The Bell Witch Legend (2008)
Filmmaker Zac Adams ventured into the eerie depths of the famed Bell Witch for his project the Bell Witch Legend, and what he came up with was a tremendous effort into this classic tale. From the first scene, to the last interview, this documentary does a great job bringing the legend to life.
With a nice mixture of reenactments, historical profiles and interviews with historians, researchers, residents and even descendants, the film carries a sense of darkness that remains true to the horrific events that tortured John Bell all those years ago. It also provides some very interesting facts about the haunting and the area of Adams, TN, which are not readily known. One such fact surrounds items taken from the Bell Witch Cave and the negative effects they have on those who mistakenly take a chance claiming such artifacts.
Make no mistake, at the heart of the story is the fabled tale of the Bell family and the spirit or energy that created so much turmoil. This bizarre account of pain, disembodied voices and possibly murder, remains at the forefront of haunted American lore, and is as engrained in the fabric of the land as apple pie. More importantly than solving the case, Adams does a great job at staying true to Robertson County and the familiar roots of the story, ensuring that the integrity of this land and legend are not disturbed.
Having researched the Bell Witch and written a couple of articles on the subject, I was blown away by the content and documentary as a whole. I truly recommend it to anyone interesting in history, the paranormal or Bell Witch. This film will not disappoint and is a great example of how documentaries should be put together. Anyone interested can pick-up a copy at http://www.bellwitchlegendmovie.com/.
And now the story of The Bell Witch (my article from Haunted Times Magazine Issue #1)
The legend of the Bell Witch is one of the most interesting tales passed on by our forefathers from early American folklore and for good reason. What happened to John Bell and his family was both frightening and tragic, yet the eerie nature of the occurrences still goes unexplained. To this day when people speak of the “Bell Witch” an unnerving chill runs down their spines. Was it a curse? Or was it an unsettled poltergeist from long before John Bell’s arrival near the Red River?
Like most historical accounts of the supernatural, the legend itself has varying origins which must be weighed when talking about the occurrences. Luckily some historical documents remain and you can easily trace the historical timeline involved in John Bell’s life. John Bell was born in 1750 in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. A barrel maker turned farmer, he would prosper in the Carolina foothills until he would eventually find solitude in a small farming community in Adams, Tennessee in 1804. Bell and his wife Lucy made the treacherous trek to the Red River area known as the “Barron Plains” with their family of six children Jesse, Benjamin, Drewry, John Jr., Esther and Zadock. The Bells’ solitude would last some 13 years before the unexplained would destroy their sanity, testing the far reaching boundaries of their faith.
In Tennessee, Bell became a respected business man and farmer and would again prosper in his new surroundings. He added three more children to his loving circle, daughter Elizabeth and sons Richard and Joel before he passed. He was also a deeply religious man and served on the Elder Council and as a Deacon at the Red River Baptist Church. This was until his excommunication from the church in January 1818. The cause of his excommunication was officially documented as committing the sin “usury” against a neighbor, but this too is up for debate. Many believers place the supernatural at the heart of this travesty.
Ironically, it was this neighbor, Katie Batts who takes center stage as the cause of John Bell’s afflictions in most accounts. This is where most people stray from the truth. The Bell Witch, in fact, was never a witch at all. Documented accounts of the ordeal provide descriptions more inline with poltergeist or demon manifestations. Although, it is easy to see why these misconceptions exist. Many residents of Adams still refer to the Bell Witch as “Ol’ Kate” in homage to Katie Batts, unfortunately no one will ever know for sure. It is well documented that Katie and John did, in fact, have a mixed history. Katie accused John of taking advantage of her in a business deal after her husband Frederick was tragically injured in a farming accident. While cleared of wrong-doing, this business deal gone awry was the basis used by the Elders for his excommunication from the church. The excommunication wasn’t enough for Katie though and she publicly declared that she would get even with him, even if she had to come back from the grave to so.
From what little information has survived the generations, Batts’ appears to be an interesting woman on every level. She was a robust woman with an eccentric and sensitive personality. To most people in the Red River region she was a good neighbor always showing a great deal of consideration. But, to others she was at the heart of the torment suffered by the Bell family. While no evidence exist to prove or disprove these accusations, Batts did have a grudge to bear and people claimed that she dabbled into the “black arts.” One of her tendencies was to always trade her tidbits of gossip for free pins and needles. An old wives tale exist that witches liked to accumulate free pins and needles for power, if used properly they can cause pain and discomfort to unbeknownst victims.
Was Kate indeed a witch and did she have enough power to pain the Bell family for generations? According to the spirit contacted during the ordeal she was. In Richard William Bell’s 1847 account of the tragedy, The Bell Witch or Our Family Trouble, he immortalizes Kate as the culprit stating that the spirit is no other then “Old Kate Batts’s witch,” determined to torment “Old Jack Bell” out of his life.
