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© 1999 Pat Fitzhugh, All Rights Reserved
Americans have responded in droves to the lure of the paranormal by making both "The Sixth Sense" and "The Blair Witch Project" box office hits. "The Blair Witch Project" has even been the subject of debate about its authenticity, and as to whether it was modeled after similar productions in the past. As fascination with the paranormal increased with the proliferation of these films, interest in yet another story increased. This "other story" is that of the infamous "Bell Witch," which haunted a family in rural Tennessee during the early 1800s.
Unlike the two new fiction films, the story of the "Bell Witch" is corroborated by credible eyewitness accounts, sworn affidavits, and meticulously compiled manuscripts penned by those that lived during the period who experienced direct encounters with the "spirit." The area where the story took place was recently documented in a list of "Americaís 10 Most Haunted Places," taking the number-one slotÖthe most haunted place in America today.
The Bell Family
In 1804, John Bell moved his family from Halifax County, North Carolina to the fertile Red River bottomland in Robertson County, Tennessee, settling in a community which later became known as Adams. John Bell purchased 320 acres of land and a large log and weatherboard house for his family. The Bells made many friends and quickly gained prominence in the community. Over the course of several years, Bell and his sons cleared a number of fields and created several orchards that still exist today.
First Signs of Trouble
One day in 1817, John Bell was walking in his corn field when he encountered a strange-looking animal sitting in the middle of a corn row. Shocked by the appearance of this animal with the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, Bell shot at it several times but to no avail. The animal vanished, and Bell thought nothing more about it. That evening, the Bells began to hear what sounded like "beating" on the outside walls of their house.
These beating sounds continued for several nights, and the force and frequency seemed to increase each night. John Bell and his sons would often go outside with hopes of finding the culprit, but always returned empty-handed. These nightly noises continued, followed by more problems when the Bell children began waking up in the middle of the night frightened and complaining of noises that sounded like rats gnawing at the bottoms of their bedposts. The children also complained of having their bed covers pulled, and that their pillows were often jerked and tossed onto the floor.
The Encounters Intensify
As time went on, the Bells began to hear faint, whispering voices when other manifestations of this mysterious "spirit" took place. The voices were too weak to understand, but sometimes sounded as if they were the voice a feeble, old woman crying or singing hymns. The encounters escalated in frequency and intensity, and the Bellsí daughter, Betsey, experienced a series of brutal encounters with the "spirit." It pulled her hair and slapped her face repeatedly, leaving visible handprints on her face and body for days at a time. The experiences escalated to the point that the Bells had all they could take. It was time to share this "family trouble," as they called it, with people outside the family in hopes that someone could determine what was happening to them.
The Bells decided to tell their neighbor, James Johnson, about the encounters and to seek his guidance. Johnson and his wife spent the night at the Bell home, where they were subjected to terrifying noises, their bed covers being pulled, and several episodes of being physically beaten. Johnson finally sprang out of bed and exclaimed, "I ask you in the name of the Lord God, who are you and what do you want?" The "spirit" did not respond, and the remainder of the night was peaceful.
The Word Spreads
As word of the encounters spread throughout the community, so did the "spiritís" antics. Over time, the "spiritís" voice strengthened to the point that it was loud and understandable. The "spirit" was known to have sung hymns, quoted scripture, carried on intelligent conversations, and once even quoted word-for-word two ministersí sermons that took place at exactly the same time but some thirteen miles apart.
In the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, both John Bell, Jr. and Jesse Bell fought under then General Andrew Jackson, and had developed a good rapport with him. In 1819, Jackson got word of the disturbances at the Bell home and decided to pay a personal visit. Jackson and his entourage consisting of several men and a large, covered wagon proceeded from Nashville to the Bell home. As Jacksonís entourage approached the Bell property, the wagon suddenly stopped. The horses, which were spooked, tried to pull as hard as they could, but the wagon would not move.
