The Bell Witch

The enduring legend of Adams, Tennessee’s Bell Witch.

Everyone loves a good old-fashioned ghost story—especially one that involves real people and real places. Forty-five miles northwest of Nashville is the quiet town of Adams, Tennessee. At first glance, Adams appears to be a remarkably ordinary rural community. But the town welcome sign on old Highway 41—adorned with a broom-riding witch—tells you otherwise. Many municipalities would deny that anything out-of-the-ordinary occurs within its boundaries, but in Adams, unexplained paranormal disturbances are just part of the community's history. Since the early 19th century this small farming town has been home to the legend of the Bell Witch.

While historians disagree about the details, the general account of the Bell Witch haunting goes something like this: In the early 1800s, a farmer named John Bell moved from North Carolina to Adams, and was subsequently poisoned by the hand of a supernatural entity. For the next several years, Bell and his family were terrorized by paranormal disturbances of an unknown origin. Eyewitness accounts, reams of historical documents and numerous personal testimonies would indicate that something remarkable happened to the simple, God-fearing, Bell family. But the question remains, “What?” 

Things That Go Bump In The Night 

By all accounts, if it weren't for this entity, the Bell family members might have lived unremarkable lives filled with farming, school and church. But trouble started after family patriarch John Bell spotted an unusual looking animal in the family's apple orchard. Soon, banging or knocking noises began occurring at night on the outside wall of their log home. Night after night, the banging continued, sometimes accompanied by a sound that resembled gnawing rats. Repeated attempts to ascertain the origin of these sounds proved frustratingly fruitless. 

The disruptive episodes continued to increase in intensity and frequency. In 1818, a few months after the first incident, the Bells reportedly began hearing faint murmurs and whispers throughout their house. Before long, John Bell's frightened children began complaining about the covers being torn off their beds while they slept. The paranormal activities reached a new, disturbing level when his twelve-year-old daughter Betsy became the focal point. As her family stood by helpless, Betsy's hair was pulled, her face was slapped and she was repeatedly hit without warning by this invisible entity. 

With the violent episodes escalating, the Bells made the difficult decision to go outside of the family circle and share their incredible experiences. They knew that this could create additional stress. Their community was small and sensational news like this would travel quickly, but the Bells felt compelled to seek the wisdom and spiritual guidance of their minister. When Reverend James Johnston and his wife visited the Bells they too were slapped, hit and subjected to loud noises. In search of a logical explanation Rev. Johnston cried, “In the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want?” Reportedly, the entity shocked everyone in the room when, for the first time, it responded to direct questioning. It claimed it was once happy, but now disturbed.

Season Of The Witch

Word of the troublesome spirit spread quickly throughout the region and the Bell family acquired a level of celebrity not often found in a farming community. The spirit, for its part, became increasingly bold and communicative, and unlike the Bells, seemed to enjoy the attention. People soon began to refer to it as the Bell Witch or “Kate,” which also happened to be the name of the Bells' eccentric neighbor. 

Over time, the spirit's voice strengthened to the point that it was loud and easily understandable. It had a preference for singing hymns, quoting scripture and carrying on intelligent conversations. It even allegedly quoted, word-for-word, two sermons that took place at exactly the same time but more than ten miles apart.

According to legend, news of the haunting even reached General Andrew Jackson who insisted on visiting the Bell farm to confront the spirit. His entourage was allegedly subjected to the spirit's violent mischief, causing the General and his men to depart vowing never to return. Jackson was reportedly quoted later as saying, “I'd rather fight the British at New Orleans than deal with the Bell Witch.” 

Meanwhile, the spirit continued to focus on tormenting both John and Betsy Bell. Three years after it first appeared, the spirit took a particularly strong interest in the romance between Betsy and a local boy named Joshua Gardner. With the family's blessing, the two were engaged, but the Bell Witch was not shy about conveying its opposition to the marriage. Over and over, the spirit told Betsy that she must not marry Joshua. No explanation was ever tendered. After relentless harassment, Betsy finally broke off her engagement in April of 1820. 

