The Bell Witch Through the Ages
My first exposure to the Bell Witch was through the now infamous movie The Blair Witch Project. Having grown up in Tennessee, I'd always been vaguely aware of the stories of the Bell Witch, but I had always thought that the 1999 film was the only place where these legends intersected with popular culture. I never really gave much thought to how long it had been around, or how well known it was. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when I came across an article entitled “Psychoanalyzing the Bell Witch” in an issue of Fate magazine from 1952. As it turns out, the Bell Witch has lived a long and active life, and seeing as today is Halloween, I thought it would be a fitting time to examine the legend and it's history.
The core of the legend tells that the Bell family were farmers who lived in Adams, Tennessee in the early 1800's. In 1817, the family came under the attack of a witch, who was believed to be Kate Batts. Some accounts describe her as woman who had been cheated by the father, John Bell Sr., while others describe her as a slave whom he had killed. Regardless, the legend tells that phenomena began to occur such as strange noises in the walls, pinching or slapping, objects being moved or thrown, and farm animals acting fearfully. Much of the legend centered around the torment of Betsy, the daughter of the family. Some tellings end the haunting with the death of John Bell Sr.
Having originated in 1817, you can imagine that the legend of the Bell Witch has a long history of believers and skeptics. There are obviously a number of interpretations with a variety of details. Regardless of which side you fall on though, it's fascinating how captivating the tale has been. Some even say that the legend caught the attention of President Andrew Jackson, who was a resident of Tennessee, though there are, of course, also many people who object to this claim.
The first known printed account of the haunting was a paragraph in Goodspeed's History of Tennessee from 1886, which described the Bell Witch as a poltergeist whose antics attracted widespread interest and provoked tourism from across the country. In this telling the witch, always invisible to human eyes, was bold enough to converse with residents and visitors, sometimes going so far as to shake their hands. She was originally believed to be amusing, and only came to be viewed negatively after her antics took a somewhat darker turn.
The next account, from 1896, is M. V. Ingram's An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. It provides a full narrative of the events that took place and contains what is purported to be the diary of Robert Williams Bell. Some consider this the authoritative and truthful accounting of what occurred. There are a number of skeptics. The books has been attacked as a hoax by a number of people. Why would the author of the diary wait 30 years to record the haunting? Why has no one ever seen this diary first hand? Additionally, Ingram himself was known to have committed fraud on at least one other occaission. Either way, it was the first thoroughly descriptive telling of the Bell Witch legend and it is cited as the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project and for An American Haunting. This version is much darker, and it is the source of many of the details associated with the legend today. The witch was described as terrifyingly violent, causing seizures and illness and endlessly harassing the residents of the home. This book was the source of the identity of the Bell Witch, which named her as Kate Batts, an old neighbor of the Bells who believed that she had been wrongly cheated out of some land.
From here, examinations of the Bell Witch became more common and increasingly difficult to track down. The legend was mentioned briefly in the Guidebook of Tennessee in 1933, again assuming the role of a fairly harmless poltergeist. There was also a publication in 1934, called The Bell Witch: A Mysterious Spirit by Charles Bailey Bell. The article that prompted this examination, “Psychoanalyzing the Bell Witch” was published in 1952. Then in 1972, in The Bell Witch of Tennessee was released. By the late 1990's and early 2000's there was an explosion of media on the subject, particularly after the success of The Blair Witch Project. Prior to 2000, most related media was in the form of books, while after that point it is a mixture of books, films and even plays.
My personal favorite source is the article which prompted my interest, “Psychoanalyzing the Bell Witch” which ran in the September 1952 edition of Fate magazine. It is itself pulled from the book Haunted People: Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries by Hereward Carrington and Nandor Fodor. If those name alone aren't enough to draw you in, then I'm not sure what is. Essentially, the article uses the legend of the Bell Witch as a case study to further Dr. Fodor's theories of the supernatural. He suggests that manifestations of the dead, in this case the Bell Witch, cannot effect the thoughts of the living, but rather it is the living who effect these dead manifestations. It is a charming exercise in attempting to apply scientific reasoning to utterly unscientific information, and it relies on Ingram's book of 1896 for most of its information and evidence. Fodor does note with distaste that the diary within Ingram's book was written many years after the occurrences, and therefor is likely not wholly accurate, but that “the essential facts stand out equally in the recollection of each member of the family... and agree with many descriptions of contemporary poltergeist disturbances,” therefor reasoning that the content is essentially accurate. He goes on to build a case that the Bell Witch was not a hoax by examining many of the events described within the books, such as Betsy's seizures, attempting to rule out all cause other than the disturbances of the Bell Witch. It is, on the whole, a highly entertaining bit of reading, whether or not you're inclined to believe any of it.
All in all, I can say that I now know more about the Bell Witch than I ever thought I would. I didn't even get into the debates within the paranormal community on the validity of the legend. Whether you're inclined to take the legend seriously, or not, it's the perfect time of year to indulge it such stories. For anyone who lives in Tennessee or the surrounding area, there are a number of Bell Witch related attractions in Adams, Tennessee which can be visited, including a museum, a log cabin from the original Bell property and a cemetery.
Also, I've done my best to compile links to all the media listed, though some of older ones are no longer in print, or can only be found in reprinted editions. Enjoy the legend and have a happy Halloween!
Bell Witch related media:
(Disclaimer: This list is meant to show quantity, not necessarily quality.)
-An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by M. V. Ingram (1896)
-The Bell Witch: A Mysterious Spirit by Charles Bailey Bell (1934)
-Haunted People: Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries by Hereward Carrington and Nandor Fodor (1952)
-Psychoanalyzing the Bell Witch by Nador Fodor (in September 1952 edition of Fate magazine)
-The Blair Witch Project (film, 1999)
-The Bell Witch: The Full Account by Pat Fitzhugh (2000)
-The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan (2000)
-Sprit: The Authentic History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by David Alford (play, since 2002)
-An American Haunting (film, 2004)
-Bell Witch Haunting (film, 2004)
-Bell Witch: The Movie (film, 2007)
-The Bell Witch Legend (film, 2008)
-The Bell Witch Haunting (film, 2013)
-The Bell Witch by John F. D. Taff and James Roy Daley (2013)