The Hauntings Of The Bell Witch
Every community has its own folklore of cryptids and ghostly apparitions. In this post, we pay a visit to a small town in Tennessee, which was plagued by a spirit so evil that it was the first in US history to receive blame for an actual recorded death. We are talking about the legendary Bell Witch.
Nestled on the outskirts of Metropolitan Nashville, lies the small town of Adams, Tennessee. Like thousands of other small towns in the United States, it is quiet, peaceful and easily overlooked by travelers. If you look beyond its humble exterior, however, you will find a dark past: stories of a haunting which began a little over 200 years ago and which reportedly continues to this day.
The Bell family
In 1804, John Bell, along with his wife Lucy Williams Bell, and approximately 10 other families began an arduous trek from Edgecombe County, North Carolina to Red River, Tennessee. Over the next several years, the Bells would become successful farmers and prosper in their new home. Although widely respected and well liked by the wider community, a scandal would arise in the mid 1810s that would call the character of John Bell into question.
One of the other groups that had also made the move from North Carolina was the Batts family and they would come to hate the Bells after a traumatic accident in 1816. Frederick Batts, the head of his household was seriously injured whilst working on his farm and would spend the rest of his life physically impaired as a result. As Frederick was no longer able to work, the family's situation became desperate. He would be forced to sell parts of his property in order to make ends meet. Some of this land was purchased by John Bell, a transaction which would begin a never-ending conflict between the two families.
Patrick's wife, Kate, accused Bell of exploiting their unfortunate situation, as he had bought the land for much less than it was worth. She swore to Bell that she would make him and his family pay for the supposed misdeed. Further escalating the tension between the two clans, Bell had also purchased a young slave girl from Frederick's brother, Benjamin. Bell felt that the girl was too young to take with him at the time of purchase however, and decided to leave the youngster with her mother for a while longer. When he eventually came to collect her, Benjamin reneged on the agreement, feeling that she was worth more than had already been paid. After much bickering, Bell sold the girl back to Benjamin for more than the purchase price, thus extorting even more money from the Batts family.
At this point, Bell believed the issue to be concluded and hoped that his dealings with the Batts will well and truly over. Unfortunately, nothing could have been further from the truth. Shortly after the deal with the slave girl was settled, and unbeknownst to John Bell, Benjamin Batts filed a lawsuit against him for extortion. Bell had no idea the lawsuit even existed and so failed to attend the hearing.
Without Bell being present to contest the claims, the court sided with Benjamin. The Judgment soon found its way back to Red River and was heard by the local church. Although Bell protested the ruling, it would nonetheless lead to his eventual excommunication, which some say, would open the door for evil to invade his home. Due to her husband's immobility, Kate Batts became a prominent member of her family. Boisterous, harsh, loud and spiteful, she was widely disliked by others in the community and because of some questionable behavior in church, they also believed that Kate was practicing witchcraft. They suspected that the tragedy which befell her husband was punishment from God for practicing such evil. Although, none of them dared to confront her directly with these accusations. Most people chose instead to avoid her as much as possible. Kate, it seems, was far too intimidating.
Paranormal activities taking place in Bell's house
In 1817, not long after his excommunication, Bell was hunting on his land when he encountered a creature that he had never seen before. He described it as having the body of a large dog, the head of a rabbit and being covered in black fur. Startled at seeing such an abomination, he fired his musket at the animal, but when he looked to see if he'd killed or injured the creature, it was nowhere to be seen. No trace of the animal was ever found. Not wishing to alarm his family, Ball kept the matter to himself. Shortly after the incident, however, strange activity started to occur at the family home. During the evenings, the Bells began hearing what sounded like stones being thrown against the exterior of the house. Despite constantly checking for trespassers, they were not to be found. After a while, Bell suspected this to be the work of the Batts family.
That was until the sounds began occurring inside the household. Loud thuds, scrapings on the floors and walls and the sounds of rats gnawing at the legs of beds were heard throughout the home at all hours of the night, but they were never able to track down the source of these disturbances, and suffered as it began to affect their sleep. Although it was a frustration, the family simply tried to ignore it. Nevertheless, the activity soon escalated to physical attacks. One night, their 14 year old daughter Elizabeth Betsy Bell was awoken by the now familiar sounds. When she tried to investigate, she found that her hair had been tied in knots around the bedpost.
Unable to get up, she was then slapped repeatedly by an unseen force. Responding to her screams, the family rushed in to find Betsy with red hand shaped welts all over her face. Terrified, she described what had happened and it wasn't long before the youngest sons would also show the same hand shaped welts on their legs and faces. Not wishing to make this a public affair and possibly tarnish the reputation of the family any further, Bell advised everyone to keep quiet about the activity. They began praying, begging to be released from the evil that was tormenting them, all to no avail.
Over the next few weeks, visual apparitions began to appear. The slaves reported seeing strange birds and animals, some of which they claim could talk. While walking in a field, Betsy saw the apparition of a girl in a green dress, hanging by her hands from a tree limb before she disappeared without trace. The spectres, sounds and physical abuse escalated daily, and the terror and lack of sleep became too much for the family to handle on their own. Bell confided in his friend and neighbor, James Johnston. Asking him for help, Johnston agreed. He and his wife arrived at the Bell home shortly afterwards and prayed with them to rid the house of the evil presence.