Unfortunately, the spirit also provided differing identities to others involved with the Bell family, thus providing a mystery which still stands today. On one occasion the spirit claimed to be a child buried in North Carolina while on another occasion the sprit claimed to be that of an early immigrant to the new world. Whatever the case, the amount of power and phenomena inflicted upon the Bell family, especially John Bell and his daughter Elizabeth, was horrific.
The question is did Betsy (Elizabeth) bring this upon herself? One of the theories that was bounced around during the ordeal was that it was all a hoax being perpetrated by Betsy. Although this claim was always rebuked by the spirit, it still remains a tangible option today. Scientists have discovered that some young children can possess high amounts of telekinetic energy without ever knowing about it. Even worse, the children cannot control it, making it a very dangerous power. Could she have unknowingly destroyed her family?
Their ordeal began simply enough in 1817 when John was tending to one of his many cornfields. During his inspection he came across a bird-like creature eerily staring at him. This creature had the body features of a bird but a human-like face. Startled, John fired at the spawn but missed. After the incident in the cornfield, John's life would never be the same.
After this initial sighting of the bird-like creature activity increased throughout his farm. All nine of his children started encountering strange dog-like animals, all disfigured like the bird and even a wondering old woman that would wind her way through their property. It wasn't until these unexplained sightings migrated into their loving home that they started to get alarmed.
At first, the activity inside the house was just a nuisance. Sounds of scratching at the bed posts and doors, cold spots and moving objects, however, the activity would gradually increase until it would eventually increase to painful acts of torture and possibly even murder! That is the claim by the state of Tennessee, who recognizes the Bell Witch as the only entity ever to commit this heinous crime.
As the frequency and ferocity of these displays increased, so did the price paid by John and Betsy Bell. The spirit it seemed was very fond of these two. Especially Betsy, who was often subjected to violent displays of torment and ridicule which kept her in a constant state of terror.
Soon enough, the Bell's became more and more convinced they were dealing with an attack of the supernatural. Being a very religious family, they decided to rely on their faith to provide salvation during these dismal times. Unfortunately, even the good book couldn't provide deliverance and they eventually turned to friends and neighbors for help.
In 1818, John Bell decided to confide in his closest friend, James Johnston, about the terrible ordeal that has over taken his family. Disturbed by the confession, Johnston and his wife decided to spend a night at the Bell's homestead in an attempt to witness this phenomenon. The Bell Witch did not disappoint, treating the Johnston's to typical display of its presence. It is said that Mr. Johnston even confronted the spirit, " In the name of the Lord, what or who are you? What do you want? Why are you here," he cried out. This outburst reportedly silenced the spirit for the moment, although in some ways it appears to have become a catalyst in the continued manifestations which plagued the Bell's over the next few years.
Another visitor to the Bells' homestead was Professor Richard Powell, the local scholar and school teacher. Professor Powell was interested in the activity on many different levels. As a trained academic he was well versed in the event only decades earlier in Salem, Massachusetts as was intrigued by the happenings. He was also very fond of Betsy and eventually became her husband, although that did not take place until years later. At first Professor Powell monitored the activity from afar, fearing his love of John Bell's daughter would show through. Betsy was involved with another, younger suitor Joshua Gardner almost throughout her ordeal and Professor Powell did not want to interfere. Or did he? Legend has it the Professor Powell dabbled into the occult. Could his love for Betsy have conjured the spirit plaguing the Bell's?
As the stories of the Bell's haunting traveled throughout the valley, the amount of visitors visiting the farm increased. Each time a visitor shows up, they are treated to an interesting display of the spirits trickery and intelligence. Legend has it that one of the visitors to the Bell's farm was none other then General Andrew Jackson, the future president of the United States. Jackson was familiar with the Bell's because Jesse and John Jr. served under his command during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. While visiting Nashville in 1819, Jackson heard the wild tales coming from Red River and decided to confront Ol' Kate himself. He definitely got his chance. During his stay, both Jackson and his men were tormented in their sleep. It is said that one of his men even suffered a beating at the hands of the spirit when he pulled a gun out. Unable to determine the reasoning behind the haunting or help cast out the mysterious visitor, a disappointed Jackson departed saying, "I'd rather fight the British at New Orleans than deal with the Bell Witch."
One of the things that make the Bell Witch such an interesting study is its intelligence. The spirit would communicate with the Bell's and their visitors on a regular basis, displaying a great deal of knowledge of all of the happenings near the Red River and even their futures. On more then one occasion the spirit described events before they happened with tremendous accuracy, even when the events would transpire many miles away from the farm.
The spirit also had a unique ability to change personalities in the middle of conversations with the Bells' or their many visitors. The spirit it seemed had four distinct personalities (five if you count Ol' Kate). These personalities all had different voices and traits which made it easy for the family to separate the perpetrator of the moment. These spirits were named Black dog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy and Jerusalem. Once they appeared, the amount of interaction with the Bell family increased ten fold. Not a night went by that the spirits didn't hold a revival in the Bell's parlor. These events weren't always targeted at tormenting John and Betsy Bell, often times the spirits would just accompany the family in the singing of hymns or re-telling lost tales of folklore.