Yet, John Bell was always the witch's favorite victim. He was relentlessly tripped, poked and mocked by the spirit, which offered no explanation for its harassment other than it wanted to see him dead. On December 20, 1820 Kate got its wish, when John passed away—the victim of a neurological disorder or a poisoning, depending on who you believe. 

After the death of John Bell, the Bell Witch left the family with the promise that it would return in seven years. True to its word, the witch visited the home of John Bell, Jr. for three weeks in 1829, where, it is said, the spirit predicted future events such the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Great Depression. John Bell, Jr., recorded the conversations in a detailed manuscript, noting that the witch promised to visit John Bell's closest descendant in 107 years. There is no evidence that such a visit occurred, although descendant Charles Bailey Bell wrote a book called “The Bell Witch—A Mysterious Spirit” that was published in the mid-1930s. 

Witch Is It? 

So what are we to make of all these alleged disturbances? “The legend of the Bell Witch is a complicated one," says Patrick A. Fitzhugh, Bell Witch historian and author of “The Bell Witch: The Full Account.” 

“Errors, both in fact and logic, abound, as do many explanative theories based on little more than fallacies…. But the fact is that a legend—or any kind of story—doesn't get started without some reason. I do believe that something happened to cause this legend to come into existence but I'm not completely sure what the something was.” 

The best explanation for the enduring quality of the Bell Witch legend is that it centers on real historical figures. “When Martin Van Buren Ingram penned his 'novel' in 1894 [referring to “The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch”], he included a startling amount of information based upon real families and facts,” says Bell Witch historian Jack Cook. “One can easily argue that he could he could not have written such an outlandish tale as fact unless all of these families were either certain of the event, or less everyone had agreed to remain silent about the hoax. To my knowledge, no court challenges were ever brought against him for a misrepresentation of the facts. On the other hand, anyone who makes a study of the narrative must notice that only one section of the book is claimed to come from a firsthand account,” he continues.

At the same time, there isn't much physical evidence to support that the disturbances described above ever actually happened. For instance, Fitzhugh says he has examined records from the Bell family doctor and these provide no indication that any family member was physically abused. “The biggest misconception of the Bell Witch legend is that the entity was evoked by the youngest daughter as the result of her being molested by her father. There is simply no persuasive evidence that it happened,” he notes. 

Spirits In The Material World

Today, the Bell Witch legend is arguably more popular than ever, thanks to the recent surge in interest about unexplained paranormal events—not to mention various Web sites, clubs and a forthcoming movie that promises to recount the story. These days Bell Witch enthusiasts can frequently be found roaming around Adams, and the town is practically overrun with enthusiasts each and every Halloween. Some claim that on dark, rainy nights you can see strange apparitions dancing on the fields. Others insist that you simply can't take a good photograph in the area. 

But according to Bridget McKenna, editor of “A Haunting in Tennessee: The Bell Family Spirit,” the visitors are mostly curiosity seekers. "People don't tend to believe these kinds of stories in the 21st century," she says. “I'm not personally inclined to believe them either, but something very strange happened in west-central Tennessee between 1817-1828 and the hundreds of people who witnessed it were in no doubt that they saw, heard and felt was absolutely real.” 

Meanwhile, Cook has a philosophical theory about what accounts for our interest in the Bell Witch: “The mind of the human being is constantly in need of examining its environment and its state of being. The Legend of the Bell Witch delves into the deepest fears and inner mysteries. It dares us to explore into those realms of spirituality, which lie beyond the borders of our physical limitations. What more horrifying dilemma than that of being unable to protect our children from danger . . . or being unable to protect your family from a unstoppable and invisible entity whose stated goal is to torment you to death?” 

At any rate, despite the intense interest in the story it seems unlikely if the mysteries surrounding the Bell Witch legend will ever be solved. “The best evidence that there wasn't a Bell Witch is simply the lack of evidence,” says Fitzhugh. “There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of this thing.”