned herein.

The Death of John Bell

The thing is, John Bell’s passing wasn’t due to natural causes.

His son allegedly found a vial of dark liquid right before his death, and it is said that the Bell Witch laughed and revealed that it was the poison she used to kill John Bell in his sleep.

Angered yet skeptical, the family tried to learn the truth by letting their cat drink some of the supposed poison. And to their regret, it immediately died.

The Bell Witch continued mocking them and in a fit of frustration, the son threw the vial, along with its contents into the fire — which, then, burst into blue flames.

A few days later, at Bell’s funeral, the witch sang bawdy songs, disrupting the mourners several times — celebrating the rather grievous occasion.

Who is Kate Batts?

Martin V. Ingram was the first to publish a full-length record of the Bell Witch story.

It was titled An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch and in there, he stated that the witch actually claimed to be “Old Kate Batts’ witch”.

The woman Ingram was referring to in his work was Mary Catherine “Kate” Batts — a neighbor of the Bell family, who was said to once be in a heated argument with John Bell Sr.

This provided the intent as to why she would likely want to harm the older Bell, but it was ultimately her eccentricity that further fueled the idea that she was a witch even before the Bell Witch hauntings happened.

It is said that Kate was so strange, making a scene basically everywhere she went that it became particularly easy to picture her as a witch or a practitioner of the occult.

But, contrary to popular belief, Kate actually outlived John Bell by over 20 years — making it impossible for her spirit to be the one that haunted the family.

Did the Hauntings Ever Stop?

During the time of the hauntings, it was noted that the Bell Witch expressed particular animosity toward Betsy Bell’s engagement to a man, named Joshua Gardner.

Oftentimes, this would be the witch’s motive for tormenting Betsy.

Unwilling to suffer any further, in 1821 — a few weeks after her father’s passing — Betsy decided to finally break off the engagement once and for all.

With the wedding called off and John Bell dead, the paranormal hauntings gradually ceased.

The Bell Witch eventually bade goodbye. Though, she vowed to return after 7 years — and she did!

In 1828, similar activities started again, but with Lucy and her remaining children not paying much attention to it, the Bell Witch haunting slowly quieted down.

It was believed that in 1935, the witch was to return once more to haunt the nearest descendants of John Bell. However, it is said that no event near the magnitude experienced back in the 19th Century happened at that time.

To this day, the legend of the Bell Witch lives on as Southern States folklore’s greatest paranormal mystery.

A lot of theories surfaced over the years, trying to explain the haunting, as well as John Bell’s death, but about all of them have been debunked.

And while the original house of the Bell family had already been torn down, the area in which most of the disturbances took place remains a point of interest to people from all over the world.

Paying visits — hoping to experience even a moment of the age-old fear caused by the infamous Bell Witch.

References:

The terrifying true story of the Bell Witch
Bell Witch - Tennessee Myths and Legends
The Story of the Bell Witch
Kate Batts - Spookt
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