Robertson County: John Bell Sr. and The Bell Witch

Oct 31, 2019 at 11:24 am by Michelle Willard

The Bell Witch was rumored to return in 1937.

Tennessee has long been a mysterious land, fulled with legends of ghosts and goblins dating back to close to its founding. 

One of the most prominent legends is that of the Bell Witch. The tale about one family's haunting and the possible murder of its patriarch by the malevolent spirit in 1820.

The full story was talked about in whispers in Robertson County until a book based on the writings of John Bell's grandson Richard Williams Bell was published in 1890.

Richard Williams Bell wrote in his manuscript:

"Whether it was witchery, such as afflicted people in past centuries and the darker ages, whether some gifted fiend of hellish nature, practicing sorcery for selfish enjoyment, or some more modern science akin to that of mesmerism, or some hobgoblin native to the wilds of the country, or a disembodied soul shut out from heaven, or an evil spirit like those Paul drove out of the man into the swine, setting them mad; or a demon let loose from hell, I am unable to decide; nor has any one yet divined its nature or cause for appearing, and I trust this description of the monster in all forms and shapes, and of many tongues, will lead experts who may come with a wiser generation, to a correct conclusion and satisfactory explanation."

The mystery surrounding the Bells and their witch soon transformed the campfire story into the Volunteer State's favorite urban legend. 

"The Bell Witch will get you" is a phrase most native Middle Tennesseans heard as children. She was conjured to frighten us not just on Halloween but throughout the rest of the year too.

People from other parts of the country grew up taunting Bloody Mary, chanting her name in hopes of conjuring her in a mirror. Middle Tennesseans did that too. The only difference is our ghost was a true story. The tale is so true it has a historical marker and The Bell Witch Cave in Adams, Tennessee, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

In this Halloween edition of Middle Tennessee Mysteries, we are going to take a look at Tennessee's biggest mystery of them all.

 

The Victims

The Bell family moved into Tennessee from North Carolina over the winter of 1804-1805. The family, which consisted of John Bell Sr., his wife Lucy and their children, settled on the Red River near the rural community of Adams' Station (now Adams) in northwestern Middle Tennessee.

Over the next decade, John Bell (pictured above) tamed the frontier to become a successful farmer and prominent man in the community.

"They were energetic farmers, members of the Baptist church and highly respected," a 1930 article from The Knoxville Journal said.

Despite the prominence of the family, the witch seemed to have two objectives: to torment and kill John Bell Sr. and keep Betsy Bell from marrying. During the haunting, John Bell suffered from a swollen face and tongue, alternately paralyzed and twitching facial muscles, and increasing weakness until he was poisoned by the Bell Witch in 1820. Betsy was beaten, pinched, had her hair pulled and stuck with invisible pins until she called off her engagement to Joshua Gardner in 1821. 

The Witch

John Bell Sr. described the Bell Witch as "the spirit," but other people called her "Kate."

According to the 1890 book "An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch" by Martin Van Buren Ingram, the spirit was named as "Old Kate Batts' Witch." Ingram wrote in his book, which relied on accounts from Richard Williams Bell, that the spirit responded to that name.

Kate Batts was a neighbor of the Bells', who is reported to have been one of Lucy Bell's nieces, according to the Robertson County Times. Batts was seen as odd and suspicious by the residents of Adams, according to an article in the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, but no further explanation was given.

The most common legend claims that the eccentric woman placed a curse on John Bell Sr. after she said he cheated her in a land deal. Another version says she was a jilted lover of Bell's but, as he was reportedly a strict Baptist, this seems unlikely.

Regardless, Bell crossed Batts at some point, and she vowed revenge.

"On her deathbed, she swore she would come back and 'hant John Bell and all his kith and kin to their graves,'" said a 1976 article from the Johnson City Press.

Another version of the legend claims the spirit was the ghost of an unpleasant overseer from North Carolina, who was allegedly murdered by John Bell.

"One of the distinguishing characteristics of this witch, as it was called, was that it never but once assumed human form," said an account from 1904 publishing in The Chattanooga News. But the spirit was said to take animal form, appearing as a dog, rabbit, and bird.

In Goodspeed Brothers' 1886 History of Tennessee, the witch had "the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals." It also performed acts that were "seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims."

