Ahh, the Bell Witch. As far as haunts go, she’s famous.
That’s not to say that her story is more important than that of Marie Laveau (the Vodou Queen of New Orleans), or the Salt Witch (the crone who haunts the Nebraska plains), as all witches are notable in their own right.
But for over 200 years, the story of the Bell Witch continues to baffle historians, paranormal investigators, and the inhabitants of Adams, Tennessee. To this day, the Bell Witch’s motives are still unknown, but everyone can agree that she wanted nothing more than to see John Bell take his last breath.
In December of 1820, her wish came true.
But let’s start a few years earlier, when John Bell and his family left North Carolina for the wild woods of Tennessee.
In the beginning, life was good for John, his wife Lucy, and their growing brood of children. It wasn’t long before the family acquired over 300 acres of land, much of which John cleared for farming.
As the story goes, one day, John was taking a stroll through his cornfields and came across a mysterious creature. At first, he thought it was a dog, but on closer inspection, he saw that it had the head of a rabbit. Unsure what to do since he’d never seen anything like this before, John raised his rifle and set the creature in his crosshairs.
But as soon as the first shot rang out, the creature vanished.
John was perplexed, but not worried. Seeing as how he was new to the area, he assumed that he’d likely stumbled upon a new species. He returned to his house, ate supper, and didn’t think about it again until later that night when something equally as mysterious woke him from a sound sleep.
Boom! Thump! Crash!
The Bell house shook violently as if it were on the verge of splintering apart. John and his sons flew out of bed and raced outside. With sleep still in their eyes and rifles in hand, the Bell men readied themselves to take on any intruder, whether it be human or animal.
But there was no one. The night was still.
John was bewildered, but still not worried. Once again, he chalked it up to the local wildlife.
But the next night, things took a darker turn. As the Bell children slumbered, an invisible entity ripped every blanket and pillow from their beds and threw the linens across the room. Frightened and unable to fall back asleep, the children sat rooted to their naked mattresses, listening in silence as something gnawed on the foot of their beds.
Then, the following morning, the whispers started.
At first, the murmurs were so faint that the Bells blamed the drafty house. But as each night passed and the attacks on the children became more aggressive, the whispers turned to words—or more accurately, curses.
And so starts the story of the Bell Witch.
Sometimes the Bell Witch would sing, sometimes she would screech, but mainly she spat poison at John Bell.
In search of answers, the family responded to the Bell Witch and asked her name. She revealed that she was no stranger, but the spirit of Kate Batts, the Bell’s former neighbor. She insisted that John Bell had cheated her, although she never shared the details.
Sometimes the dialogue between the Bells and ‘Kate’ was civil, but mostly the Bell Witch said and did whatever she could to make their lives unbearable. She threw dishes, slapped the children, and made sure that nobody had a good night’s sleep. She let them know that she wouldn’t be going anywhere until John Bell was in the ground. She also requested that John’s favorite daughter, Betsy, call off her engagement to classmate Joshua Gardner.
In the beginning, the Bells kept their paranormal woes a secret. After all, nobody wanted to be associated with a witch. But after a year of torment, John started inviting neighbors and other interested folks into their home so they could experience the wrath of the Bell Witch.
During this time, John’s health began to diminish. He adopted facial tics and complained of trouble swallowing. But despite his waning spirit, word of the Bell Witch spread like wildfire. It even caught the attention of the famed Major General and soon to be president, Andrew Jackson.
When Jackson heard of the commotion on the Bell’s farm, he and his entourage headed to Adams straight away. But just as they made it to the farm, the wheels of their carriage locked up. No matter how much the horses strained and pulled, the carriage would not budge. After much time spent inspecting the wheels, Jackson allegedly yelled, “By the eternal, boys, it is the Witch!”
To his surprise, a women’s voice rang out from behind the trees, “All right General, let the wagon move on. I’ll see you again tonight.” As if nothing had happened, the wheels unlocked, and the carriage continued to the farmhouse.
As she promised, the Bell Witch returned that evening while Jackson and his entourage were settling in for the night. One of his disciples, who claimed to be a witch hunter, was in the midst of showing off his prized possession—a gun loaded with a silver bullet. He insisted that this weapon could kill any ghost, witch, or demon that dare come his way. Before the imposter could finish his speech, the Bell Witch (who was undoubtedly watching this spectacle with delight) slapped the gun out of his hand, stabbed him repeatedly with invisible needles, and kicked him out the front door.
Jackson and his entourage left early the next morning, and little more is known about their visit to the Bell’s farm. But, while the details are lost to the ages, it’s safe to say that the Bell Witch left a lasting impact on the general. He was quoted as saying, “I would rather fight the British in New Orleans than have to fight the Bell Witch.”
With Jackson gone, the Bells were back at square one. Despite all the attention that their family received, nobody offered a solution that would rid the property of this otherworldly visitor.
As the months wore on, John’s health continued to decline, and in October of 1820, he fell ill and went on bed rest. A few weeks later, the family discovered that John was barely breathing. He was confused, anxious, and seemingly on the verge of death. John Jr. ran to the medicine cabinet to fetch his father’s medication, but in its place was a mysterious vial.
Upon this discovery, the Bell Witch began cackling. Why yes, that was me! Can’t you see that I poisoned your father? Go ahead and taste it if you don’t believe me. But choose wisely, as it will be the last thing you ever do…
John Bell took his last breath shortly after, and the Bell Witch celebrated her victory by singing loudly at his funeral.
With John finally in the ground, the Bell Witch could focus all her attention on Betsy, who was still madly in love with her fiancée. But something had shifted inside of the girl. Perhaps the loss of her father had weakened her spirit, or maybe she accepted that she was no match for the Bell Witch, but Betsy called off her engagement to Gardner a few months later.
The Bell Witch, having achieved all that she set out to do, bid adieu to the Bell family with the promise to return in seven years.
True to her word, seven years after she ended her reign of terror, the Bell Witch appeared for her meeting with John’s widow (although some say that it was his son, John Jr.). Much of the conversation remains a mystery, but rumors say that they discussed life, death, and what comes after. But the most notable takeaway from the Bell Witch’s visit was her prediction of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
So was the Bell Witch really the spirit of former neighbor, Kate Batts?
Some say yes, but others insist that like most ghost stories, the tale of the Bell Witch is not what it seems.
Some theories claim an ancient cave on the Bell’s property contains a portal to the spirit world. Combine that anomaly with the Native American burial ground resting atop the cave (that John undoubtedly disturbed when clearing farmland), and it’s easy to see a recipe for disaster.
But perhaps the most popular theory has to do with Richard Powell, a man that was extremely close to the Bell Family. In addition to being a friend of the Bells, Powell was Betsy’s schoolteacher. Despite their age difference, Powell approached John and Lucy about marrying their daughter when she came of age. Much to the schoolteacher’s despair, John told Powell that Betsy was already betrothed to Gardner. Powell wished Betsy the best of luck with her suitor and moved on.
Or so it seemed.
Several schoolchildren within the small community of Adams saw Powell practicing magick when he thought he was alone. Some even caught glimpses of his book of shadows, which he called a ‘ciphering book.’ While it’s unknown how deeply involved Powell was in the Occult, and by what means he summoned the Bell Witch and convinced her to do his bidding, the why is much easier to pin down.
Her name was Betsy.
Three years after she called off her engagement to Gardner, Betsy accepted Powell’s marriage proposal.
As they say, the rest is history.
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