Ciphering the Bell Witch
The “Bell Witch” is a famous haunting that hails from Adams, Tennessee. It has been the subject of poems, stories, novels, and films throughout the Twentieth Century. The earliest know work was a poem called “The Trials of Betsy Bell.” The writer is unknown, but it was published in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1906. Much more recently, the film “An American Haunting,” took on the story and gave a very modern, but shallow interpretation of the ordeal.
Unfortunately, the facts are not so neatly packaged. There are issues and challenges that plague both skeptics and believers. Today, we can look back upon the evidences and see one haunting possibility that no one seems to have considered.
The mysterious haunting of the Bell family didn’t receive much attention until Clarksville newspaper editor M. V. Ingram published The Red Book, in 1894. Even then, the volume was only circulated on a regional basis. The book’s actual history was far earlier.
Richard William Bell, brother of Betsy Bell, authored a book 26 years after John Bell’s death. He completed the manuscript in 1846, but the book was hidden away. It is believed his book was to counter an article written by one of the Bell Witch investigators, but the investigator published his account as a newspaper article in 1849. It has since been lost to time.
Richard died several years after completing his story and the manuscript went to his son, James Allen Bell, who also kept it hidden. James didn’t grant M. V. Ingram permission to publish the work until he was into his advanced years. Ingram added Bell’s original manuscript to his own sizable collection of accounts and documentation. The original Red Book was published in 1894 and only locally circulated. It was a “rare book” as late as 1920. A new version, published in 1961, was subsequently called The Black Book. It was written by Charles Bailey Bell, John Bell’s great-grandson. The two volumes became widely known by their physical colors.
Ingram’s book implicated Bell’s neighbor, Kate Batts, as being behind the family’s nightmare. It also said Andrew Jackson visited the farm and had an exchange with the witch.
There was never an actual “witch” as far as is known. Most of those who accept the story believe the witch was actually a poltergeist or demon. During the Nineteenth Century, it was often called a “goblin.” To simplify matters, we’ll simply call it a “spirit.”
John Bell was a successful North Carolina planter in 1804. He brought his wife and six children to Robertson County, Tennessee. He became owner of a 1,000-acre farm, in Adams, Tennessee. They were as blessed with children as they were monetary prosperity. The Bell family eventually had a total of seven sons and two daughters.
Their family happily prospered until 1817, when the dubious activity began. John Bell was hunting and noticed a strange dog. Strange dogs were farmers’ enemies because they killed young livestock and fowl. Bell shot at the animal to scare it off, but it seemed to change shape as it moved. It vanished before he could get a full glimpse of it. The event was soon dismissed.
One of Bell’s sons discovered what he believed to be a strange wild turkey soon after. He shot the creature for the family to eat, but this animal also disappeared. It was soon Betsy Bell’s turn, but she didn’t see an animal at all. She witnessed a little girl swinging on a limb, beneath a huge tree. The strange child wore a light green dress.
Betsy was 14 at the time, but she was already informally betrothed. Joshua Gardener was her age and attended school with her. He came from a respected family that was very close with the Bells. Both families were pleased with thoughts of a future marriage.
John and daughter Betsy were both first targeted by the spirit. John and his wife assumed it was trickery from neighbors or local boys trying to scare them. It became hard to dismiss later activity with such assuredness. It became clear that the neighbors didn’t seem to be involved at all.
The Bells, as well as their servants, continued to see strange animals around the property. It appeared as a strange hare, the bizarre bird the son couldn’t shoot, or even a dog. Sometimes the dog was old and lame, at other times it was black. Dean, one of the family’s slaves, became a source of information on the Bell household events. Dean said the dog followed him home often.
Noises manifested every night, first as knockings, scratching and gnawing. Several boys heard someone eating noisily in their bedroom while they tried to sleep. The family heard chains and rats. Family members nearly dismantled the house in search of the source, but none was ever found.
