Halloween Hauntings 2:
OLD HICKORY & THE BELL WITCH
“A volume might be written concerning the performance of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted.”
—–Albert Goodpasture, 1886
Much has been written about the supernatural doings between 1818 and 1820 in Adams, Tennessee. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I devoted two full chapters to the Bell Witch, and in my latest effort, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, I discuss her along with other Tennessee witches. Although referred to as the Bell Witch, it was neither a witch, nor did it belong to the Bell family, although they were the ones mainly bedeviled by it.
It began innocently enough; knockings and scrapings at night; then strange creatures were sighted in broad daylight. John Bell, the patriarch of the family, at first thought it was just some local youths playing pranks on his family. But soon it became clear to him and his family that no humans were causing the sounds and other physical phenomena. Then one night it began to attack members of the family—notably John Bell and his beautiful daughter Betsy. Quilts were pulled from the bed in the dark of the night, and Betsy and the others were violently assaulted by unseen hands; scratching and slapping and biting. Yet there was nothing and no one to be seen.
At first the Bells only discussed the incidents among themselves, calling it “Our Family Troubles.” Eventually word got out about the malevolent poltergeist haunting their home. First their neighbors visted to see what was up; then the curious came from farther away came to see it for themselves. Fame of the Mysterious Spirit spread far and wide.
At times the spirit was just mischievous and amusing; but it could turn vicious at a whim. Moreover, it seemed to be aware of goings on over the whole community, traversing great distances unseen.
The unearthly phenomenon even attracted the attention of the famous General Jackson, who mounted an expedition to get to the bottom of the haunting. He arrived with a wagon and an entourage of skeptics. First Jackson’s wagon became frozen on the road–until he acknowledged the Witch’s reality. Then that night, one of Jackson’s entourage thought he could outsmart the invisible spirit–instead the would be witch-slayer became the object of the entity’s wrath and was driven out of the house. Although Jackson was all for staying, his followers decided to flee for the safety of Nashville–the first time General Jackson was ever forced to retreat!
Many of the disturbances focused on the beautiful, buxom Betsy Bell, and the spirit—by now called The Bell Witch—took a personal interest in the girl, to the point of telling her to break up with her fiancée, and threatening violence if she didn’t.
Ultimately Betsy married the local schoolteacher and moved to Mississippi with him. As for her father, it was said he was poisoned by the witch; but who the witch really was, no one could say.
A local matron of common birth but ample girth, Kate Batts, was named by some as the culprit. While Kate Batts had a number of personal oddities in her behavior, for all of that she was a God-fearing woman and no one dared accuse her to her face. Indeed, her modern descendants I have talked to say she was more sinned against than sinning by John Bell. The Bell family today has a different story, needless to say.
Still, when Kate died, cats howled around her grave in a most uncanny way and such a dread fell on her resting place that no one dared approach it. Her grave became overgrown and forgotten and to this day its location is not known.
As the historian Goodpasture declared, a book could be written about the Bell bewitchment—and have. In fact, quite a number of books, plus two plays and an opera at last count. Still, no one has fully plumbed the mystery—nor can it be said that the Bell Witch has ever truly gone away from Adams.
This brief post cannot hope to tell you all you need to know before you go to Adams; for further reading see, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and my more recent Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.
Go there, if you dare, and see for yourself