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The Story of the
"America's Greatest Ghost Story"
Introduction to the Bell Witch Legend
continue to affirm their fascination with the unknown by making
scary movies, paranormal shows, and
live ghost hunts a favorite modern pastime. Despite the
frights and thrills such movies and events bring about,
people want something more, and
different--something that intrigues them, something they can focus on and give
intelligent thought to. Enter well-documented,
well-researched historical hauntings,
where serious, unbiased researchers pave the way for learning
so that people, like you, can draw their own conclusions.
legend of the Bell Witch centers on the John Bell family of Red River, Tennessee, now
Adams, and the spiritual haunting they endured between 1817 and 1821. Unlike many films and
the early-1800s Tennessee haunting involved real people
and places. No one has yet to solve it--or even come close.
These distinctions led Dr. Nandor Fodor, a noted
call the legend, "America's Greatest Ghost Story."
Fast forward 200 years, and the Bell Witch legend is still making waves. There are numerous
Bell Witch books, several Bell Witch movies and documentaries, and there are always several more
"in the works." Regardless of whether the case's origin was spiritual or human, it remains an epic,
classic American haunting, and a "who-done-it" mystery like no other.
purpose of the Bell Witch story presented
below is to provide a brief overview of the legend.
For the full account of the Bell
(North Carolina + Tennessee + Mississippi; from the early 1800s to present-day), including annotations, charts,
endnotes and discussions, and other resources, please buy a
signed, personalized copy of
Bell Witch: The Full Account, by Pat Fitzhugh. You can also get the book
Amazon and other retailers. If you have questions about the legend that are
not answered at The Bell Witch Site, please ask the site's owner,
40+-year Bell Witch researcher, Pat Fitzhugh,
questions about the legend.
The story presented below is the "classic version,"
covering only Tennessee and the 1817-1821 period. It is only a story,
and a very controversial one
at that. For
researched historical information pertaining to the
please see the
Real Character Biographies
section of this site. For
an in-depth, researched look at the legend's key
elements, please see the Bell Witch
Essays section. To learn
more about the legend in general, please see the
Frequently Asked Questions page.
And, above all else, thank you for visiting The Bell Witch Site.
- Pat Fitzhugh,
Author and Researcher
The Bell Family Prior to the
the early 1800s,
John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to the Red River
Tennessee, settling in the Red River
community, which later became
Tennessee. Bell purchased some land and a large house
for his family. Over the next several years, he acquired more land,
increasing his holdings to 328 acres, and cleared a number of
fields for planting. He also became an Elder of
River Baptist Church. John and his wife, Lucy Bell,
had three more children after
moving to Tennessee. The Bells had a very happy and successful early life
at the Red River Settlement.
Bell family homestead, the alleged "ground zero" of the Bell
Strange Occurrences Commence
day in 1817, John Bell was inspecting his corn field when he encountered a
strange-looking animal sitting in the middle of a corn row. Shocked by the
appearance of this animal, which had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit,
Bell shot several times. The animal vanished. This
was the first documented manifestation of the entity.
nothing more of the incident, at least not until after dinner. That evening,
the family began hearing "beating" sounds on the outside walls of their
mysterious sounds continued with increased frequency and force each night. Bell and his sons
often hurried outside to catch the culprit but
always returned empty-handed. In the weeks that followed, the Bell children
began waking up frightened, complaining that rats were gnawing at their bedposts.
Not long after that, the children began complaining of having having their bed covers pulled
from them and their
pillows tossed onto the floor by a seemingly invisible entity.
allegedly turned a man into a mule.
The Bell Witch Develops a Voice and Becomes Violent
time went on, the Bells began hearing faint, whispering voices, which too weak to
understand but sounded
like a feeble old woman singing hymns. The encounters escalated, and
the Bells’ youngest daughter, Betsy Bell, began experiencing brutal
encounters with the invisible entity. It would pull her hair and slap her
often leaving welts and hand prints on her face and body. The disturbances,
about which John Bell had vowed his
family to secret, finally escalated to
point that he shared his "family trouble" with his closest friend and neighbor,
and his wife spent the night at the Bell home.
