Tennessee Ghosts and Legends

Episode 10: The Bell Witch of Robertson County

June 26, 2022 Lyle Russell Season 1 Episode 10
Tennessee Ghosts and Legends
Episode 10: The Bell Witch of Robertson County
Show Notes Transcript

In the early 1800's John Bell and his family were tormented by a witch that took up residence at their cabin in Red River, Tennessee. Why did the witch hate John Bell so much? And what about his young daughter, Betsy? Join me for a jaunt through Tennessee's most famous haunting, The Bell Witch.

Welcome to the Season one finale of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. My name is Lyle Russell. I am your host, and I love a good ghost story. On today’s show, I’ve saved the best for last. I’ll share with you the trials and tribulations endured by the Bell family and some highlights of Tennessee’s most famous haunting, The Bell Witch of Robertson County.

The Legend:

John Bell moved from North Carolina to Tennessee in 1804 with his wife, Lucy, and their six children. He purchased 320 prime acres in Robertson County in Red River, which is now modern-day Adams, Tennessee. Their aim was agriculture, as was the same for many families moving westward to grow orchards, raise his family, and launch a political career. Bell was soon elected to local office and became influential both about the town of Red River and in his church. It is said he was deeply religious and gave fiery speeches both politically and spiritually that moved people to tears. This influence and popularity made him wealthy, and with that wealth he built a school and hired a teacher for his ten children and also his neighbor’s children for a private education. All was right with John Bell’s world. He was a successful farmer, preacher, politician, and had four more children with Lucy since they moved to Tennessee. Then came the day he met the witch.

In the summer of 1817, it is said John was inspecting parts of his corn field that had fallen to a sudden blight when a large dog-like creature appeared before him in the rows. He tried to scare it off by hollering and making noise, thinking it to be a lone wolf or coyote, but the animal stubbornly sat and glared at him with a fierce snarl. The audacity of the beast to stand it’s ground angered John. He fired at it with his rifle and narrowly missed, but it was enough. The creature sauntered off through the corn rows and out of his sight. The next day, his son Drewry reported to his father that a large, strange-looking bird at least twice the size of a turkey was perched on their fence through the morning while John was attending business in town. Drewry said he’d never seen another bird like it. He tried to scare it off, but the bird would not move despite his attempts to scare it. Finally, it went away after several hours of sitting on the post and staring at the cabin. John investigated over the next few days looking for signs of the bird but found nothing. A few days later, his youngest daughter, Betsy, told her father she had seen a young girl in a green dress under the big oak tree at the road, but when she tried to approach and introduce herself, the girl ran off into the cornfield and disappeared. Finally, one of John’s servants named Dean told him a strange black dog that was seen in the cornfield followed him each night on his walk home, and he begged Mr. Bell to please either kennel the dog if it was his or kill it if it wasn’t so it wouldn’t attack him. John assured the man he did not own any such dog, but he would keep a watch. Shortly after, it is said that Dean always carried an axe with him just in case the dog came after him. His wife also made him a talisman called a “witch ball” to protect her husband from evil spirits.

For a short time, the strange incidents around the farm calmed and things seemed to be back to normal. There were occasional unexplained noises and bumps in the night, but none were reason for alarm. Then suddenly and without warning, the witch decided to make herself known.

One night in 1818, John’s middle son, Richard Williams Bell, was startled awake when his hair was pulled so hard it nearly yanked him out of bed. While he screamed out, Betsy started screaming from across the hall that her hair was pulled, too. Other minor things of a strange nature occurred around the Bell home over the following days like loud knocking, thrown objects, things being knocked over, and none could be explained. John did his best to ignore them out of embarrassment that his neighbors would think him mad. But every night thereafter, each of the children experienced more torment: hair pulling, scratches, being yanked from the bed, covers pulled off of them while sleeping, chairs being knocked over, and constant loud knocking and banging. Before long, his wife Lucy began to think the family was cursed. She pleaded with her husband to talk to someone from the church and get help. John was stubborn to ask for help but finally relented out of desperation. He confided in his best friend and fellow preacher, James Johnston. He begged him to help rid the Bell family of whatever this malady was and restore their standing before God.

James was unsure what to do, never having received such a request. John invited James and his wife to spend an evening at their home and witness the strangeness for themselves. On the first night, the group enjoyed a large meal, sang hymns, and held group prayers to bless each of the family members before bed. All was well until the last tallow candle was extinguished. Then, the witch began a raucous tirade that kept everyone in the house awake the entire night. The children were slapped and scratched; their hair was pulled relentlessly. In the room prepared for the Johnstons, their blankets were snatched off the bed throughout the night, chairs were turned over, and items flew across the room. James, believing they were dealing with some sort of demon, tried to communicate with the restless spirit and banish it from the house, but nothing would stop the assaults on them and the Bell family.

