Copyright (c) 1998-2013, 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.
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.
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.
such haunting is the legend of the so-called “Bell
Witch,” a sinister entity that tormented a pioneer family on Tennessee’s
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."
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
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 was also 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
was born in 1811; Joel
was born in 1813.
homestead. From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram,
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
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.
History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.
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
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,
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.
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
Andrew Jackson took a keen interest.
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
entourage. From Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram,
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.
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.
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.
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.
History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.
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.
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.
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.
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.
History of the Bell Witch, M.V. Ingram, 1894.
Bell's funeral was one of the largest ever held in Robertson County,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) 1998-2013, 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.
discussions may be found here.
comprehensive, well-documented account of the Bell Witch and the history behind the legend, read "The
Bell Witch: The Full Account."