Anyone who grew up in Tennessee can tell you about the Bell Witch. She is a powerful myth, caught somewhere between witch and poltergeist, that has been used to frighten children throughout the state for generations. Of course, most stories of the Bell Witch are farfetched and heavily altered to fit certain areas so that the tales will strike closer to home in the frightened young minds of those being forced to listen. To put it plainly, the Bell Witch is a campfire story, told and retold with the same chilling line at the end: “and it happened in this very forest, in a cabin not too far from where we are now…” The usual spooky storytelling drivel.
Certainly, the Bell Witch is no monster, not something one might see wandering about the Tennessee Wilderness. The Bell Witch can only be found in one place, if tales of her existence can even be believed in this day and age. Her legacy goes back as far as the early 1800’s, when the state was young and largely unpopulated, to a town called Adams, which still stands to this day.
Adams is located north of Nashville, close to the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. It was never a prosperous or particularly noteworthy location, but a handful of settlers in the 1800’s decided that it was a pleasant area to settle down and purchase land for farming. One such settler was the subject of the Bell Witch’s animosity, John Bell.
No, the name that the Bell Witch is remembered for is not even her own. Her true name has faded into ambiguity, but a good amount of people seem to agree that her name was Kate, and nobody has any inkling what her family name might have been. Where she came from, why she was there in Adams alone, nobody can say for sure. In some stories it is rumored that she was a slave girl, spiteful of the Bell family because of some mistreatment or another. In other tales she vowed vengeance when John spurned her romantic advances. This part of the story varies, and in the end hardly seems important given the conclusion.
Things started quietly enough, as one might expect a haunting story to. Bed sheets would be mysteriously pulled away in the middle of the night, family members would bump into an invisible person, and household objects would turn up in odd places. Even in modern times a family might not be too keen on declaring their house haunted, and back then things were a great deal more superstitious. All of this began after Kate vowed her revenge upon the family, and it didn’t take long for them to feel the effects of the haunting.
They say that whatever haunted the Bells was linked to Kate, but just how is as shrouded in mystery as her origins and reason for targeting the family. Some thought it was a ghost or demon summoned up by her witchcraft, and others thought that she possessed the ability to free her own spirit from her flesh to terrorize whomever she wished. For certain, however, whatever was haunting the Bells was definitely fond of tormenting those who displeased Kate.
It didn’t take long after John confided in a family friend for word to spread throughout town. Soon everyone was offering help, only to leave white-faced and never set foot inside the house again. Moving away was out of the question, the family had sunken in a lot of money buying property, tending to the land, and purchasing slaves to work it. Besides, what good would it do if it was all Kate’s doing? The woman would merely follow them, bringing the terrors of their old home to the new one.
The plight of the Bells even brought forth a variety of visits from outsiders, some from reputable or important figures throughout the country. It is even rumored that Andrew Jackson came to the house to investigate and was subsequently frightened off, but this myth is largely discounted as pure fiction, as no political figure would link his name to something so demonic or outrageous. But maybe he purposefully had that visit stricken from record so that the public would not know that he ran from the house like a scared church mouse.
For all her hatred directed at the family as a whole, Kate seemed to focus on two family members specifically: John Bell and his daughter, Elizabeth, or Betsy, Bell. All the children received pinches, blows, and malicious shoves from the unseen entity, but Betsy especially suffered abuse from this specter. It even went so far as to break up her engagement with Joshua Gardner, the witch’s punishments growing ever more severe and horrifying until Betsy finally called their marriage off.
For unknown reasons, Betsy was allowed to marry another man three or so years later after breaking the engagement with Joshua. This outcome led many to believe that perhaps this second suitor had gone to the witch for assistance when he learned that Betsy’s hand belonged to someone else, but the witch’s deep-seeded hatred of the Bell family would hardly allow her to merely let Betsy go free with any man, especially when the girl had suffered the brunt of the evil spirit’s malice for so very long.
It is said that the witch caused the death of John Bell some years later, poisoning his mind before finally poisoning his body as well. Many who came to visit stated that they detected an odd odor on his breath, which they were later able to link with a mysterious black vial that had been left in a secluded corner of the room. Perhaps dropped in haste by the witch as she fled the scene?
When news of the poor man’s death reached Kate’s ears, she cackled like a madwoman and declared that it was all her doing, reveling in the fear that her reaction generated. After her mission to drive John into the grave was complete, she kind of…. vanished. She left the town that night, vowing to return someday to continue to wreak havoc on the Bells. Her return, though it did happen, was brief, and the hauntings continued for Betsy and her siblings on a very minor scale. It is rumored that the spiteful woman finally croaked after this short stint, but none can say for certain, and many believe that because of her supernatural powers that she can never truly die.
There is a cave, still located on the outskirts of Adams, where people to this day claim that very spirit, the one who plagued the Bells, dwells in solitude. The house still sounds as a historical site, and one that only the bravest of souls would stay in after dark. There are still a lot of happenings in the area, classic poltergeist and haunting occurrences. Thankfully though, none of this has happened on the same scale that killed John Bell.
No doubt this site attracts a lot of paranormal-lovers, thrill-seekers, the like. But to anyone who grew up in Tennessee, the legends are very real and very haunting. It was not Bloody Mary’s name that was chanted into the mirror three times, it was “Bell Witch”. It was not the bogeyman that lurked in your closet, it was the witch. Anything that moved unseen, anything that grunted out in the woods at night, it might be her, the nameless, evil thing that stalks those who displease her.
As far as scary stories go, the legend of the Bell Witch has certainly endured, and it rings eerily similar to tales of poltergeists one might see on the Syfy channel or see on ghost forums.
Maybe someday you’ll make the trip to Tennessee and find out if those tales are true or not.