James told John that this situation was beyond his ability to help, but maybe others could. He told John to advertise for assistance to see if anyone had ideas on how to rid the Bell family of this tormentor. John was reluctant, but desperate for help, he began asking others to come witness the witch themselves and offer suggestions on how to rid them of her. James Johnson stayed with the Bells a while and tried to convince visitors to talk with the witch and see if she would respond. Before long, the raspy whispers and whistling sounds became a voice that could be distinctly heard by everyone present. Before long, she identified herself as Kate Batts, a former neighbor of John Bell who thought he cheated her in a real estate transaction. John did not recall her, but she definitely recalled him. The Bell Witch was now communicating with visitors, proving James’ theory that the spirit was intelligent. While all of this was transpiring, the nightly abuse of the Bell family continued, primarily on John himself and the youngest daughter, Betsy. Lucy Bell and the other children were largely spared, but poor Betsy was unmercifully tortured along with her father.

Over a short time, the witch’s voice became loud and unmistakable; a raspy female whisper that would sing hymns, quote scripture, and repeat sermons she apparently had heard in the town’s churches. The story of the talking witch grew far and wide as her antics continued, escalating violently once young Betsy and a neighboring suitor, Joshua Gardner became a couple. Their engagement enraged Kate and she assaulted Betsy and John relentlessly with slaps, bites, and scratches, and constantly threatened to kill John Bell. Eventually, Joshua and Betsy broke off their engagement out of fear, and the attacks subsided for a while on her. John Bell was not so fortunate as the malicious poltergeist ratcheted up her hatred of him, nicknaming him “Ol’ Jack Bell” and cursing him throughout the day. John’s health declined rapidly into seizures, loss of muscle control in his face, digestive problems, and of course, the verbal and physical abuse from Kate.

The talking witch became a wildly popular spectacle. A steady stream of visitors came to see and hear this bizarre phenomenon for themselves, included General Andrew Jackson in 1819, who it is said met the witch on the road several miles from the Bell farm. Jackson, skeptical of the talking witch reports but always up for an adventure, gathered some close friends and equipment to build a camp on the farm, then set out from his home at the Hermitage towards the town of Red River. Reports say that as Jackson’s caravan approached the farm, his luggage carriage was suddenly stricken on the dry and well-traveled road and the wheels froze in place like they were frozen or stuck in deep mud. The men pulled with horses and pushed from behind with all they could muster but the carriage would not budge. When Jackson jokingly declared, “By the eternal boys, this must be the doings of the witch.”, a disembodied voice from the woods taunted his caravan with a warning, saying “All right, General, let the wagon move on and I will see you tonight.” Suddenly, the wagon wheels rolled with ease and the caravan tepidly continued onward. Jackson and his party spent a night encamped on the farm, and the events he supposedly witnessed quickly made him a believer that the witch was real.

One of the events that cemented that belief occurred when one of Jackson’s men declared himself a “Witch layer” or a “Witch Hunter,” and bragged with stories of how he had hunted down and then shot dead other witches. Jackson leaned in and whispered to one of his men, “I bet this fellow is an errant coward. By the eternal, I do wish the thing would come, I want to see him run.” Suddenly the gathering heard light footfalls prancing, at that moment the same disembodied female voice from earlier announced, “Alright general, I am at hand and ready for business.” The voice then demanded the Witch Hunter shoot but when he tried his gun did not fire. The braggart was then struck by an unseen force as he twisted around, he shouted that something was sticking painful pins into him. He then cried out that something had him by the nose. All were silent as he was forced about then they watched as he ran from the tent. The witch chimed in once more, “How the devil did run and beg. I bet he won’t come through here again with his old horse pistol to shoot me.” The gathering then heard, “I guess that’s fun enough for tonight general, and you can go to bed now. I will come tomorrow night and show you another rascal in this crowd.” It is said that after this Jackson was eager to stay and see what else the witch had planned but his men, having had enough, insisted they move on. Jackson’s party struck camp the next morning and returned to Nashville. 

Three more peculiar incidents are told by others who experienced the witch’s tale that are worth mentioning. In the first one, a family friend of the Bells named William Porter spent a night to try and ascertain for himself if this witch was real or imagined. He claimed that in the middle of the night, the witch climbed into his bed where he lay waiting, capturing the invisible figure in the bed linens. He then attempted to throw her into the fireplace wrapped in the blankets, but after trapping her, he could not budge her weight and she suddenly disappeared, leaving behind a putrid, sulfur-like smell.