Things began peacefully, but once they retired for the
evening, they were subjected to the
same terrifying disturbances that the Bells had been experiencing. After
were yanked off and James was slapped,
he sprang out of bed, exclaiming,
"In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!"
The entity did not respond; the rest of the night
was peaceful. The next morning, Mr. Johnston explained to the
Bells that the culprit was likely an "evil spirit, the kind that the Bible talks
entity's voice strengthened over time and became loud
and unmistakable. It sang hymns, quoted scripture, carried on intelligent
conversation, and once even quoted, word-for-word, two sermons that were
preached at the
same time on the same day, thirteen miles apart. Word of the supernatural
phenomena soon spread outside the settlement, even to Nashville, where then-Major
Andrew Jackson became interested in the so-called Bell Witch.
The Bell Witch
Bell, Jr., along with his brothers
and Jesse Bell, had fought under General Jackson in the Battle of
New Orleans. A few years later, In 1819, Jackson
heard about the disturbances at the Bell home and decided to
pay a visit and
investigate. As Jackson's entourage,
consisting of several men,
well-groomed horses, and a large wagon, approached
the Bell property,
the wagon jolted to a sudden stop.
had become stuck in a muddy creek bed, and the horses were
unable to pull it. At least that was what the men thought.
entourage comes to investigate the haunting.
several minutes of cursing and trying to coax the horses into pulling the wagon, Jackson
proclaimed, "By the eternal, boys! That must be the Bell Witch!"
Then, suddenly, a disembodied female voice told Jackson that they could proceed and that she would see them again later
that evening. They were then able to proceed across the property, up the lane,
and to the Bell home. That evening,
told old war stories while his entourage
set up their tents in John and Lucy Bell's yard.
One of the men
claimed to be a
"witch tamer." After several uneventful hours, he pulled out a shiny pistol and
proclaimed that its silver bullet would kill any evil spirit that it came into
contact with. He went on to say that the reason nothing had happened to
them was because whatever had been haunting the Bells was "scared"
of his silver bullet.
Immediately, the man
screamed and began jerking his body in different directions, complaining that he was being stuck with pins and
beaten severely. A strong, swift kick to the man's posterior region, from
an invisible foot, sent him out the front door. Angry, the
entity spoke up and announced that there
was yet another "fraud" in Jackson’s party, and that
she would identify him the following evening.
terrified, Jackson’s men begged to leave the Bell farm. Jackson insisted on staying;
he wanted to know who the other
"fraud" was. The men eventually went outside to sleep in their tents
while continuously begging Jackson to leave. What happened next is not clear, but
Jackson and his entourage were spotted in nearby Springfield early the next
morning, going back to Nashville.
Some allege that Jackson later proclaimed, "I would rather fight the British at New Orleans
than fight the Bell Witch."
Witch Sets Her Sights on John Bell
disturbances decreased after the Betsy and Joshua's engagement
ended, but the entity continued to express disdain for
John Bell, relentlessly vowing to kill him.
had been experiencing episodes of twitching in his face and difficulty
swallowing for almost a year, and the malady grew
time. By the fall of 1820, his declining health had confined him to the
house, where the malicious entity continuously
shoes when he tried to walk, and slapped his face when he
recovered from his numerous
seizures. Her shrill voice was heard all over
the farm, cursing and chastising "Old Jack Bell," the
nickname she had given him.
Bell breathed his last breath on the morning of December 20, 1820, after
slipping into a coma a day earlier. Immediately after his death,
his family found a vial of strange
black liquid in the cupboard. John, Jr.
sprinkled two drops on the cat's
tongue. The cat jumped up into the air,
rolled over in mid air, and was dead when it hit the floor. The
entity then exclaimed, "I gave Ol' Jack a big dose of that last
night, which fixed him!" John, Jr.
tossed the mysterious vial into the
fireplace. It burst into a bright blue flame and shot up the chimney.
