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Bell Witch Character Biography

Reverend Sugg Fort (1776-1829)


Reverend Sugg Fort was Pastor of Red River Baptist Church during the time of the Bell disturbances and, along with other area clergymen, tried to comfort the Bell family throughout their terrifying ordeal.  He, along with James Johnston, Rev. Thomas Gunn, and John Bell, comprised the "committee" tasked with determining Kate's origin and purpose.  Reverend Fort's unquestionably strong involvement in the legend is somewhat overshadowed, however, by his brother's dealings with John Bell -- which will be discussed, shortly.

The youngest of nine children born to Elias and Sarah Sugg Fort, Reverend Fort was born in Edgecombe County, North Carolina and moved to Tennessee with his family in 1788, settling between the Red River and Elk Fork Creek in what would later be known as the "Fort Settlement."  His father, Elias Fort, was actively involved in the Tar River Association, a religious advocacygroup in North Carolina whose membership included the church that John and Lucy Bell attended before they moved to Tennessee, Union Baptist Church (aka Towne Creek Baptist Church). [1]

Reverend Fort married Elizabeth Diggs in December of 1801, and they had two children before her death in February of 1805. He never remarried. His father was the Pastor of Red River Baptist Church during this time, while he and his brother, Josiah, served as the clerks. About 1816, Sugg Fort became the Pastor of Red River Baptist Church.

Over the years, mainly as a result of his father’s having known the Bells in North Carolina, Reverend Fort developed a good friendship with John Bell, often visiting him to discuss the "old country" and hold prayer meetings. The same could not be said about the relationship between Reverend Fort’s older brother, Josiah, and John Bell. [a] 

At a church service in August of 1815, a deacon was unable to distribute communion because John Bell had privately expressed to him his dissatisfaction with Josiah Fort. [2]  Because both men were at the table and ready to partake, the deacon refused to proceed because not all present were "in fellowship." Confusion arose among those present, including John Bell, who quietly got up and went home.

The church conducted a private hearing some weeks later to determine why “Brethren Bell & Fort do not appear to be in fellowship.” [3]  The outcome of this hearing is not documented in the church minutes; however, at the church’s next meeting, Josiah Fort requested and received a letter of dismissal from the church and joined nearby Drake’s Pond Baptist Church. [4] Ironically, this meeting also brought the news that his wife, Piety Horn Fort, had recently died. Josiah Fort would eventually return to Red River Baptist Church, but not until after John Bell’s death.

The nature of the Fort-Bell dispute is not clear because it was marked-through in the church records. An examination of real estate and court records involving both families during the same timeframe gives the author reason to believe that a property-line dispute was at the heart of the matter.

Despite the issue of John Bell’s excommunication from the church in 1818, Reverend Sugg Fort continued to maintain a good relationship with Bell and his family.  Reverend Fort died in 1829 and is buried in one of the three Fort cemeteries in Robertson County, Tennessee.

[a]  In addition to his dealings with the church, Josiah Fort was very active in civic affairs.  He became one of Robertson County’s first trustees in 1796, and was in that same year appointed to serve as one of the county’s three presidential electors.  Ten years later, he was appointed by the General Assembly to serve as a trustee of "The Liberty Academy," a local school that was proposed and mulled over until 1811 but never materialized.  See: Albert Virgil Goodpasture, Goodspeed History of Tennessee – Robertson County, 1886, pp. 837-838, 860. Some of his slave records can be found at this web site.  The first listed generation, up through "Queen," were associated with Josiah Fort; the remaining generations were associated with his (and their) descendants.

[1]  Kehukee Baptist Association records.

[2]  Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), pp. 165-166.

[3]  Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), pp. 167-169.

[4] Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), pp. 172-173, 201.


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Last Update: July 03, 2024