The tale of the Bell Witch begins in the early 1800’s when a man by the name of John Bell and his family began experiencing paranormal phenomenon in a quiet farmhouse in the northern part of Robertson county Tennessee.
Bell had settled in the area from North Carolina in 1804 and become a deacon in the Red River Baptist Church as well as a respected businessman in the area. His family had lived a peaceful life for several years before they began to experience the phenomena brought about by the spirit.
The family began to see and hear strange things that would escalate quickly. It began with sounds such as stones falling onto wooden floors, strange choking noises, and dragging chains. Later, physical attacks on the family started. These attacks seemed to focus on John and his daughter Betsy, who was around 15 at the time. They included hair pulling, scratching, and a strange twitching phenomenon that would overtake John on occasion.
In 1820, John Bell died of poisoning. Many feel that the spirit that haunted the house was responsible for the poisoning. By this time the entity had gained the energy to speak and indeed took credit for the poisoning. The story goes so far as to state that the spirit was said to gleefully sing at his grave as Bell was being lowered into the ground. (John Bell on FindAGrave) Following this, and the disillusion of Betsy’s engagement a year later, the spirit left the family house. However, she swore that she would return 7 years later.
In 7 years the spirit returned for two weeks and was said to have spoken with John Bell Jr. regarding the past haunting and give predictions for the future. On her second departure, she stated that she would return in 107 years. Many in the area, however, stated a belief that the spirit never left the area as many strange occurrences continued to occur there.
A series of newspaper articles from the Nashville Tennesseean in 1937 suggest that the witch may have made her return that year. The various articles detail strange events in late summer that were reported in the area around the witch’s original visit. One man, Louis Garrison, reported the sound of a “convoy of birds” near the cave but upon inspection found none. Another incident produced a report of a strange white figure standing on a cliff overlooking a community outing. A Tennessee Folklore Sampler: Selections from the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin (1935-2009)
Some in the area believed that the spirit was, in fact, Bell’s neighbor Kate Batts who had visited the family as a witch to do the nefarious deeds. After a short time, the spirit came to be known interchangeably as “Kate” or the “Bell Witch”. In fact, it was said to call itself Kate on occasion. However, it appears unclear as to why Mrs. Batts would have wanted to cause so much pain to the Bell family. (Catherine Batts on FindAGrave)
While many theories surround the question of just why Kate Batts would have such a strong dislike of John Bell the most plausible involves illegal action from Bell during the sale of a slave that occurred between John and Kate’s husband Frederick Batts in 1817.
Another possible link that has been made between Kate Batts and John Bell that would give a reason for her to cause the violent haunting is speculation of great jealousy on her part. Bell was considered a very well to do and highly respected Christian man in his community before his excommunication from the church. Kate, on the other hand, came from a family that was generally looked down upon. Although she did well for her family and they owned vast property, her husband Frederick was unable to work and her sons were considered small and weak compared to others in the community.
Her daughter, Mary, was generally well thought of in the community. Some believe that jealousy of Betsy Bell gaining a suitor that Kate had wanted for her daughter Mary caused the hatred and jealousy. An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch
excerpt from The Infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee
The Presidential History
The events of that occurred in the Bell household were so audacious that they drew the attention of then General Andrew Jackson. John Bell and his sons had served under Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans and word of the haunting had spread far enough to reach him.
By this time, the spirit had gained enough strength to speak fully. She was preaching sermons, quoting scripture, and still causing physical manifestations on the members of the Bell family. It is said that she gave warning to Jackson and his companions upon their arrival. However, the visit proved to be otherwise uneventful until one man boasted that the witch was frightened of them. Soon after the man befell a physical attack and was forced out of the door. Although Jackson was not particularly swayed that the haunting was real the group was gone by the next morning. Haunted Tennessee: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Volunteer State
The Poltergeist Theory
One author, DJ Lyons, proposes that the haunting in the Bell household was not a witch brought about by Kate Batts at all but rather a poltergeist experience. This could account for the fact that many of the experiences occurred in and around the house as well as the fact that they seemed to center around certain individuals.
More information on the poltergeist theory can be found in her book Bell Witch Unveiled at Last! The True Story of a Poltergeist.
Regardless of the type of haunting that has existed at the Bell property since the 1800’s, it has become an event that has made its mark on not only Tennessee folklore but American popular media as a whole.
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