The death of
Bell's funeral was one of the largest ever held in Robertson County,
Tennessee. People attended from miles away, and three preachers
(two Methodist, and one Baptist) eulogized him. As
the crowd of mourners began leaving the graveyard, the
Bell Witch entity laughed and
sang a song about a bottle of
brandy. Her fervent singing didn't stop until the
last mourner had left the graveyard. The entity's presence was
almost nonexistent after
John Bell's demise, as though it
had fulfilled its purpose.
The old Bell family cemetery near present-day Adams,
Betsy Bell's Engagement
time, Betsy Bell became interested in
Gardner, a young man who lived nearby. With the blessings of their parents, they decided to marry.
Everyone was happy about their engagement. Well, almost everyone.
The evil, mysterious entity became furious, and repeatedly
ordered Betsy not to marry Joshua.
Joshua Gardner, Betsy Bell's Suitor.
and Joshua's former schoolteacher,
Powell, had been noticeably
interested in Betsy for some time and had expressed interest in marrying her when she became older.
By some accounts, Powell, who was eleven years Betsy's senior, was a student of the
occult, ventriloquism, a mathematical genius, and well-versed in
horticulture and geology. He was secretly married to
a woman in nearby Nashville, Esther Scott, during the time he lived
and taught school at Red River
(and perceived as a happy-go-lucky bachelor) and
unwavering fondness for Betsy
Bell. According to
early accounts, Powell politely expressed his disappointment with Betsy's
engagement to Joshua, and wished her a long and prosperous marriage.
Professor Richard Powell.
Betsy and Joshua could not go to the
river, the fields, or the cave to play without the entity
nagging them. The constant
pressure was more than Betsy Bell could handle, and on Easter Monday of 1821,
she met Joshua at the
river and broke off the engagement.
Bade Farewell but Returned
April of 1821, shortly after Betsy Bell had broken off her
engagement, the entity visited John Bell's widow, Lucy
Bell, and told her that it was leaving but would return
in seven years.
The entity returned in 1828, as promised.
Most of the return visit centered
on John Bell, Jr., with whom the entity discussed the origin of life, civilizations, Christianity, and the need for a
reawakening. Of particular significance were its predictions of the Civil
War and other major events--some of
which she missed.
bade farewell after three weeks, promising to visit
John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years. The year would
be 1935, and the closest living direct descendant at
the time was Nashville physician, Dr.
Charles Bailey Bell, a neurologist and John Bell, Sr.'s great-grandson.
The Promised 1935 Return
1934, Dr. Bell
published a book about the Bell Witch,
likely to raise awareness of the spirit's impending return. The
book contains the first-ever account of the alleged conferences between the entity and John Bell, Jr.,
in 1828. The author's father, Dr. Joel Thomas Bell, had
allegedly taken notes during the conferences and, upon his death, passed them
down to him (Dr. Charles Bailey Bell). Dr. Bell published no follow-up
to his 1934 book; he died in 1945, and is buried
at Bellwood Cemetery in Adams, Tennessee.
the Bell Witch return in 1935, as promised? Some say she did not return, or that
if she did, they were not aware of it. But many say she never left the place
to begin with.
and Final Thoughts
entity that tormented the Bell family and the Red River Settlement almost 200 years ago is
often blamed for unexplainable manifestations that occur near the old Bell farm
faint sounds of people talking and children playing can sometimes be heard in
the area, and it's not uncommon to see "candle lights" dance through
the dark fields late at night. Photography is especially difficult; some
pictures taken in the area show mist, orbs of light, and other phenomena,
including human-like figures who were not present when the pictures were taken.
Could these phenomena be related to the haunting of John
cause of the Bell family’s torment 200 years ago,
along with today's continued phenomena
in the area--although to a lesser extent--remain a mystery. Numerous
theories have been put
forth, but all have been debunked. However, most
researchers agree that "something"
had to have caused the incidents at Red River in the early 1800s
that gave rise to the Bell Witch legend as we know it today.
knows? It happened to the
John Bell family in 1817; maybe next time it will happen to your
family. Hold that thought for now. Pleasant dreams.
Copyright (c) 1995-2021, Pat Fitzhugh
/ The Bell Witch Site; All rights reserved.
Unauthorized duplication prohibited without permission and a