In the second incident, the witch was purportedly fond of religious sermons despite calling herself a witch and loved to recite her favorites word for word. One claim is that she repeated verbatim two different sermons: one given by the Reverend James Gunn at Bethel Methodist Church and the other being the sermon of Reverend Sugg Fort spoken at Red River Baptist Church. What makes this claim unique is these sermons occurred at the nearly same time over twelve miles apart from each other. Had the silver-tongued witch been a hoax, how could she have knowledge of both sermons spoken at the same time yet so far apart?

Finally, the witch allegedly interacted with passers-by of the farm, including religious missionaries and Shakers, thrill seekers who came for the spectacle of it all, and neighbors like Bennett Porter who is said to have shot at the canine manifestation of the witch with a silver bullet, a nod to the popular belief on how to kill werewolves. Each had encounters where Kate would chase them off in the form of the strange dog John Bell saw the very first time he met the witch, or she would conjure objects to frighten them away. There is also a claim that she had the power to transform others into animals. The Bell’s servant Dean claimed she turned him into a mule and taunted him. That’s when the story says his wife gave him the Witch Ball. Claims of her interactions and powers grew wilder with every tale.

John Bell finally gave up the ghost in December of 1820 after falling into a coma and years of abuse at the witch’s hands. The witch claimed to have poisoned John and even told the family where they could find the proof. John Junior was his father’s caretaker, and when he went to the cupboard to retrieve his medicines, the witch cackled with glee, saying, “It’s useless for you to try to relieve Old Jack – I have got him this time; he will never get up from that bed again!” In the cupboard, in place of where John’s medicine would be was a vial of putrid black liquid. She claimed of the vial that she “gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was fast asleep, which fixed him.” 

The legend says they tested the liquid on a cat, and it died almost instantly from the poison, then tossed the vial into the fireplace to destroy it. The ensuing explosion caused a blue fireball that shot up through the chimney. Kate even haunted John’s funeral, taunting the mourners until the last one left the cemetery. After John died, Kate promised Lucy Bell she would leave for seven years, but would return. Kate made good on that promise, returning to visit John Jr., and staying for three weeks with him. At that time, she promised to leave again for 107 years and would return to visit John Jr.’s direct descendant, who turned out to be a Nashville doctor and John Bell’s great grandson named Charles. Since then, Kate has been silent. Where she went, no one knows.

The Likely Truth:

There is no shortage of documentation of this story. Articles, books, websites, and movies have all been made about Tennessee’s—and arguably America’s—most famous haunting. The Bell family are real people with real history, and their farm is a verifiable place. Early versions of the legend were questionable but well documented in a book titled, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by M.V. Ingram written in 1894. It was again documented with descendant accounts written by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, John Bell’s great-grandson. While there is little real-world explanation for the strange happenings to the Bell family, one part of the story might have some scientific explanation.

John Bell is said to have died because the witch poisoned him. There is little doubt he could have been poisoned, but there are other symptoms talked about in Richard Williams Bell’s eyewitness book, Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. In it, Richard defines many of his father’s worsening symptoms up until his death. In modern medicine, everything he describes in the book is an indicator of a possible neurological condition brought on by gradual arsenic poisoning. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element and was readily found in many every-day items on farms during that era. The poison could have found its way into John’s system naturally. As for the vial of black liquid found in the kitchen cupboard, the origin of it is anyone’s guess. Testing the theory on the barn cat could provide additional evidence that it was indeed some type of arsenic. The description of the cat’s quick death is potentially explainable, since cats lack a metabolism process that arsenic can tap in to, making it extremely deadly to felines. 

To destroy the deadly fluid, the family is said to have thrown it into a fireplace which suddenly erupted in blue flames. The blue flame and random liquid are hardly evidence of a supernatural origin. There are any number of liquid elements commonly found on a farm that could result in a flame burning blue. What isn’t so easily explained, however, is the nightly commotion and physical abuse of the family by the witch. No definitive explanation has ever been found on why she focused her hatred on John and young Betsy so much.

Betsy’s story is the strangest of the Bell children. All accounts of Betsy and Joshua’s doomed relationship agree that they could find no refuge and no peace, and that the witch would pester them relentlessly, forbidding them to get married and physically assaulting Betsy. Accounts differ on the break-up timing of Betsy and Joshua, with some versions saying it happened before John Bell died, others say it was after. Another version says Betsy spurned an older suitor, which was ironically her former teacher at the school her father built. The teacher was believed to be involved in the occult and that when she chose Joshua instead of him that he cursed them for it and summoned the witch to torment the Bells. Further investigation hints that she broke off with Joshua and eventually married her former schoolteacher after all, moving with him to Mississippi in 1820 just to escape the torment of the witch. Supposedly once she left, the witch never bothered her again. There are some who believe the only reason the witch let her be after that is because the teacher released the curse.

