The Bell Witch Mystery Defies Explanation
Approximate reading time 7 minutes
Table of Contents
America’s Most Famous Poltergeist
The Bell Witch of Tennessee is early America’s most infamous poltergeist* haunting. It’s the most chilling and heavily documented account of a poltergeist plaguing a family.
An American President even visited the Bell farm after hearing about the strange ongoing events. The story goes that then President, Andrew Jackson, made a surprise visit to the Bell farm to see the Witch for himself. Interestingly, Jackson was turned away.
Who Were the Bells?
In the early 1800’s, a family named Bell moved to the Red River Bottom Land in Tennessee. The family settled in a community that later became known as Adams County. It’s there that the Bells prospered and became respected members of the community.
A Strange Animal Baffles John Bell
As the story goes, one day in 1817, John Bell and his oldest son were out hunting when they encountered a strange looking dog. Shocked by the appearance of the thing which they reported to have the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit (this sounds like an *elemental). Bell and his son shot at the animal several times but the thing seemed unphased. Mysteriously, the animal vanished and reappeared every time John Bell fired at it. Eventually, Bell forgot about the weird occurrence.
More Strange Happenings
Days later, the Bells started hearing loud banging sounds on the outside walls of the farm house. Then they heard a combination of rapping, thumping, and chilling scratching noises.
As time went on, the Bells began to hear even more strange noises. Moaning and sounds of crying continued regularly.
Despite careful examination of the outside and inside of the house, no cause for these sounds was found. Nevertheless, the troublesome sounds increased in intensity rather than diminishing.
To add to the weird goings-on, the family confides in close friends, hearing a feeble old woman crying and singing religious hymns.
The Bell Family Seeks Help
Finally, the Bells turned to family friend James Johnston for help. After retiring for the evening at the Bell home, Johnston was awakened that night by the same phenomena that the Bell’s were experiencing. That morning he told John Bell it was a “spirit, just like in the Bible.”
Soon after, word of the haunting spread with neighbors flocking to see the Witch for themselves. The unseen thing began to finally speak out loud. When asked, “Who are you, and what do you want?” The voice answered, “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.”
Is this a clue that the Bell’s somehow unleased something otherwordly?
(Side note: One story claims that the two youngest sons found an Indian burial site and brought home a skull. Allegedly, the boys hid it under the front porch floor boards.)
People Travel Miles to Witness the Bell Witch
It was not long before people were coming from every direction to witness the mysterious phenomena. They weren’t disappointed.
As if on cue, the Bell Witch made appearances many times to satisfy witnesses. For me, this almost seems to good to be true. Was a Bell family member responsible for the phenomena after all?
Shifting the Blame to Kate Batts
The entity once proclaimed that it was witchy neighbor woman named Kate Batts. This explanation is what many people believed, although Kate laughed the allegation off as ridiculous.
The local gossip claimed that Kate Batts was the Witch. She had two major reasons for infesting the Bell home. The main intent was to kill John Bell due to a land dispute that robbed Kate of some land. The second reason was to stop John’s youngest daughter Betsy from marrying a neighbor boy. Why? No one is sure.
The Bell Witch Terrorizes Betsy Bell
Frighteningly, the Bells’ youngest daughter, Betsy, began experiencing physical brutal attacks by an unseen entity. Betsy frequently had her hair pulled, was flung around, often pinched, severely scratched, and regularly stuck with pins.
John Bell Succumbs from the Witch’s Torment?
Next, the wrath of the poltergeist witch now focused on John Bell Sr. The Witch proceeded to physically torment him for the next two years.
On the morning of December 20, 1820, after a long battle with a mysterious condition that swelled the tongue and caused trouble eating, John Bell breathed his last. Accounts reports circulated that the spirit was cackling and sang bawdy tunes when the funeral attendees left the gravesite.
Did John Bell die from the Bell Witch’s torment? We’ll never know the truth.
Historical documents show that the poltergeist phenomenon was compelling and witnessed by scores of people.
It’s difficult to imagine that just one person could have perpetrated such an extensive and long-lasting hoax.
The Bell Witch Promises to Return
In April of 1821, it’s said that the Spirit visited Lucy Bell and told her that it would return in seven years. Amazingly, seven years later the Spirit did return as promised, or so the account goes. Surprisingly, the visit centered on John Bell, Jr.
It’s documented that the Bell Witch Spirit discussed with John Jr. predictions of a Civil War soon to come, World War I, the Great Depression, and even World War II. What the heck was this thing, really?
The Witch Is Gone for Good
After three weeks, the Spirit bade farewell, promising to visit John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years. The year would have been 1935. The closest direct descendant of John Bell, was Charles Bailey Bell, a physician in Nashville. Not surprisingly, the Witch never returned.
Eventually, Charles Bailey Bell wrote a book about the Bell Witch. Interestingly, the book was published prior to 1935, which was the promised year of the Witch’s return. No subsequent book was ever released and Charles Bell died in 1945.
Famous Woodcut of Bell Witch Haunting
What’s the Real Story Behind the Bell Witch?
Ultimately, the poltergeist spirit, which haunted the Bell family nearly 200 years ago, is believed by many to be the source of numerous strange events that still occur in the area.
Some believe that when the Spirit returned in 1935, it took up general residence in Adams, Tennessee, once a part of the Bell farm.
Sometimes unaccountable murmurs of people talking and sounds of children playing are heard when no one else is there. Also, it’s purported that taking a picture on near the old Bell property that’s clear is challenging.
Historic Bell Witch Cave
Rumors once spread that the Witch took up residence in a cave on John Bell’s old property. No significant sightings there have verified this.
In fact, a society called The Historic Bell Witch Cave Inc., is on the National Historical Registry by the United States Department of Interior effective April 2008.
Note: I visited the Bell Witch Cave several years back, and it was a creepy as people say. The back of the cave caused the hairs on my arm to stand up. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to leave the place.
Not usually afraid of allegedly haunted locales, I found the cave oppressive and definitely felt a sinister presence, although I couldn’t identify exactly what it was.
Still much in demand, daytime cave tours of the Bell Witch Cave are from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM with the last tour at 4:00 PM.
Nevertheless, it’s classified as a poltergeist haunting by many experts.
Although highly unusual and more active than the run of the mill poltergeist, it’s reputation is no less frightening.
Author’s note: Did John Bell Harm his Daughter?
Some individuals speculate that John Bell molested his young daughter and that Lucy Bell, his wife, instigated the Bell Witch persona to mask poisoning him in revenge. It’s also theorized that both Lucy and Betsy were responsible for the Spirit’s activities all along. However, it’s difficult to give credence to this theory as the Witch physically battered Betsy. (See the movie, “An American Haunting.”)
As an interesting note, others think that the inexplicable events centered around the Bell’s indicate that the poltergeist might have been inadvertently caused by young Betsy after all.
The prevailing theory regarding poltergeist activity is that poltergeist activity usually occurs when a particular individual is present – typically young teenagers in puberty who may have severe emotional problems.
*The word Poltergeist, comes from the German words poltern, “to knock” and “rumbling spirit” and “noisy spirit.” The supernatural being behind the physical upheaval is supposedly responsible for disturbances such as loud noises and objects that thrown around. Recorded poltergeist activity go as far back as ancient Roman times.
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