Actually Lucy Bell, John's wife had a very good relationship with Ol' Kate and here spirit family. While John and Betsy were being tortured by the spirits, they would actually comfort Mrs. Bell. On one occasion in 1819 when Lucy became ill, the spirits went out their way to ensure she recovered fully, praying with her and even providing her with hazelnuts to help speed her recovery. Was the caring displayed by the Bell Witch an act or was it taking care of her lifeline?
As the years progressed, the spirits attacks on Betsy started to subside but the attacks on her father increased. During the ladder part of his life John Bell suffered though a strange condition which caused his mouth and tongue to swell, at times preventing him from swallowing. As the ailment grew worse he would suffer through violent seizures and started growing weaker and weaker. Ironically his condition matches that of people suffering from Bell's palsy, a condition named for Sir Charles Bell which attacks the facial muscles causing them to weaken or become paralyzed. Eventually these afflictions were too much and John Bell succumbed on the morning of December 20th, 1820.
After his death, the family noticed that the vial of medicine left by the family doctor had been almost completely emptied. This was strange because no one in the family had delivered any to their patriarch. It is stated that John Bell, Jr. gave some of the liquid to the family's cat after the discovery and the substance instantaneously killed the pet. When Dr. Hopson arrived, he could not identify the substance in the vial. When he attempted to take the vial for some analysis, none other then Professor Powell stood in his way, taking the vial and smashing it into the fireplace where it is said to have exploded into a bright, blue flame and then shot up the chimney. Another interesting facet to Professor Powell's involvement in the haunting, isn't it?
Soon after John Bell's funeral, Ol' Kate made her presence felt serenading the guests of one of the largest funerals in Robertson County history with songs of laughter, joy and of all tings a bottle of brandy. It seems that now she had accomplished her primary mission, the witch again turned her sights on young Betsy. Proclaiming that Betsy would never marry her suitor, Joshua Gardner. Why such hatred for the young loving couple?
Over time, the couple with their parent's blessings decided to become engaged, ignoring the spirits warnings. This decision kept them in the minds eye of the spirit, subjecting them to various degrees of torment and ridicule from the entity. Their relationship managed to stay afloat through all of the obstacles until Easter Monday in 1821, where in an intimate moment along the Red River the torment became too much for young Betsy and she begged Joshua to release her from her proposed bond of matrimony. Terrified by her look of fear, he obliged, fulfilling yet another prophesy of the Bell Witch. After a bout of depression, Betsy became involved with Professor Powell and the two eventually married on March 23rd, 1824.
Like mentioned earlier in the article, Professor Powell had been interested in Betsy for some time. Powell led an interesting life becoming a Justice of the Peace, the sheriff of Robertson County, and eventually a successful lawmaker in the Tennessee State Legislature. He did have some skeletons in his closet though. Professor Powell had a secret wife, Esther Scott Powell, near Nashville during the same time he was lusting after Betsy. Powell never mentioned his wife to anyone in Robertson County and of course she died mysteriously prior to his marriage to Elizabeth.
The Bells' ordeal did not end there. During mid-1821 the spirit made another appearance to Lucy, declaring she would return for a tree-week visit in seven years then another visit in 107 years (1935). True to her word, she did return but without the vengeance of her first bout with the family. During these visits with John Jr. Ol' Kate outlined future events which he would meticulously transcribe in detail. Amazingly enough legend has it that she predicted the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and even World War II. There are no accounts of her return in 1935 but then again no Bell's live on the old homestead.
Throughout this article I have pointed out the logical candidates who could have been involved with conjuring this malevolent spirit. Kate Batts, Professor Richard Powell, Lucy Bell and even Betsy herself have been vilified throughout the years as the culprit. The truth on the conjurer will never be known for sure.
Regardless on who conjured the spirit the real evidence of the haunting lies at the location. With the amount of power and intelligence displayed by the Bell Witch, it seems very unlikely that one person would have enough power to summon an entity of such veracity. That is unless the land has a high level of residual psychic energy or is an earth's vortex. Many metaphysical scholars acknowledge an earth's vortex as a location with varying amounts of psychic energy complete with unbelievable healing powers. With this in mind, let's examine the area.
Prior to colonial settlements much of Robertson County belonged to a tribe of mound building Indians up until the mid-seventeenth century. In fact in one of the legends John Jr. and a friend actually disturbed one of the overgrown mounds prior to the start of the family's ordeal, uncovering some of the bones buried in the area. From the mid-seventieth century on, Indians fought over this land but never settled there due to the sacred nature of the burial site. In my research of another site, I discovered the fact that Native Americans believe that their sacred sites possess high residual energy. This residual energy could provide the spirit world with enough power and vigor to overpower the unexpected conjurer, unleashing it on an unsuspecting victim.
After almost 200 years of heated debate the identity of the Bell Witch remains shrouded in mystery. I am positive the debates will continue to rage on, regardless on your beliefs. The presence of Ol' Kate will remain etched in our minds and folklore for generations and who knows maybe she is still out there waiting to be awakened from her century long slumber