This week, we talk about the legend of The Bell Witch from Adams, TN in the 1800’s. Was it the supernatural or a human influence?
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Our story centers around a small town named Adams, Tennessee, not far from the Kentucky border. In 2020 the census of Adams listed a population of 624 people. A tiny blip on the map, many would not be aware of this quaint town if it were not for one family’s “troubles” in the early 19th century, long before the city would gain the name, Adams.
After the French and Indian Wars, King George III signed the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachian mountains. This was done after a pan-Tribal committee came to demand protections for their lands, or they would continue to attack and capture British forts. However, this would only partially quell the tensions in this area, as many white settlers felt entitled to those lands. This proclamation was something that some of the founding fathers hated and was just one of the many catalysts that led to them declaring independence. After the British lost in the American Revolution, the Proclamation of 1763 was declared null and void, and white settlers began moving freely west of the Appalachians.
These events allowed John Bell and his family to move to Robertson Country, Tennessee, in 1804. They were originally from North Carolina, where John was reportedly a prosperous landowner and enslaver. It’s unknown why John moved his family; however, he quickly settled on 1000 acres near the Red River upon arrival. His wife, Lucy, seven of their children, and several enslaved people came with him. They quickly established themselves in the area and became prominent community members. The Red River Primitive Baptist Church is the center of the community for many as this was known to be a very pious, religious community. Superstition was also alive within this community. Before the events of this story, there are reports of a man named James Smith being accused of being a witch and subsequently murdered. This is likely why John Bell initially tried to keep things under wraps when The Family Troubles began in 1817.
A Legend Begins
The first signs of trouble originated outside of the Bell home. Those enslaved by the Bells began reporting strange animals around the property and “dead man’s candles” (also known as will-o-wisps or ghost lights). One day, John was in his cornfield when he saw what he thought was a dog, but he soon realized something was off about this “dog.” This strange animal had a dog’s body but a rabbit’s head. John aimed his gun and fired twice at the strange creature, but it was unfazed and retreated into the woods. One of the Bell boys reported seeing an abnormally large bird, and Elizabeth (known as Betsy) said she saw a girl hanging from a tree. When she tried to get help, the girl was gone.
These bizarre instances occurred for several months before the loud knocking started. One night, the family was startled by a loud knocking at all windows and doors. John and others checked for the source of the knocking but found no one outside. The knocking on the windows and doors would become a regular occurrence. John rationalized that whatever was happening was only outside the house, so he and the family endured with the assumption that they would be safe inside. Those assumptions were wrong.
The knocking moved inside the house and would be heard every night while the family tried to sleep. The children began reporting the sounds of rats chewing on the bed posts, although there were no signs of damage when checked the next day. Sometimes chains could be heard throughout the house and choking sounds. Family members had their blankets pulled off them in the night. Additionally, whispers could be heard. Sometimes words of hymns could be made out, but the voice was largely unintelligible. While these occurrences were frustrating, they were not violent. However, that would change as soon two family members would become the targets of invisible attacks.
The Bell Witch’s Focus
Young Betsy was one of the focuses of this invisible force. She began to be physically attacked and would often be covered in scratches and welts from the Bell Witch. Hair would be pulled, and she would be slapped, pinched, and stuck with pins. The other children would also experience some of these attacks, but Betsy got the worst of it. John was also strangely afflicted. He began experiencing trouble eating and speaking. He reported that it felt as if his tongue had become stiff and something was lodged in his mouth. The troubles had been going on for almost an entire year, and with the attacks becoming more violent, John decided to reach out to his close friend and local pastor, James Johnston.
Johnston and his wife came to stay with the Bell family one night and were awaken by their bedcovers being ripped off and Johnston being slapped. The pastor lept from his bed and demanded that the spirit explain what they were doing in the house. Nothing responded, and the rest of the night was peaceful. The following day, Johnston told John Bell that whatever was in his place was likely an Evil spirit, and suddenly a voice rang out, seeming to answer the question Johnston had asked the night before. “I am a Spirit; I once was very happy, but I have been disturbed and made unhappy. I am the Spirit of a person who was buried in the woods nearby and the grave was disturbed….”
From this point on, the entity tormenting the Bell family would fill the home with her verbal assaults and raucous antics. Moreover, knowledge of the entity was soon known in the local community. Betsy’s close friends had found out about what was happening, and soon the story of the Bell Witch would spread far and wide. Soon people from all over would come to the Bell home to see for themselves. Visitors would ask the spirit questions, and it was through the bizarre replies to these questions that the spirit came to be called a Witch and the name Kate.
