in Halifax County, North Carolina, Professor Richard Rowell Ptolemy Powell figured prominently into the legend of the “Bell Witch”
because of his having taught several of the Bell children, and his admiration
and later marriage to
Elizabeth "Betsy" Bell.
In fact, some have stated that Powell was the "brains" behind Kate.
Although the author feels this was possibly the case, he is not fully convinced.
After receiving an advanced education in his native North
Carolina, Powell moved to Tennessee about 1815 and settled near the village of
Nashville. As he explored various teaching opportunities there, he
learned of the flourishing Red River Settlement in Robertson County and the need
for a schoolmaster. He soon moved
there, settling near the Bell farm. Some say he even rented a room in the
Bell home, but this has yet to be proven.
began teaching in a small schoolhouse situated on a tract of land donated by
James Johnston, a few yards east of the Bell property line.
Having taught several of their children, he became good friends with
and Lucy Bell.
developed a strong fondness for
Betsy as she matured into adolescence. But despite his frequent visits to the Bell home and the compliments he
often paid her, was already courting
Gardner, a well-respected and close neighbor whose age was much closer to
hers. Both families were pleased
with the courtship; however, it seemed that neither Powell nor Kate shared their
broke off the engagement on Easter Monday of 1821, after Kate’s pressure had
taken a heavy emotional toll on her. Powell visited her frequently during the period of grief and loathing
that ensued, often reciting poetry to help lift her spirits. A courtship gradually evolved between the two that would last
three years and culminate in their marriage on March 21, 1824.
without the knowledge of anyone in the Red River Settlement at the time, Richard
Betsy was not his first.
He had earlier married Esther McKenzie Scott of Dickson County, Tennessee, who was 18 years his senior.
The circumstances of their union are unknown, but in those
days, especially, it was very odd for the wife to be older than the husband, and
in Esther Scott Powell's case, almost two decades. Socially, Richard
Powell never mentioned his "hush-hush" marriage, but referenced to it in
his personal diary. 
A reference to his settling of her estate is also made in the Robertson County
public records. 
Esther Scott conveniently died in 1821,
a few months after
John Bell, Sr.
died, and the same year in which
broke off her engagement to
Joshua--and three years
before she wed Powell.
the years that followed, Powell's involvement in society and politics required
him to relinquish his schoolmaster job to pursue a career in politics.
Powell served as Sheriff of Robertson County between 1830 and 1833, and was elected to the Tennessee
House of Representatives in 1833, where
represented Robertson County in the 20th Tennessee General Assembly.
He made a name for himself as a lawmaker of great ability, and gained
wide popularity throughout the state. Powell
had also been a Captain in the Tennessee Militia, a census enumerator, and a Justice of the
personal diary alluded to earlier was his “Ciphering Book,” a 271-page
collection of advanced math problems, genealogical notes, and other information.
It is believed that many of the math problems in Powell’s “Ciphering
Book” were created by his father, Richard Powell, Sr., who also was a
well-educated man. According to
dates listed in his “Ciphering Book,” Richard Powell solved many of the math
problems between 1812 and 1822. The
“Ciphering Book” makes no mention of the “Bell Witch”
disturbances. It does, however, contain an entry noting the date on which
the pinnacle of his political career, Powell suffered a massive stroke that
rendered him unable to fend for himself and his family. The Powells purchased a keelboat to ship goods to New Orleans in hopes of raising money.
On the night before the first shipment was to have set sail, all goods
were lost when a misguided steamboat crashed into the vessel while moored in
nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, awaiting daybreak.
substantial monetary loss, coupled with Powell’s inability to earn a living,
left his family broke and destitute. A number of Powell’s friends, including a certain “Joshua
Gardner,” then of Henry County, Tennessee, drafted and submitted a
petition to the Tennessee State Legislature that sought financial relief for
Powell and his family. The petition
Powell’s condition slowly worsened until his death in January of 1848. He is buried in an unmarked grave near the Cedar Hill community of Robertson County, Tennessee.
Powell was never around when Kate put on demonstrations, and neither spoke nor
wrote of her. Interestingly, several accounts allege
was involved with the occult. One such account describes an incident that took place at the
John Johnston who, while
walking down the road by the schoolhouse one evening, noticed the glare of a
candle burning inside. Having time
to spare, they decided to visit Professor Powell.
unanswered knocks, they
decided to enter. Unable to find Powell, they stood and waited next to his desk, casually
glancing at the many books. Powell
soon arrived, running quickly to his desk and putting away a book that had been
left open. Calvin apologized, stating that he
was “just glancing” and had not read the book. Powell said it was an old Latin book and not important.
in Latin and Greek, Calvin later commented that
nothing in the book appeared to be Latin (or Greek).
Some might assume
the book was Powell's “Ciphering Book.” The author, also well-versed in Latin, has reviewed Powell’s “Ciphering
Book” in meticulous detail and concluded that its contents are easily
decipherable, including the occasional
use of Greek symbols in math problems. The author does not feel that the book was Powell’s “Ciphering
account of Richard Powell’s alleged involvement with the occult comes from a
Joshua Gardner’s younger
brother, John A. Gardner.
children, including some of the Gardner and Bell family, were walking home from
school late one afternoon and discussing a difficult problem that Professor Powell
had asked them to solve.
As they continued walking, they
became more confused and decided to return to the school
house and ask Powell for clarification. They found the door locked, but heard the
distinct sound of Professor Powell’s voice coming from inside,
speaking in a language that was unknown to them.
Upon hearing their knocks, Powell ceased speaking and opened the door,
saying that he must have been daydreaming and that no one else had been present.
among community children regarding Professor Powell’s “incantations”
continued for months. Is is said,
but has not been proven, that Powell severely punished several of them upon
learning of these conversations.