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The Legend of the Bell Witch of Tennessee

Copyright (c) 1998-2017, Pat Fitzhugh.  All rights reserved.  No portion of this web site, including this story, may be copied or reposted in any format without the the author's written permission.

For the most complete account of the Bell Witch legend, both past and present, and for historical data behind the legend and its characters, pick up a copy of "The Bell Witch: The Full Account" at your local bookstore or Amazon. If you'd like a signed, personalized copy, click here.



For historical information pertaining to the characters in the following story, please visit the Biographies page.  For an in-depth look and discussion about the legend's key parts, please visit the Essays page or the book page.

Americans have affirmed their fascination with the unknown by making such movies as “The Sixth Sense,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and "An American Haunting" box office hits.  Despite the frightening images and mass hysteria these films conjured, people are wanting more than just Hollywood thrills.  Nowadays, it's all about well-documented, historical hauntings, where choreography, special effects, and screenwriting give way to the chilling and oft disturbing realities of life.

One such haunting is the legend of the so-called “Bell Witch,” a sinister entity that tormented a pioneer family on Tennessee’s early frontier between 1817 and 1821.  Unlike the blockbuster films and many other ghost stories, the "Bell Witch" haunting involved real people and is substantiated by eyewitness accounts, affidavits, and manuscripts penned by those who experienced the haunting first hand.  This distinction led Dr. Nandor Fodor, a noted researcher and psychologist, to label the Bell Witch legend as "America's Greatest Ghost Story."

The purpose of this writing is to give a very brief overview of the Bell Witch legend; and as such, not all stories and facts are included.  If you want the FULL account of the legend, including annotations, charts, historical endnotes and discussions, and a host of other resources, click here for book information, click here to ask the author a question, or click here to join our online forum and discuss the legend with 1,600+ other people.

Come join me as I turn back the clock to a simpler, more pure time, when happiness was plentiful and sorrows were few; and when such words as "honesty," "loyalty," and "love," actually meant something; and moreover, a time when a person's biggest worry was whether they would finish the day's work.

                            -  Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian



In the early 1800s, John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to the Red River bottomland in Robertson County, Tennessee, settling in a community, Red River, which became Adams, Tennessee many years later.  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 was made an Elder of Red River Baptist Church.  The Bells also had three more children after moving to Tennessee.  Elizabeth (Betsy) was born in 1806, Richard  in 1811, Joel in 1813.


John Bell house, home of the Bell Witch of Tennessee
The Bell homestead.  From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


One 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.  Bell thought nothing more about the incident, at least not until after dinner. That evening, the Bells began hearing "beating" sounds on the outside walls of their log house.

The 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.


The John Bell farm near Adams, TN
From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


As 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, began experiencing brutal encounters with the invisible entity. It would pull her hair and slap her relentlessly, often leaving welts and hand prints on her face and body.  The disturbances, which John Bell told his family to keep a secret, eventually escalated to such a point that he decided to share his "family trouble" with his closest friend and neighbor, James Johnston.

Johnston and his wife spent the night at the Bell home, where they were subjected to the same terrifying disturbances that the Bells had experienced.  After having his bedcovers removed and being slapped repeatedly, Johnston sprang out of bed, exclaiming, "In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want!" There was no response, but the remainder of the night was relatively peaceful.

The entity's voice strengthened over time to the point that it was 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 this supernatural phenomenon soon spread outside the settlement, even to Nashville, where then-Major General Andrew Jackson took a keen interest.



John Bell, Jr., Drewry Bell, and Jesse Bell, John Bell's eldest sons, had fought under General Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.  In 1819, Jackson decided to visit the Bell farm and see what all the hoopla was about.  Jackson's entourage consisted of several men, some well-groomed horses, and a wagon.  As they approached the Bell property, the wagon stopped suddenly.  The horses couldn't pull it.


Andrew Jackson visits the Bell Witch
Jackson's entourage.  From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


After 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, 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 where Jackson and John Bell had a long discussion about the Indians and other topics while Jackson’s entourage waited to see if the entity was going to manifest.

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 disturbing 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 them spoke up and announced that there was yet another "fraud" in Jackson’s party, and that he would be identified and tormented the following evening.