 

The Haunting

Accounts differ as to when and how the haunting began.

Michelle Willard (this author) was told the Bell's first encounter with the witch was in the Bell Witch Cave during a tour of the cave in the late 1990s.

According to that account, after the family first moved to the property, two of the Bell sons were exploring the cave when one became stuck in a "fat-man squeeze." His brother tried to pull him free by his feet but no amount of tugging could free the boy. Then they heard, "I'll free him" and he felt two hands on his shoulders where none should have been and a shove that freed him. 

The most common version of the legend starts in 1816 when John Bell first saw a large black dog-like creature in one of his fields. Bell fired a shot at the dog but it disappeared. Then Bell's son Drew said he saw a bird of "extraordinary size" on a fence post and daughter Betsy reported seeing a girl in a green dress swinging from a tree limb.

Afterward, his family was plagued by strange occurrences.

The Torment

The Bell Witch's torment of the Bell family started with unexplained nightly tapping on the walls of their home that grew into the sounds of dogs fighting and chains being dragged across the floor.

"They said nothing to the children about it, thinking it to be the work of some mischievous person trying to frighten the family," The Knoxville Journal said, citing the journal of Bell's son Richard Williams Bell.

They kept quiet for a year until the noises escalated until it "at times became so violent that the house reportedly shook as if it was being buffeted by a storm," according to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.

Over four years, John Bell and other family members, but mostly Elizabeth (who went by Betsy), were assaulted by the spirit. They were slapped, pinched, and taunted. The spirit harassed the Bell's slaves and even stopped Betsy (sketched below) from marrying. 

The witch would pull bed covers off sleepers "drawing it from the foot as though it was pulled by hands ..." The Knoxville Journal article said. "Every night this continued until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning."

The exceptions were Lucy Bell, who was never accosted by the spirit and was even brough nuts and grapes by the witch, and John Bell Jr., who wasn't as harassed as other family members.

Eventually the spirit began hold full conversations by answering questions about the Bible, the future and itself. According to Ingram once the spirit was asked "Who are you and what do you want?" and it answered: "I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed." It also claimed the distrubance was related to a Native American burial mound located on the property and near the acclaimed Bell Witch Cave.

The spirit was even said to prophesize events in the Bell family and beyond. For example, she predicted John Bell Jr. would take a long and eventually useless trip to North Carolina.

The Jackson Story

After more than a year of enduring this torment, the Bells entrusted their secret with family friend James Johnson and then visitors, even future president Andrew Jackson made a trip from Hermitage, Tennessee, to Adams to try to help.

Part of the folklore says that on his way to the Bell farm, Jackson said he did not believe in ghosts, at which point the wheels of his carriage fell off for no logical reason.

Another version said Jackson's carriage stopped in road and refused to move until Jackson exclaimed "By the eternal, boys, it is the witch." To which, the witch replied "All right General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again tonight."

Once Jackson and his entourage arrived in Adams, they were treated to the ghost in full force. She recited prayers, imitated people, argued meanings of the Bible and even beat up a self-proclaimed "witch killer." The spirit told Jackson that she would "uncover another rascal" the next night, but they chose to leave instead.

Jackson is quoted as saying: "I had rather face the entire British Army than to spend another night with the Bell Witch."

The Death of John Bell

The initial haunting ended after John Bell's death in 1820 and the end of Betsy's engagement in spring 1821. The ghost claimed to have killed him with poison and sang drinking songs at his funeral. She also promised to return in 1828.

And she did, but with less force, just having discussions about the past and future with John Bell Jr. and promising to return in 107 years.

There is no evidence she appeared in 1935. 

The Bell Witch Cave

Once the Bell Witch fled the Bell home, it is believed she took refuge in a cave on the property.

The cave is located in a bluff above the Red River. The walkable portion is about 490 feet deep before it is obstructed by a flowstone. Spelunkers have estimated it could be up to 15 miles deep, according to BellWitchCave.com.

Daytime tours are given during the summer and October and by appointment during other times of the year.

According to the tour, the cave contains a Native American burial, which appears to date from the Mississippian era (ca. A.D. 900 to 1600). The remains were stolen by looters. Additional burials have been found on the plain above the cave.

People who have taken the tour have reported hearing babies crying, women's screams, loud footsteps, foul odors, heavy breathing and glowing orbs.