Kate gave all sorts of reasons for her haunting of the Bell home. At times she stuck with the disturbed grave story, claiming the Bell house was buried over one of her teeth. Other times she claimed to be there to reveal a buried treasure or that she was a child who was buried in North Carolina. One day she declared that “I am Old Kate Batts!” and that she was there to torment “Old Jack Bell” because she had promised to on her deathbed. According to Kate, she and John had made a business deal, but John somehow tricked her. Of course, the problem with this was that Kate Batts was still alive and did not have anything against John Bell. However, the name Kate stuck, much to the ire of the real Kate Batts.
A Promise of Death from The Bell Witch
But one thing was for sure; Kate hated John Bell. She often swore that she would kill John. It didn’t help that things went downhill for John in general. In 1818 John was excommunicated from his church, supposedly for usury, but many believed it was due to the witch’s presence in his house. His health also continued to fail him. The issues with his tongue continued, and he would go through beyond spells of being unable to eat or speak. He eventually began having terrible fits where his whole body would spasm, his face contorting at times. The Bell boys began taking over more of the farm as their father’s health faltered over the next few years. All the while, Kate mocks him and relishes in his misfortunes.
Betsy also continued to suffer. She had tried off and on to sleep over with friends to get a break, but Kate would follow her where ever she went. She also had to break off the engagement to her childhood beau due to Kate’s disapproval. She and her fiancee had tried to stick it out and not let Kate pull them apart, but the longer they stayed together, the worse Kate’s abuse would get.
Kate was occasionally helpful. Kate adored John’s wife, Lucy, and often treated her and the youngest Bell child very well. In spring 1820, Lucy developed a lung infection that made her deathly ill. Kate told the family what remedy would help Lucy recover, and Lucy made a full recovery, but Kate’s helpfulness would be short-lived.
John Bell’s Ultimate End
By the end of 1820, John Bell was in terrible health. He was bedridden at times, so weak and ill from the inability to eat and the spasms which continued to plague him. By November, he seemed to have rallied somewhat and was doing his best to assist his sons on the farm, but by December, he was bedridden again, and on the 19th, he slipped into a coma. The family was dismayed at his condition, and on this day, they noticed a strange medicine vial on his bedside table. In the bottle was a mysterious dark liquid. Lucy gave some of the liquid to a cat, which died almost immediately, and when they threw the rest of the bottle into the fire, the flames flashed blue. Kate laughed and sang gleefully that she “had fixed Old Jack Bell.” She admitted to giving John what was in the bottle but did not divulge the contents. Just a day or two later, John Bell died. It is said that the Bell Witch crashed his funeral, laughing hysterically and singing vulgar songs.
Kate would remain with the family a few months more but soon announced that she would return in seven years. Just like that, she was gone, and the Bell household was quiet again after nearly four years of daily chaos. Some of the Bell children married and left, including Betsy, while some of the boys stayed on to help Lucy with the farm. Then, as promised, in February 1828, the knockings began again, just like before. Eventually, Kate began to speak again, and things seemed like they were seven years prior. Kate would not stick around for long, though. She decided to return in one hundred years and visit the Bell descendants. Just like that, The Bell Witch was gone.
The legend of the Bell Witch would continue, with many wondering who or what had plagued the Bell family and killed John Bell. Many wondered if the Bell children had faked the entire thing. There were rumors that Betsy Bell had learned ventriloquism and was Kate the whole time. However, these theories don’t explain why the Bell children would do this; the family did not gain anything from the attacks’ attention. Of course, many question how much of what we know today was actually reported by the Bells as the primary source many refer to was written seventy years after the event.
Modern Day Legend of The Bell Witch
Today, the city of Adams proudly shares the legend of the Bell Witch, and some claim that spirits, maybe even Kate, are still present in the area. Very little is left of the original Bell homestead, but a cave that was on the actual property is easily accessed, and many believe that you can talk to Kate herself if you visit. Descendants of the Bells are still in the area, and when asked if Kate returned as she promised, they aren’t so sure. Some claim strange incidents, but many shrug the legend and chalk everything up to two hundred years of telephone.
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Researched by Alley from The Squonk & The Hag.