Most of the children suffered slaps from an unseen hand, but one was exceedingly so. The youngest daughter Betsy was subject to intense abuse, continuing until her until her face was blood red. No one ever witnessed her aggressor. She fell into a trance-like state that lasted for hours. She was subject to fainting spells or fugue states. She also cried that someone was sticking pins or needles into her skin. The abusive fits usually lasted around an hour.
The activity centered on John Bell, more than anyone. His tongue swelled to the point that he couldn’t talk or eat. He claimed it often felt like a twig was sideways in his mouth. The swelling turned into full body spasms that nearly paralyzed him. The events didn’t follow any particular pattern or history as the first year crawled by. The family would go for short periods with no disturbance at all, only to experience one that was worse than all those before.
A year into the activity, they couldn’t pretend it was nothing. The family tentatively involved neighbor, Mr. James Johnson and his wife. Mr. Bell made a special visit to explain their situation. Johnson was known for his robust, powerful prayers. The family assumed that if anyone could exorcise an evil spirit, Johnson could. He found no respect at the Bell household. His repeatedly stayed with the family, but an unseen culprit stripped the bedding from beneath him at night. Despite the initial aggravation, the spirit developed a strange affection for him, even called him “Old Sugar Mouth.”
Soon after, throngs of curious spectators flocked to the Bell house. It seemed the spirit liked the attention, because when it gained an audience through knocking and scratching, it attempted to vocalize. The communication was feeble at first, with odd noises or whistles. It was only a matter of time before the spirit began to form coherent words and then complete sentences. It wasn’t long before the spirit could fluently speak a number of languages.
Now that a line of communication was open, many visitors wanted to know where the spirit came from. Unfortunately, the spirit had no idea of where it came from, either. It offered a host of possible origins.
First, it was the spirit of a Native American whose bones had been disturbed. It claimed to be the spirit of a child murdered in North Carolina due to something Bell did or didn’t do. According to that story, it haunted the family out of vengeance. It gave another story that it lost a tooth under the house and couldn’t rest until it was found. A group of men tried to find the missing bone, but they learned it was pointless. The spirit mocked those trying to help and it declared its sole purpose was to torment “Old Jack,” as it called John Bell.
The spirit claimed to be the soul of an early settle who’d buried a vast quantity of gold and wanted Betsy to have it. It was just the spirit of an “evil” stepmother with no family connection at all. The series of tales ended with the spirit claiming to be Kate Batts’s “witch.” Everyone gave up on discovering its origins. No one believed Batts was to blame, but whispers carried the tale all across the southeast. Kate Batts, noted for her eccentricity, seemed to enjoy the notoriety. Batts was a sympathetic figure. She had to run her farm independently, with an invalid husband and children who gained reputations for being idle and “dim.” She did not ask for pity. Instead, she was noted for her sharp tongue and many called her “Mrs. Malaprop” for her habitual, but inappropriate, use of long words.
The spirit grew incredibly powerful in a variety of ways. It could debate scripture with the finest ministers, debate history with scholars, and could sense any wrongdoing in the community. Often, the spirit openly broadcasted the locals’ deepest secrets. It was said the people in Adams were very careful of their behavior during the witch’s residence. It could tell of events that happened far from the Bell household, at the time they happen.
The spirit repeated sermons hours after they were spoken in church. It foretold family events in North Carolina with dependable accuracy. The spirit was shamelessly racist and hated the Bell’s slaves with a passion. It mocked them, called them the vilest names, and physically assaulted them whenever it could. One poor slave boy was slapped around, another slave girl was shoved down the steps, and the witch spat on them all.
Oddly enough, one thing the witch couldn’t stand was investigators. It grew most furious when anyone attempted to find its origins or its real purpose. There were several visitors at the Bell household one evening when the spirit decided to shake their hands to prove its power. One gentleman held onto the hand as hard as he could and yelled for brighter light. The force grew irate and wouldn’t acknowledge him after. The same outcome arose anytime a witchdoctor or conjurer visited the household.
