The Ingram Book is Scrutinized

One of the more popular “Bell Witch theories” to emerge over the past decade centers on the first book written about the case, which was published by newspaper editor Martin Ingram of Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1894. Being the author of the first book that was published about something is an honorable distinction, but it also can be a curse.

A “first book” is often the starting point for people researching a case such as the Bell Witch, and as such, validating the original author’s claims is paramount to the research. But, what if the author is deceased, as is the case with Ingram? What the author's primary sources were destroyed, or went missing, as is the case with Ingram? It comes as no surprise that the first published accounts of allegedly true events, in a paranormal context, often fall victim to harsh, repetitive scrutiny. And, that is well and fine if it filters out the fluff and helps the researcher get to the bottom of the case.

Because Martin Ingram is long deceased--he died in 1909--and his alleged source document, Richard Bell's "Our Family Trouble" manuscript, has yet to be found, "An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch" is often scrutinized. Some feel he made up the legend. Did he? Or, did he take an existing tale and embellish it to epic proportions? Or, is the whole thing true? Welcome to the jungle.


The Ingram Fabrication Theory Defined

The skeptical “Ingram Fabrication Theory” suggests that there was no Bell Witch prior to 1894, except, perhaps, hidden away somewhere in the back of Ingram’s mind. The main premise behind the theory is summed up, as follows:

“If the alleged disturbances were so frightening and extraordinary that people came from all over the country to witness them, as Ingram stated, people would have written volumes about the disturbances. Yet, the earliest published account came almost 75 years later, from Ingram, in 1894. Since nothing was published about the Bell Witch prior to Ingram’s book, except a short blurb in an 1886 history book that he allegedly penned, he must have made the story up.”

Serious researchers of the legend have not accepted such a convenient, generalized conclusion as fact, namely because the theory’s proponents have failed to prove that was the case. It needs to be remembered that the burden of proof is carried by the person(s) making a claim, whether it be a paranormal claim or a claim that something is not real. In other words, if you said it, you own it. Rather than own (prove) their claim of fabrication, proponents have chosen to present a “compelling circumstance” that adds a false sense of validity to their argument.

The compelling circumstance—that Ingram’s alleged source document, "Our Family Trouble," was never found—sounds compelling, but lacks persuasion. The manuscript could turn up any day or week now, ten years from now, one-hundred years from now, or not at all. Perhaps Ingram wrote the manuscript himself? None of that is relevant to this discussion. The proverbial bottom line is that neither its existence nor its non-existence has been proven.

Would the existence or non-existence of Ingram’s source document be discussion-worthy if the Fabrication Theory’s main premise—that nothing was published about the Bell Witch until Ingram’s 1894 book—is proven false? No. Although the unknown origin of Ingram's source document suggests possible embellishment on his part, it falls short of proving that he made up the entire legend, as the theory states.

Searching for the Holy Grail

A pre-1894 account of the Bell Witch—which some Fabrication theorists have said would amount to the “HOLY GRAIL”—would not, in and of itself, solve the Bell Witch mystery (who, or what, was the Bell Witch?), nor would it rule out embellishment on Ingram’s part. It would simply invalidate the theory that Ingram fabricated the legend. Given the attention the theory has received over the last twenty years, finding a pre-1894 published "holy grail" Bell Witch account would amount to a significant advance in the case.

Enter the Holy Grail

Two earlier published accounts have come to light in recent years. They are the Green-Mountain Freeman / Saturday Evening Post account and the Journal of Captain John R. Bell (no relation to the Bell family of Red River).

The Green-Mountain Freeman / Saturday Evening Post Account

Several accounts, including Ingram’s, tell of an ~1849 article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, blaming the entire ordeal on Betsy Bell, and how it was later retracted when Betsy Bell Powell threatened to file a defamation suit against The Post if they did not publish a retraction. Although finding the article would prove that the story existed before Ingram’s book was published, researchers been unable to find an archived copy of the article; its existence, absent any physical evidence, has amounted to hearsay from Ingram.

It comes as no surprise that Ingram Fabrication theorists readily dismiss the elusive Post article as a fictitious device used by Ingram to add credibility to his story.

I searched for the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. about 20 years ago, but only found a later, 1850s-period article (listed in an index-only document that showed only the title) that some well-intentioned librarian had categorized as a “Tennessee Ghoulish Haunt.” With so little to go on--the wrong period, no cross-references with additional information, and no direct mention of the Bell Witch in the category's description--I decided to just make a note of it and “let it go, with no further time spent researching it. So close, but yet so far; it was a painful dead end, but not the end.

In November of 2016, I was advised that new information about the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article had recently come to light. An early REPRINT of the Post article had surfaced, and it was dated many years prior to 1894. Although an archived copy of the original article as it appeared in the Post continues to elude researchers, the reprint's early publication date, along with its direct reference to the Saturday Evening Post's article, sufficiently proves that Ingram did not make up the Bell Witch legend, nor did he lie about there having been an article about it in the Post. Welcome to the holy grail.

On February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman, a newspaper based in Montpelier, Vermont, reprinted the Post article, entitled “The Tennessee Ghost.” It was featured on the Freeman's front page, in the Variety section, which contained article reprints from newspapers around the country. There can be no mistake as to the reprint’s original source; the Freeman's editor attributed it directly to The Saturday Evening Post.

The reprinted Saturday Evening Post article, which briefly describes the disturbances and the many curiosity-seekers who visited the Bell farm, mentions John Bell, Betsy Bell, Joshua Gardner, and Robertson County, Tennessee. It directly accuses Betsy Bell of using ventriloquism to stage the entire haunting. Her motive, it says, was to ensure that she would marry Joshua Gardner, a young man with whom she had fallen in love. When asked when it would leave, the Bell Witch entity would reply, “not until Joshua Gardner and Betsy Bell get married.” This version of the legend is much different from Ingram’s, which states that the entity was strongly opposed to Joshua Gardner and Betsy Bell marrying.

The Bell Witch legend had already been published and was widely known—at least as far away as the New England states—some 45 years before Ingram published his book (38 years if you count from the Freeman reprint date).