By: Carrie Eckles
The Bell Witch has been synonymous with American folklore for almost two centuries. The entity tormented the Bell family of Robertson County, Tennessee from 1817 until 1821; the story is remarkable in that the phenomenon was witnessed firsthand by not only the family, but the local residents, and even famous historical figures such as Andrew Jackson. The Bell Witch haunting is arguably the most thoroughly-documented instance of paranormal activity in the United States.
The phenomenon has sparked the creation of books, websites, and even the movie An American Haunting, starring Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. Without giving away the ending, the movie diverges from what is widely regarded to be the truth of the matter in a not very nice way. After all, it’s a movie about real people who breathed, loved, and mattered. And, like all real people, they have descendants alive today. I am one of them.
The Origins of the Haunting
The story famously began in 1817 with John Bell Sr. spotting a strange beast that had “the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit”. Strange followed outside and progressed to odd sounds inside. In all, the haunting wasn’t too terrible, until the entity moved indoors and started tormenting the children, particularly daughter Betsy Bell. Young Betsy was pinched and slapped and the reasons for such ill treatment were a bit more complex than what one might imagine.
The Love Triangle
Betsy Bell is often described as the favorite child of her father; she’s certainly the most interesting of the children – and not just because the witch’s activities centered around her. Her love life is somewhat entrenched in the legend. She was originally engaged to Joshua Gardener, a boy in her school. However, their young teacher, Richard Powell, was very much in love with Betsy. The witch had her own opinions on the matter of this love triangle and made it known that Betsy should forgo Joshua and be with Powell.
The witch’s opinions on Powell lead many contemporaries (and even later sources) to speculate that he was, indeed, the cause of the phenomenon, that it was all a hoax to get Betsy to shun Joshua and marry him. And while it’s an interesting theory, the haunting was a bit too complex to be a simple hoax pulled off by a spurned lover.
Andrew Jackson’s Visit
Rumors of the Bell haunting spread far and wide, even down to the big city of Nashville where General Andrew Jackson lived. He was so intrigued with the concept that he decided he would take some friends up to the Bell estate – now part of Adams, Tennessee – and personally investigate the matter.
The gist of the story goes that Jackson was a bit of a skeptic. He and his friends road on horseback and had a wagon with them. As they neared the Bell house, the wagon got stuck. It simply wouldn’t move. Several of the strong men pushed and pushed, but they couldn’t get it to budge. The Witch readily took credit for the incident. This was, however, not enough to sway Jackson’s decision in visiting the place, and he continued on his journey.
That night, Jackson and his party were treated to the nightly Bell ritual. Like the family, they too were pinched and slapped, their blankets ripped off. After spending one night in the place, Andrew Jackson famously said, “I’d rather fight the British in New Orleans than to have to fight the Bell Witch.”
Just what was the Bell Witch?
While some skeptics still maintain the Bell Witch was the elaborate work of a clever Richard Powell, the Bell Witch is believed by paranormal experts to be a “non-human entity” (as in a spirit who never was and never will be human).
At the time, the Bells, and many people in town, believed she was the specter of Kate Batts, a woman who had a dispute with John Bell. However, according to the research of the owner of bellwitch.org, Mrs. Batts was almost certainly the niece of Lucy Williams Bell, wife of John. And while the entity was known as “Kate”, Mrs. Batts actually spelled her name with a “C”. The people of Robertson County might’ve just been looking for someone to blame, but evidence points to Mrs. Batts absolutely not being involved.
What we do know is that the “witch” was an invisible entity that had the ability to take the form of animals, as well as reach out and physical touch human beings. One thing that was known is that she was very vocal; she made her opinions known, without apology. (And she was very opinionated.)
The Witch’s influence on the Bell family and her interest in the Bell women
John Bell died mysteriously in 1820. He suffered an illness that rendered him bedridden and unable to speak. Some believe he had a stroke, but it’s said that the Witch took credit for it. Apparently, she replaced his medicine with a poisonous concoction that, when tested, killed the family cat. She went on to gloat and sing merrily at his funeral.
Her intentions with the female members of the family were less malicious. She was actually known to be kind to Lucy Bell. One anecdote says that when Lucy was sick with a fever, the Witch brought her some berries that made her better. The Witch reportedly was very caring towards Lucy.
And while she was harsher with Betsy, her intentions may have been noble—in a way. She steered Betsy away from the Gardner boy and into the arms of Richard Powell; the two enjoyed a long, presumably happy marriage.
What it means to be a Bell
The Bell Witch’s main activity ended in 1821, but she returned later to inform John Bell Jr. that she would occasionally check up on the family.
Being a Bell means you’re connected to a rich and integral part of American history and folklore. Yes, it’s kind of eerie to think of where I come from, and the fact that the Witch promised to return, but I try to be optimistic. I believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt—even if they aren’t necessarily human.
Eventually, Betsy moved to Mississippi where she passed away in 1888. She now resides in the Long Branch Cemetery located in Water Valley. While no one alive can say for sure, they say the Bell Witch continued to haunt Betsy until the day she died – and continues to haunt her cemetery plot to this day. Whether it’s real or fiction is for you to decide, but regardless, the legend of Betsy Bell and her haunting is among the most famous paranormal cases known in North America.
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