After several minutes of cursing and trying to get the wagon to move, Jackson exclaimed that it must have been the "witch." As soon as Jackson uttered these words, an unidentified female voice spoke, telling Jackson and his men that they could proceed and that "she" would see them again later that evening. The entourage was finally able to continue.
Jackson and John Bell had a long discussion about the Indians and other topics while Jacksonís men patiently waited to see if the "spirit" was going to manifest itself. One of the men in Jacksonís entourage claimed to be a "witch tamer." After several uneventful hours, this man decided to "call" the "spirit." He pulled out a shiny pistol and made his intent to kill the "spirit" known to all that were present. Almost immediately, the man began screaming and moving his body in many different directions. He said he was being stuck with pins and beaten severely. Nobody could see anything except his quick movements and the tears streaming down from his eyes. The man quickly ran out the door, and the "spirit" announced that there was yet one more "fraud" in Jacksonís party, and that he would be identified the following evening.
Terrified, Jacksonís men begged Jackson to leave the Bell farm. However, Jackson insisted on staying so that he could find out who the other "fraud" was. Jackson and his men finally went out to the field to sleep in their tents, and the men continued to beg and plead with Jackson to leave.
Jackson maintained the position that he wanted to know whom the other "fraud" in his party was. However, by mid-day the next day, Jackson and his men had already left the Bell farm and were seen going through Springfield.
Jackson, a hero in the Battle of New Orleans four years earlier, was quoted as having later said; "Iíd rather fight the entire British Army than to deal with the Bell Witch." Jackson went on to become the President of the United States.
Many people in the community believed the "spirit" was the doings of Kate Batts, a local eccentric who was often suspected of witchcraft and things having to do with the supernatural. On one occasion, the "spirit" exclaimed that it was "old Kate Battsí witch, and would torment John Bell to his grave." However, the "spirit" claimed many other identities as well, so there is not real way to tell if Mrs. Batts was behind it or not. One popular myth states that Kate Batts had a legal dispute with John Bell, and vowed to get him even if it was from the grave. However, in actuality, the dispute was with a Benjamin Batts, who was not related to Kate Batts despite the fact they both lived in the same county. Kate Battsí husband was Frederick Batts, and both of them outlived John Bell. After the "spirit" exclaimed that it was Kate Batts, many in the community, and even to this day, refer to the "spirit" simply as "Kate."
The Demise of John Bell
The "spirit" continued to express its dislike for "ol Jack Bell" and relentlessly vowed to torment him to his grave. As Bellís health grew worse, the "spirit" would torture him more severely, sometimes removing his shoes from his feet and relentlessly slapping his face. Violent seizures would often befall Bell, followed by more taunting from the "spirit."
On the cold morning of December 20, 1820, after a long battle with a crippling nervous system disorder, John Bell breathed his final breath. Immediately after Bellís death, the family found a small vial of unidentified liquid that Bell had partaken of the evening before his death. John Bell, Jr. gave some of the liquid to the familyís cat, and the cat died almost instantly. The "spirit" suddenly spoke up exclaiming, "I gave ol Jack a big dose of that last night, and that fixed him." John, Jr. quickly threw the vial into the fireplace, where it shot up the chimney in the form of a bright, blue flame. As family and friends began to leave John Bellís burial site, the "spirit" laughed loudly and sang a cheerful song about a bottle of brandy.
Betsey Bellís Courtship
Over a period, Betsey Bell, the only daughter still living at home, became romantically interested in Joshua Gardner, a young man who lived not far from her. With the blessings of their parents, they agreed to engagement. Nevertheless, despite their evident happiness, the "spirit" repeatedly told Betsey not to marry Joshua Gardner. It is interesting to note that their schoolteacher, Richard Powell, was noticeably interested in Betsey and wanted to marry her when she became older. Powell was believed to have been a student of the occult, and had been secretly married to a woman in nearby Nashville for some time. Betsey and Joshua could not go to the river, the field, or the cave to play, without the "spirit" following along and persistently taunting them. Betsey and Joshuaís patience finally reached critical mass, and on Easter Monday of 1821, Betsey met Joshua at a cave by the river and broke off their engagement. Later, in March of 1824, Betsey Bell married Richard Powell.