Another strange tale came from a “respectable” bachelor neighbor of the Bell household. He claimed he tried to sleep one night when the spirit entered his house. It crawled under his bed, as if to start tormenting him. He grabbed onto the being with a sheet and held tight. He was going to throw it in the fire, but a sudden noxious odor made him cover his face. The witch escaped. Witch doctors, conjurers, and wizards frequented the Bell house in the hopes of defeating the spirit. Dr. Mize was just such a figure, who was also humiliated and chased away.
The focus on Betsy ended early into the haunting, and it targeted John Bell. For some reason, the spirit only became cross with Betsy if she spent time with Joshua Gardner. It openly said, “Don’t marry Joshua Gardener.” As long as she complied with its wishes, she was left alone. The spirit only attacked her if she tried to talk to or associate with her beau.
The being was not content to with mere communicate. Soon, it split into four distinct entities, each with its own name: Black Dog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem. The spirits fought just as much with one another as they did people.
One of the most unusual elements of the Bell Witch haunting happened after it became a familiar presence in the household. The spirits somehow became intoxicated. One night, it showed itself through overturned furniture, slurred speech, and filled the house with the smell of whiskey. It claimed it got the drink from John Gardner’s still house. The spirit cursed with obscenities the family hadn’t encountered previously.
Strangely, the witch adored Lucy Bell. It repeatedly stated what a good woman “Old Luce” was. One day, Lucy became ill with an attack of pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs. It was a dangerous affliction for that time. The witch showed a soft side to her, often asking what she wanted. She even told the spirit once to hush, she didn’t feel like talking, and it listened. The spirit brought her grapes and cracked hazelnuts when she asked. It always knew where everything was in the nearby forests, from hazelnuts and grapes to hickory wood.
Betsy decided to visit her elder sister who lived nearby with her family. While there, she and her sister noticed four apparitions in the trees beyond the yard. They all bent over saplings and rode them. They appeared to be human, but everyone knew what they were. Bennett Porter, Betsy’s brother-in-law, came outside with a gun and fired at them. The figures disappeared, but that night, Black Dog said Porter had broken Jerusalem’s leg.
Dean discussed what he encountered. He tried to kill the witch dog one evening as it followed him. He carried an axe and hit the phantom animal in the head. The axe went though the figure and into the ground. The next night, the same pattern repeated, but the dog had two heads. From that point on, the witch dog appeared in either form, or even headless on some occasions.
John Bell went outside one morning, after the witch had been with the family for two years. Something tripped him and he fell. It beat him until he went into a seizure. He returned home and went to bed. He would never go outside again. The witch laughed at his illness. One doctor visited and found a strange glass vial of poison hidden in the chimney flue. When asked, the spirit said it was going to use the substance to kill John Bell. It was taken from the house.
Bell suffered for some time. One morning in December, the witch laughed continually as it told the family it poisoned John. It used the substance in the dark bottle in the medicine cabinet. They investigated and found all of Bell’s usual medicines gone. In their place, a vial of strange liquid, just like the one the doctor took away. The substance was never identified and Bell died the next morning. The witch even laughed at the burial, as they shoveled dirt over the coffin.
The spirit lingered a few weeks after and never manifested, except for when Betsy was around Joshua. A year later, the community had a fishing party beside Red River. Betsy attended with Joshua Gardner. Suddenly, fish began jumping out of the water. The fishing poles began to bend. A familiar whisper came to Betsy that she should not marry Joshua Gardener. Fearing its return, she broke off the engagement. She was never the same after the witch visited and could not sleep unless someone was in the room with her.
The witch declared it would return every 7 years, but didn’t keep its promise. One account stated it returned for a few weeks in February of 1828. After that, it was gone. After Mrs. Bell died, the Bell house and surrounding buildings were torn down and repurposed elsewhere.
Today, skeptics are eager to dismiss any mention of the Bell Witch. It has been claimed that Our Family Trouble, written by Richard Bell can’t be accepted because the haunting ended when he was 10. However, if we discount all events children suffered, and wrote about in adulthood, a good portion of our modern history might not exist.
For argument’s sake, it is best to simply state that “something” happened. Richard Bell emphasized in his book that his parents blamed the initial events on mischievous neighbors, if they discussed them. They tried to keep as much of the haunting as possible away from the younger children.