Now terrified, Jackson’s men begged to leave the Bell farm.  But Jackson, on the other hand, insisted on staying so that he could ascertain who the other "fraud" was.  The men eventually went outside to sleep in their tents, but continued begging Jackson to leave.  What happened next is not clear, but Jackson and his entourage were spotted in nearby Springfield early the next morning, presumably enroute to Nashville.



Over time, Betsy Bell became interested in Joshua Gardner, a young man who lived not far from her. With the blessing of their parents, they decided to marry.  Everyone was happy about their engagement.  Well, almost everyone.  The entity, for reasons unknown to this day, repeatedly told Betsy not to marry Joshua Gardner.


Joshua Gardner of Bell Witch Fame and Betsy Bell's Suitor
From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


Betsy and Joshua's former schoolteacher, Richard 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, although it has not been proved.  He was secretly married to a woman in nearby Nashville, Esther Scott, during the time he spent at Red River expressing his fondness for Betsy.  According to old accounts, Powell politely expressed his disappointment with Betsy's engagement and wished her a long and prosperous marriage with Joshua Gardner.


Professor Richard Powell of Bell Witch fame

Richard Powell.  From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


Betsy and Joshua could not go to the river, the field, or the cave to play without the entity taunting them persistently.  Their patience finally reached critical mass, and on Easter Monday of 1821, Betsy met Joshua at the river and broke off their engagement.  The disturbances decreased after Betsy ended the engagement, but the entity continued to express its dislike for John Bell and vowed relentlessly to kill him.

Bell had been experiencing episodes of twitching in his face and difficulty swallowing for almost a year, and the malady seemed to grow worse with time.  By the fall of 1820, his declining health had confined him to the house, where the entity commenced removing his shoes when he tried to walk and slapping his face when he experienced seizures.  Her loud, shrill voice could be heard all over the farm, cursing and chastising "Old Jack Bell," as she often referred to him.



John Bell breathed his last breath on  the morning of December 20, 1820, after slipping into a coma the day before.  Immediately after his death, the family found a small vial of unidentified liquid in the cupboard.  John Bell, Jr. gave some of it to the cat, which died instantly. The entity then spoke up, exclaiming joyfully, "I gave Ol' Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!"   John, Jr. quickly threw the vial into the fireplace, where it burst into a bright, bluish flame and shot up the chimney.


The death of John Bell
From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.


John Bell's funeral was one of the largest ever held in Robertson County, Tennessee.  As family and friends began leaving the graveyard, the entity laughed loudly and began singing a song about a bottle of brandy.  It is said that her singing didn't stop until the very last person left the graveyard.  The entity's presence was almost nonexistent after John Bell's demise, as if its purpose had been fulfilled.


John Bell graveyard near Adams, Tennessee


In April of 1821, the entity visited John Bell's widow, Lucy, and told her that it would return for a visit in seven years.  The entity returned in 1828, as promised.  Most of its visit centered around John Bell, Jr., with whom the entity discussed such things as the origin of life, civilizations, Christianity, and the need for a mass spiritual reawakening.  Of particular significance were its nearly accurate predictions of the Civil War and other events.

The entity said farewell after three weeks, promising to visit John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years.  The year would have been 1935, and the closest living direct descendant of John Bell at that time was Nashville physician, Dr. Charles Bailey Bell.  Dr. Bell himself wrote a book about the "Bell Witch," published in 1934.  No follow-up was published, and Dr. Bell died  in 1945.



The 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 today.  The 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.

The cause of the Bells’ torment almost 200 years ago, as well as today's horrid, unexplainable manifestations, remains a mystery.  Numerous theories abound, but there is no one theory that is universally agreed upon by Bell Witch enthusiasts and researchers -- and there probably never will be.  Different people have different standards of proof.  Most do agree that there was "something" very wrong at the Red River Settlement in the early 1800s, and that there may very well be "something" wrong there today.

Who 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) 1998-2017, Pat Fitzhugh; All rights reserved.  Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


~ More Information on the Bell Witch ~

For detailed analyses of the legend's key issues and implications, please visit the Essays page.  For historical information about the legend's main characters, visit the Biographies page.  See the links to your left, and below, for a comprehensive list of topics covered on this site.

Also visit  This Facebook Page.

Archived radio discussions may be found here.

For a comprehensive, well-documented account of the Bell Witch and the history behind the legend, read "The Bell Witch: The Full Account."


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