The Bell Witch legend of Tennessee

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The Bell Witch


North Carolina


The Bells lived in Edgecombe County North Carolina before moving to Tennessee in the winter of 1804-1805.  A “North Carolina version” of the legend has evolved over the years that, like its Tennessee counterpart, contains elements of both fact and fiction.

The backstory is based largely on historical fact, whereas the front story – the actual “haunting” – is based on folklore.  Two different stories comprise the North Carolina version; one that was published by “Playboy” magazine in the late 1960s, and one that was passed down through the "folk."

The first story involves John Bell and Kate Batts.  They allegedly had an affair for some time and John Bell eventually broke it off.  Enraged, Kate Batts threatened to tell everyone, including Bell's family, of the affair.  To keep her quiet, John Bell tied her up in a smokehouse and let her die.  She allegedly came back from the dead and haunted Bell’s family, causing one son, Benjamin, to die at an early age and making their crops fail.  Her spirit allegedly followed the family to Tennessee where the haunting continued.

John Bell and Kate Batts both lived in the same area at the time, and Benjamin Bell did in fact die at an early age (as many people did back then), but there is no actual proof that John Bell and Kate Batts were romantically involved or that she came back from the dead to haunt his family.  In fact, historical records show that she outlived John Bell by 23 years.

The second story alleges that John Bell killed his slave overseer, John Black, because he developed a fondness for their oldest daughter, Mary.  Black allegedly haunted the family from his grave, causing their crops to fail and ultimately forcing them to move to Tennessee.

John Black and Mary Bell were real people who lived in the area at the time; however, there is no proof that this particular story took place.  I have not been able to locate a death record – gravestone or otherwise – for John Black.  It would be interesting, although  not conclusive, if he died in that timeframe.  If he was shot under personal circumstances inside a barn back in the early 1800s, would there even be an official record of his death?  While the John Black story seems compelling, there just isn't anything to go on.  

For more information on the theories behind these stories, please visit the FAQ page.  If you are interested in the actual history of the Bell family  in North Carolina, please visit the essay entitled, “History of the Bell Family in North Carolina.”

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian


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