Normally I try to be funny, but this story deals with abuse and violence, and there’s really nothing funny about it. This is about The Bell Witch, a Tennessee ghost story that’s fascinated me all my life.
Fear old women in fairy tales. For as long as people have been telling stories, crones have been scaring the wits out of children. But why does the face of evil so often belong to an old woman?
-“Why Are Old Women Often The Face Of Evil In Fairy Tales And Folklore?”, NPR story, October 28th, 2015
The Bell Witch was never a witch. That’s one of the most confusing things about Tennessee’s famous haunting, one that’s been called America’s greatest ghost story, although I’m not sure by whom. Outside of Tennessee very few people seem to be familiar with the story in spite of the film An American Haunting starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. It is well-known among lovers of ghost lore, though, and when I was a kid it seemed like everybody in Tennessee was familiar with The Bell Witch. During sleepovers my friends and I would scare each other with stories of her and a rumor that if you closed the bathroom door, turned out all the lights, and turned around three times while repeating “I hate The Bell Witch” you’d see her in the mirror. How were you supposed to see her with the lights off? No one could answer that. Maybe that’s why some claimed that she’d also reach out and claw your face and this really happened to a guy who told the friend of somebody’s cousin’s brother about it.
Those who do know about the Bell family being tormented by mysterious sounds and voices that gradually escalated to physical attacks ranging from having the blankets pulled off them while they slept to the murder of John Bell would say it sounds like a poltergeist. At least that’s what we’d think now since the German term “poltergeist” has entered the English lexicon. And yet we still talk about “The Bell Witch”. Why?
It’s mainly because of tradition. The Bell family and others believed the spirit was a manifestation of their neighbor, an older woman named Kate Batts, who’d had trouble with John Bell, and who was suspected of witchcraft. The spirit was often referred to as “Old Kate” although it never called itself by this name. For a time it turned into a weird “family” of two brothers named Blackdog and Jerusalem and two sisters named Mathematics and Cypocryphy. The association with Kate Batts stuck, though, so it became and has remained “The Bell Witch”.
At times it even manifested physically and at least once behaved in a suggestive, almost sexual way, when it crept into the bed of the Bells’ family friend William Porter when he was spending the night. The spirit wrapped itself up in the cover and Porter saw an opportunity to destroy the spirit.
In an instant I grabbed the roll of cover in my arms and started to the fire, intending to throw the cover, witch and all in the blaze. I discovered that it was very weighty, and smelt awful. I had not gone half way across the room before the luggage got so heavy and became so offensive that I was compelled to drop it on the floor and rush out of doors for a breath of fresh air. The odor emitted from the roll was the most offensive stench I ever smelt. It was absolutely stifling and I could not have endured it another second. After being refreshed I returned to the room, and gathered up the roll of bed clothing shook them out, but Kate had departed, and there was no unusual weight or offensive odor remaining, and this is just how near I came catching the witch.
That comes from M.V. Ingram’s An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, the “little red book” that’s the source of most Bell Witch information.
What’s interesting is how interpretations of the phenomenon have evolved. At the time, as I said, Kate Batts was blamed for the occurrences although she was apparently never tried or even legally accused, even following the death of John Bell. And I always felt she was unfairly blamed. She may have been an eccentric old woman, and according to accounts she was cruel to her slaves. Keeping people as slaves is bad enough no matter how common or accepted it was at the time. She doesn’t need or deserve to be blamed for tormenting the Bells when there’s no evidence she did.
More modern interpretations have shifted the blame away from an old woman to a young woman: John Bell’s daughter Betsy. Although really the blame goes to John Bell himself because the accusation is that he molested his daughter and her emotional trauma manifested itself as a poltergeist.
This would not be the only poltergeist associated with a young girl. Other stories range from Esther Cox of the Great Amherst Mystery to Gef, a spirit in the form of a talking mongoose who appeared to the Irving family in the Isle of Man in the 1930’s. Maybe these associations are just coincidental–there are a lot of reports of poltergeists and other ghost stories that are associated with adults, or just tied to a specific place rather than a person. It is interesting, though, given that in folklore and legends witches are almost always women who are feared for their powers.
The idea that a traumatized Betsy Bell summoned up “the Bell Witch” is disturbing for a lot of reasons but mainly because it fits with so many details of the story. The spirit torments both father and daughter, suggesting Betsy blames herself. This is all too common for victims of abuse. She might also act out in inappropriate ways–toward an adult family friend, for instance. The spirit’s mistreatment of Betsy also gets worse after she becomes engaged. If Betsy had been abused by her father but also felt guilt this might lead to conflicted feelings about entering into marriage. The spirit also has great affection for other members of the family, especially Betsy’s mother Lucy. When Lucy was sick the spirit even brought her nuts and fruit and kept tabs on the younger members of the family for her. Perhaps Lucy Bell tried to protect her daughter.
The biggest problem is this is really all idle speculation because there’s no evidence that there ever was a haunting, or that anything truly terrible–other than the death of John Bell, and even there records are sketchy–happened to the Bell family. Ingram’s book isn’t based on any eyewitness account and in fact there are no firsthand or even secondhand accounts of the infamous Bell Witch. Reports of Andrew Jackson visiting the family to witness the events firsthand or simply having run-ins with the spirit have been thoroughly disproven. The sources for Ingram’s book are highly suspect and at least one–a Saturday Evening Post story–was completely fabricated by Ingram himself. Even in the stories crucial evidence is conveniently destroyed. The morning John Bell dies the medicine he’s been taking is found to have been turned into poison. It’s thrown, glass bottle and all, into the fire and disappears in a puff of smoke.
The story continues to fascinate people and its reinterpretations say a lot about us. The Bell Witch has moved from being an old woman to a young woman, from a disagreement between neighbors to abuse within a family. Fear of the feminine is at its heart, though, which raises questions about how it is that we’re still possessed by The Bell Witch.