October 29, 2009
Without a doubt, America's most famous ghost story is also Tennesee's -- the Bell Witch of Adams.
John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to Robertson County, Tenn., in the early 1800s, where they settled along the Red River. As the town of Adams grew, so did John Bell's prosperity, and he added both acreage and a large farmhouse to accommodate his growing family.
In 1817, Bell was inspecting one of his cornfields when he came across a strange creature between the rows. Later described as having the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, Bell shot at the bizarre animal, and then went on about his business. That night was the first time the Bell family reported signs of a haunting after hearing someone or something beat on the outside walls of their home.
The sounds continued throughout the following weeks, escalating to what sounded like rats gnawing on the children's beds, keeping them awake at night while the spirit would pull the blankets off their beds and the pillows from under their heads. The haunting produced whispering voices, and the family thought they sounded like an old woman singing hymns.
Then Bell's youngest daughter, Betsy, was attacked. The spirit would violently pull young Betsy's hair and slap her relentlessly, leaving welts and hand prints on her face and body, and the assaults would last for hours.
Around this time, Bell suffered several serious illnesses and facial seizures that would leave him speechless, but the spirit found a voice and began to sing hymns, quote the Bible, recite sermons just presented at the local church and even had intelligent conversations. It was during one of these conversations that the spirit claimed to be the "witch" of Kate Batts, a woman with whom Bell had experienced several bad business deals.
A neighbor, Joshua Gardner, began to court Betsy Bell, and they couple soon announced their engagement. The Witch, however, had other plans and tormented the young couple so horribly that Betsy was forced to break the engagement around Easter 1821.
John Bell became increasingly ill in December 1820, and he died on the 20th, after lapsing into a coma the day before. A vial of thick, black liquid was discovered, and the Witch claimed to have given some of it to old Bell just prior to his death.
Bell's funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Robertson County, as the haunting had become quite well known, drawing such notable visitors as General Andrew Jackson. When the family and friends began to leave the cemetery, the Witch laughed loudly and then serenaded the group with bawdy drinking songs until the last person left the graveside.
The Witch stuck around awhile after Bell's death, and while she tormented Betsy, she took it easy on everyone else, even going so far as to have quiet conversations with Bell's widow, Lucy. Then in April 1821, the Witch said goodbye to Lucy, saying she would return in 7 years.
When the Bell Witch returned in 1828, most of her time was spent conversing with John Bell Jr., and their talks ranged from such topics as the origin of life to Christianity and the need for the country to experience a spiritual awakening. Some of the most dramatic information shared by the Witch were her eerily accurate predictions that centered around the Civil War.
This time, the Witch's visit only lasted a few weeks, but she promised to return again in 107 years. In 1935, the closest living direct descendant of John Bell was Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, a Nashville physician. While he had published a book about the Bell Witch the previous year, he had nothing to report when it came to her expected return.
Today, the Bell Witch brings quite a bit of money into the Adams community, and the story of Kate and the Bell family is the basis of the films An American Haunting (2006) and The Bell Witch Haunting (2004).
For more info: SPIRIT: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, a play by David Alford, is currently being produced in Adams. Catch the review by Jonathan Pinkerton, the Nashville Entertainment Examiner.