As for Andrew Jackson’s visit, the former President owned multiple parcels near Red River and had visited there several times, so his presence in Robertson County may just be coincidence. His signature has been authenticated on more than one deed record there with some of the parcels not far from the Bell’s farm. Jackson was also known to visit the men who he fought beside in New Orleans. Three of John Bell’s sons (John Jr., Drewry, and Jesse Bell) fought under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, and it’s possible he was checking in on his former comrades while having a passing interest in the witch story. Given his history of possessing a freewheeling and adventurous spirit, it is very possible he sought out the Bell home just for the entertainment value. There are supposedly two quotes attributed to him after witnessing one of the witch’s tirades. First, he claimed “visiting her was more fun than fighting the British.” Second, he is said to have told his men, "I would rather fight the British again at New Orleans than fight the Bell Witch."

Stories differ on where and how the witch revealed herself and where she came from. One version tells the witch as verbalizing her origin by saying, “I am a Spirit and once was very happy, but I have been disturbed and made unhappy.  I was buried in the woods nearby and the grave was disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered. One of my teeth was lost under this house.  I am here to find that tooth.” While there is no verifiable proof of this claim, several native American burial sites are on and near the Bell property. Another tale says the witch claimed a more spiritual origin by saying, “I am from everywhere, Heaven, Hell, the earth; am in the air, the houses and the churches. I am any place at any time, and I was created millions of years ago.” 

The Bell Witch is said to have manifested twice more after John Bell’s death, once in 1828 and again in 1935. For the first visit, she reportedly made good on her promise to return and visited John Bell, Jr. for three weeks, though no violence came with her. It is said she offered him insight to the spirit world in which she now lived and the worlds beyond. They spoke of philosophy, religion and she made predictions of a coming war, which turned out to be the Civil War. 

Banking on the legend’s popularity, Dr. Charles Bailey Bell took advantage of Kate’s second predicted return and published a book just before the appointed year with an accounting of the witch’s three-week discussions with John Jr. based on notes passed down through the family. His book, titled A Mysterious Spirit: The Bell Witch of Tennessee, covers the topics Kate supposedly spoke with John Bell Jr. about as well as conversations with some of the servants, and included other Bell children’s accounts of the infamous haunting of their home. Dr. Bell died in 1945 without telling anyone if Kate made good on her second predicted visit or not.

Finally, there was a real Mary Catherine Batts that lived in the area around Red River who went by Kate. Her brother-in-law named Benjamin had a dispute with John Bell over the sale of a slave, but the facts become distorted with each telling of that tale, with Benjamin being changed to Kate having disputes with John before she died, and then threatening him beyond the grave. One fact that can be proven is that the real Kate Batts outlived John Bell and leaves many descendants still living around the area. In life, she was a strange person that people tried to avoid. Many thought her peculiar ways were evidence of her involvement in witchcraft and the occult, though it was never proven. Even though Kate being the witch is the popular theory, it is likely the witch named in this haunting was not her.

Today, Adams, Tennessee has a cottage industry centered around the tale of the witch. The Bell Farm has a cave where the witch supposedly lived but was not mentioned at all in the original legends. Visitors can also tour the Bell Farm and a recreation of the original cabin, complete with artifacts owned by the Bells and news clippings from that era talking about the witch and her antics. The cave had very little to do with the legend at the time, but visitors after the famous haunting legend claim to have strange and unexplained events happen in its depths. These bizarre happenings have kept the legend alive over 200 years since the witch tormented John Bell. Paranormal investigators and enthusiasts, as well as the general public still make the pilgrimage to visit the site of Tennessee’s most famous haunting in Adams and see things for themselves. If you happen to make the trip, be sure to tread lightly and try not to give the witch a reason to come back home with you for her next visit.

END

Thank you for listening to the season one finale of the Tennessee Ghosts and Legends Podcast. I am grateful you decided to listen, and I am thankful for all the wonderful support of my listeners. I would like to invite you to visit my website, www.lylerussell.net to keep up with the other stories I’m working on, or if you’d like to leave a note about the podcast and leave a suggestion for episodes you would like to hear in Season 2. 

I am your host, Lyle Russell, and remember, the dead may seem scary, but it’s the living you should be wary of. Until next season.