The Bell Witch  

Posted by Tony Hays

When I was a little boy, my brother, Ronnie, told me that if you dialed a certain telephone number, you would reach the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee and hear her screech. Dutifully and curious, I dialed the number as instructed. You did hear a screech, but I think it had more to do with telephone circuits than the supernatural. But, in Tennessee and throughout the country, the witch was a true phenomenon. Few houses back then didn't have a copy of the infamous Red Book, written by 19th century newspaper editor M.V.B. Ingram, that detailed the witch's treachery, beginning in 1817. Nearly 200 years have passed since its alleged first appearance, but the Bell Witch story is still alive and well, evidence the movie An American Haunting with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek.

According to the basic story, a paranormal entity (exhibiting poltergeist-like behavior) harassed the John Bell family of Adams, Tennessee starting in 1817. The "witch," frequently called Kate, was particularly cruel to John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, being eventually credited with causing John's death. It was said to slap and pinch Betsy mercilessly. Once it caused John's tongue to swell so that he could neither speak nor eat. Apparently, though, it had a soft spot for John's wife, Lucy, once treating her to grapes (appearing from thin air) when she was sick. A disembodied voice would regale visitors of happenings in the neighborhood or repeating, word-for-word two sermons given at the same time, but miles apart. According to Ingram's account, it was phenomena witnessed by many in the community and was widely spoken of throughout the region. Spinoff stories told of Andrew Jackson's encounter with the witch. The witch remained until 1820 and the death of John Bell. It promised to return at a specific time in the future, which the Red Book says it did. Included in Ingram's book is an eyewitness account written by one of John Bell's sons.

All of that said, there are problems with the story. It's not like the David Lang story that I spoke of last week. John Bell and his family were unquestionably real, living exactly where they were alleged to have lived. A few years ago, I took it upon myself to annotate the Red Book, tracking down as many of the people mentioned as best I could. The people were real. Ingram's book contains numerous interviews with people who witnessed those long ago events or whose parents did, allegedly. But here's the thing. While north central Tennessee was still, truly, a frontier at the time of the events in question, there were area newspapers. Extant copies are silent on the Bell affair. It is alleged that the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on the story in 1849, but the issues for that year do not exist any longer and so can't be checked. Ingram's account did not appear until 1894. There are absolutely no corroborating documents to support the Andrew Jackson encounter.

But the families named did exist. Their descendants were living in the area at the time that Ingram's book was released. Were the entire affair fabricated by Ingram, I sincerely doubt that those descendants would all have remained unanimously silent. Somebody would surely have disputed the account, unless they too had been hearing the story their entire lives.

It is a mystery. And is destined to remain one. All that I can say with any certainty is that the world contains many things that we do not understand, and most probably will never understand. This may be one of them.

(Thanks to my friend Woodson Marshall for prodding me on this.)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 1:32 PM . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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