One evening, Johnston demanded to know the name of the entity and a disembodied voice was heard to say, "Kate". After several nights of trying unsuccessfully to cleanse the home, Johnston advised his neighbor to reach out to the wider community and reluctantly Bell agreed. News of the haunting spread quickly and far wider than anyone anticipated. Many people from surrounding areas and some from quite far away, came to the Bell family home to witness the poltergeist activity. The entity who was initially quiet would later have no qualms about making its presence known. It especially made its feelings towards John Bell apparent.
Andrew Jackson's visit
Eventually, news reached Army General and future United States President Andrew Jackson. Jackson decided to take a small group of his troops to the Bell home and make camp there for a few days. One of Jackson's men claimed to have brought along silver bullets and bragged to his fellow soldiers that he planned to use them on the witch and kill her.
As the group neared the Bell property, the wheels on their wagon seized and would not move despite the repeated efforts of the troops and horses. Almost to the point of abandoning the wagon and returning to Nashville, Jackson supposedly apologized for the behavior of his soldier. Immediately after this, the wagon began to move freely, as if nothing had happened and Jackson's troops arrived without further incident. Despite planning to stay several nights, the group returned to Nashville after only one. And although it is not written in any official document, Jackson is reported to have said, "I would rather face the whole the British Army than spend another night at the Bell house".
Not all of the Bell family received such harassment from the so-called Bell witch however. Lucy Bell, John's wife, was treated in the opposite manner. In 1820, she was diagnosed with a severe case of pleurisy and inflammation of the lining of the lungs and there was some question as to whether or not she would survive the illness. Whilst Lucy was bedridden, Kate would often sing comforting gospel hymns and would also leave hazelnuts and grapes on her bed, apparently materializing from thin air. Gradually, Lucy's condition improved and she would make a complete recovery. At the same time that Lucy's health was improving, her husband's was declining rapidly.
John Bell's death
On the morning of December the 20th, John Bell was found deceased in his bed. Strange pungent scent was coming from Bell's mouth, and the vial with an unknown cloudy liquid was discovered near by: giving off the same odor. Speculation as to who poisoned Bell was rife and when it was suggested that Lucy may have been responsible, Kate's disembodied voice apparently spoke up replying, "I fixed his medicine last night and gave him a big dose of it. He'll never get out of that bed again."
For the first time in US History, an actual, documented death was blamed on a supernatural entity. Not content with simply killing John, Kate was said to have made an appearance at his memorial. During the burial service, she further tormented friends and family by mocking Bell, laughing and singing drinking songs. After the funeral, the activity began to diminish. Kate had apparently achieved her goal of tormenting and killing her nemesis and the family believed her to be gone for good.
That was until the spring of 1821, when Betsy Bell received a proposal of marriage from a well-respected young man by the name of Joshua Gardner. Betsy once again saw the apparition of the little girl in the tree, who warned her not to marry this man, then vanished as she had done previously. Not daring to take a chance on the poltergeist's return, Betsy broke off the engagement and Gardner moved away from the area.
So what are we to make of this story? Due to the scant record-keeping of the day, we'll never know the full truth of the matter regarding the incidence. One has to remember that most people of this era were unable to read or write. So many of the stories were passed on verbally for many years after the supposed events took place. It is impossible to determine how many of the stories were embellished upon or even completely fabricated before they were finally written down.
The Bell Witch haunting went on for many years and there were far more tales and other occurrences than we have time to recount here, but it is entirely possible that many of the supposed incidents were concocted to cover up the murder of John Bell. It should be noted that Lucy Bell, John's wife, was the younger sister of John Williams Jr.. who was the father of none other than Kate Williams Batts. Could Bell's death have been the result of a conspiracy between Kate and Lucy? It would certainly explain why Lucy was excluded from the witch's wrath, but then what would Lucy gain by torturing her own Children? Kate Batts was reported as alive in the 1830 census, so it certainly was not her spirit that was responsible for the hauntings.
It is also worth noting that Richard Powell, Betsy's eventual husband, was very highly educated, and could have created some of the strange happenings that would not have been well understood by the people of the time. This may in turn have led to mass hysteria. Powell had a documented fondness for Betsy, even when he was still married to his wife Esther who died in 1821, the same year Gardener proposed to the youngster. Could he have been responsible for these incidents, as a way of getting close to her? It's unlikely, but not beyond all possibility.
On the other hand, there are those who believe the whole Saga was completely genuine and the Kate Batts had conjured up a spirit or demon in order to avenge the perceived wrongdoings against her family. Even today, there are still incidents that occur in the area. The local townsfolk, including the modern-day Bell family, have experienced many strange events that are not so easily explained.
As a young boy, Bob Bell, who is still alive today recalls an incident involving his grandmother. In a state of terror, she made a phone call to Bob's father asking him to come and investigate a disturbance and check for intruders. When they arrived, they found nothing out of place until they went into the kitchen. The cabinet in which the family's China was locked away was now open, and the dishes were thrown about all over the floor. Oddly, not a single dish had been broken or damaged in the least.
Another recent incident involved Tim Henson, a local historian and curator at the town's Museum. According to him, people who visit the Bell property are advised not to take anything home with them. Henson spoke of a man who took a rock from the cave that is located there and who then apparently lost his wife, his job, and his home, within three days of his visit. It is entirely possible that these events would have happened anyway, and that his taking of the rock was mere a coincidence. But then again, who knows? Still, if you ever happen to visit Red River or the town of Adams, as it is known today and talk to the people who live there, you may not walk away a believer, but hopefully you'll be wise enough to give the old Bell property the respect it deserves.