The Spirit Departs and Promises to Revisit
In the early spring of 1821, the "spirit" visited Lucy Bell and told her it would return in seven years for a visit. Seven years later, in 1828, the "spirit" returned as promised. Most of this visit centered on John Bell, Jr. The "spirit" discussed with him such things as the origin of life, Christianity, the need for a mass spiritual reawakening, and other in-depth topics. Of particular significance were the "spiritís" predictions of the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. John Bell, Jr., noted these conversations in meticulous detail in his manuscript, which the author has had the privilege of reading.
After three weeks, the "spirit" again bade farewell, promising to return to John Bellís most direct descendant in 107 years. The year would have been 1935, and the closest direct descendant was Charles Bailey Bell, a physician in Nashville. Charles Bailey Bell himself wrote a book about the "Bell Witch," but it had been published prior 1935. No follow-up was published, and Bell died a few years later.
Manifestations of the "Spirit" in the Twentieth Century
Today, the "spirit" which haunted the Bell family nearly 200 years ago is believed by many to be the source of numerous manifestations in the area where the story took place. Some believe that when the "spirit" returned in 1935, it took residence in a cave on the old Bell property where John Bellís children once played, and which was the site of many encounters with the "spirit." Sometimes, the faint sounds of people talking and children playing can be heard near the back of the cave. A picture recently taken of a sinkhole near the cave revealed rising ectoplasm in the shape of a face exhibiting pain.
Several years ago, one of John Bellís descendants was rabbit hunting and shot a rabbit, which wandered into some dense brush. While searching, he felt a large rock underneath the brush where the rabbit had entered. The rock turned out to be a part of Joel Egbert Bellís tombstone, and the rabbit was never found.
In the mid 1990ís, a picture was taken of a girl sitting on a rock outside the caveís entrance. When the picture was developed, there appeared to be a man standing behind her. Upon expert examination, it was determined that the man-like image was not a double-exposure, but an entirely separate being. It has been said that if you visit the fields of the old Bell farm on dark, cold and rainy nights, you can sometimes see small lights, gliding over the fields and dancing in the dell.
The cause of the Bellsí torments nearly 200 years ago, and the periodic manifestations at present, has remained a mystery for generations. Numerous versions of the story, along with theories that purportedly explain the evil root cause of the manifestations, abound everywhere and vary from person to person. When trying to arrive at an explanation for this phenomenon, several angles can be taken, regardless of whether someone believes in the supernatural. Could what started out as a poltergeist have eventually grown into a larger, more sinister "spirit" because of the hundreds of Native American souls buried on the Bell property hundreds of years before? Could this have been an act with religious roots, carried out by several individuals such as ministers in the area, Mrs. Lucy Bell, and the two eldest Bell sons?
Whether one is a believer in the supernatural or not, there are possible theories; however, the questions of "who/what" and "why" will probably never be answered with any definitive accuracy. The literary world is full of countless "explanations" as to what the "Bell Witch" really was/is; and the ones that arenít speculative are purely fictional from the outset in the absence of any real, hard evidence. The only constant is that there was a John Bell who lived in the area at the time, and that something was "wrong" on his familyís farm; and, there is still something wrong at the old Bell place today, nearly 200 years later.
For an in-depth account of the "Bell Witch," covering both the past and the present, visit the official web site for the book entitled "The Bell Witch Haunting." The site is located athttp://www.bellwitch.org/thebell.htm. This page is a part of the main Bell Witch site, located at http://www.bellwitch.org.
My family and I recently saw a fascinating documentary about the Bell Witch called The Bell Witch Legend. We all enjoyed it. I found it especially fascinating, not only because it details the legend, but it also reveals recent and chilling encounters with the Bell Witch. Don't miss out! Find out if the Bell Witch still haunts the Bell family. Get a copy of this film at bellwitchlegendmovie.com.