Another interesting fact is the lack of attention given to an incredibly suspicious character. Betsy’s schoolteacher was named Professor Richard Powell. Powell had an obvious interest in Betsy that went beyond the classroom. He frequently visited the Bell house to talk about her accomplishments.
A Possible Suspect?
Powell was married to Esther Scott, who lived in Dickenson County, Tennessee. Scott was 18 years his senior. Powell never told anyone in the community he was married and, remarkably, his wife died just after John Bell. He was then free to pursue Betsy and three years later, she finally consented and they were married. While we can’t state Powell was behind everything with certainty, many things about this haunting are very intriguing. Many signals point in his direction and go far beyond his hiding his first marriage.
Despite the numbers of onlookers who visited the Bell house, the spirit never manifested when Powell visited. Powell never mentioned the events in his writings or diaries, despite his regular Bell household visits and the eventual marriage to Betsy. The spirit only showed a malicious jealousy towards her if she was around Joshua Gardener.
All of these little details make the spirit incredibly human. The episode of intoxication is another such event. It claimed to read minds, but that theory was tested and debunked. Two of the spirits additional names also draw suspicions. Powell was an expert with all things mathematical. He carried a personal diary he called his, “ciphering book” which held over 270 pages of advanced mathematical problems. Two of the spirits claimed to be, “Mathematics” and “Cypocryphy.” Cypocryphy is an advanced mathematical term that’s still obscure, even in our Information Age.
The slaves of the era suspected Powell all along. They believed he somehow “brought on” the events so he could marry Betsy. Perhaps that is one reason the spirit manifested such an open hatred towards the persons of color on the farm. Believers ponder Powell’s behavior and note that New Orleans, home of American voodoo, was only a boating trip away from Adams, Tennessee.
One of the most disturbing modern “explanations” is John Bell’s sexually abuse of Betsy, as the reason why the haunting focused on him. While it is creative, it is a thoroughly abominable accusation with no evidence. Strangely enough, it’s also the one used in the film. A household with seven children today is lacking in privacy, for any family member. This event occurred in an era before televisions, video games, or any other electronic diversion. With the number of family in the household, as well as servants, a continual stream of visitors, and the fact that the Bell household had two daughters, this theory is highly improbable. Despite the spirit’s revelations of community members’ wrongdoing, no accusations were leveled against John or Betsy Bell. Likewise, the spirit never gave a reason as to why Betsy shouldn’t marry Joshua.
Addressing other Rumors
To put other rumors to rest, it should also be stated that Richard Powell did not keep a diary. His ciphering book contained a little genealogical information, but nothing of interest beyond mathematic problems. There were no Native American burial grounds around Adams, Tennessee. The “Bell Witch Cave” is a modern invention based upon a little known incident where the Bell Witch supposedly helped one of Betsy’s friends out of a cave.
There were rumors that Powell was involved in the occult, but the only evidence is from reports of other people. His students claimed that he spoke to himself, in unknown languages, when he was alone. Several also claimed to have barged in the school when they forgot something, and interrupted the teacher who had lit candles and was speaking from a strange book.
The Bell family never believed Kate Batts was at fault, or the cause, of any of their troubles. Any conflict between she and John Bell was never believed to be an issue.
Much of the lore and legend surrounding the family seems to stem from humanity’s need to justify terrible events. It embraces the notion that, for something like this to afflict Bell and his family, he must’ve done something to warrant it. As we will find in these situations, it just isn’t the case.
- One legend states President Andrew Jackson visited the property and had an interaction with the spirit. Today, some sources state this was false, but several witnesses, including a Major, claimed to be there.
- M. V. Ingram based his book on interviews with more than 43 people of Robertson County. Many of them were old enough to have first-hand information.
- The Bell family did not profit in any way from the events. They did not accept donations or gifts. As a matter of fact, they fed visitors without charge. One of the most puzzling facts for skeptics to encounter was the complete lack of motive for a hoax.