Bell Witch Skeptics and the Issues They Face

skeptics
Dean, the Bell family slave, encounters the two-headed witch dog. Illustration from Ingram’s original work.

Bell Witch skeptics existed when word first traveled that the Bell family experienced unusual trouble. The haunting has been blamed on Betsy, John, Jesse, and some have even blamed the entire family for orchestrating everything. Kate Batts has been blamed for nearly two centuries, over some minor dispute that both families dismissed.

Some today claim that Richard Bell’s book, Our Family Trouble, isn’t acceptable because the haunting ended when he was a boy. If we discount all events suffered during childhood, but discussed in adulthood, a good portion of modern history would not exist.

There was a mention of the events in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee regarding the Bell Witch:

“A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the ‘Bell Witch.’ This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The feats it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfort of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary.”[1]

This is the earliest mention we can find today, although national newspaper articles regarding the Bell Witch were being published as late as the 1840s. Sadly, none is available today. Goodspeed’s volume was published in 1886, long before M.V. Ingram’s book.

Richard Bell emphasized 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. They also discouraged discussion of the events while they happened, and even after it was over. There was a persistent feeling amid relatives that discussion might somehow summon the entity.

Most under the Bell roof were primarily blamed to some degree for contributing, or masterminding, the entire thing. This is where many of the issues skeptics run into problems.

1. There was simply no motive for staging or faking the events. The family never accepted any gifts or money for their trouble. They never received any benefit. As a matter of fact, they followed the old ways of hospitality, so all visitors were fed and often given sleeping quarters, for free. The idea that the entire arrangement would be done solely for attention is absurd.

There is also the problem that the witch appeared with or without family members in the room. If ventriloquism were to blame, it would require at least one practiced family member to attend. The last major snag with this issue is that John Bell indeed died, so the family wouldn’t just be deceiving the public for attention, they would’ve been responsible for murder.

2. The Bell family lived law-abiding, responsible lives, close with neighbors, and active in their community. They were accused of ventriloquism, mimicry, conjuring, and many more activities to deceive those around them. The problem’s crux is that mastery in any of these skills requires years of practice. How could such a large family possibly engage in the necessary training to develop these abilities to fool those around them, without witnesses? The household had many talkative servants and visitors.

3. There were far too many visitors and witnesses for any sleight-of-hand. Thousands made the pilgrimage to Adams to see the events for themselves. Scholars, ministers, and persons of all education backgrounds came to witness the spectacle. Some records state scientists and scholars came from as far away as London to evaluate the activity. The family of a planter might fool others in their community, but a steady flow of outsiders would make simple illusion impossible.

4. There was also the issue of time. Even masters of prestidigitation can’t operate 24/7. The witch was at the Bell house for several years. The investigators thoroughly checked for evidence of trickery many times over. The family nearly dismantled the house when the noises first started. Neighbors and visitors both contributed to dismantling and digging for the alleged “tooth under the house.”

5. Mass hallucination or mass hysteria would mean that all people, from all walks of life, and all education levels, suffered the exact same hallucination at the same time. There were thousands of visitors to the Bell household while the haunting was ongoing. In a nutshell, this means scientists and scholars experienced the same activity as illiterate vagrants or farmers.

The witch drove drifters and strangers away from the Bell property by throwing clods of dirt and twigs at them. Many were pursued by an unseen attacker. All traveled alone, yet gave nearly identical reports. It is highly doubtful that such a broad spectrum of backgrounds and intelligence levels would give the same experience to all.

There is a rumor that John Bell’s house was built by the grandfather of Betsy’s future husband, Richard Powell. It is said that the culprit behind the activity used a secret system of halls and passages to terrorize the family and the visitors. No evidence has ever supported this. As far as it is known, John Bell oversaw the construction of his family’s house. Similarly, there weren’t any unexpected discoveries when the home was torn down.

 

 

Sources:

1. Goodspeed History of Tennessee from the Earliest Time to the Present: Together with an Historical and a Biographical Sketch of from Twenty-five to Thirty Counties of East Tennessee. Chicago: Goodspeed, 1887. Print.

 

Series Navigation<< Betsy Bell and Incorporeal AdolescenceProfessor Powell: The Mind behind the Bell Witch? >>

2 thoughts on “Bell Witch Skeptics and the Issues They Face

  • December 12, 2013 at 7:11 pm
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    You know, Laura, I am a student of and have great respect for science, but from time to time I question some perspectives devised through this school of thought. Science utilizes logic as well as other modes of analysis. How is mass hallucination logical when multiple witnesses of varying backgrounds and educational levels make closely similar or identical claims regarding such phenomena? Wouldn’t that be a contradiction? It certainly would, yes.

    Universal testimony regarding such phenomena, however, wouldn’t prove the existence of the paranormal, but it would conclude that what people witnessed likely happened. The actual source may be up for conjecture.

    The point: mass hallucination is a weak argument in terms of logic and even the scientific measure where a studied claim becomes stronger according to high numbers. How do skeptics justify this excuse?

    Still, as an objective writer and researcher myself, I am against automatically jumping to any conclusion without thorough evaluation and the presence of concrete evidence. This includes logic, even without if the evidence suggests so, for going against evidence is illogical. Of course, the world consists of more than merely the physical. Human experience, even science itself, has dictated this many times over.

    I ask: What concrete evidence exists beyond the high number of witnesses? To which conclusions does that evidence presently point? Well, obviously the findings offer nothing yet irrefutably conclusive, otherwise the subject wouldn’t still be in debate at this time. The skeptics will continue because it is in their nature to do so. They believe what they believe, so evidence would not really hold any weight with them. I guess that goes for many.

    Reply
    • December 12, 2013 at 11:20 pm
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      No, I don’t think there can be definitive proof after all this time. We’ve lost too much info. Although, I think shows like When Ghosts Attack, on Destination, prove similar hauntings still take place, where people are hurt or even die from the encounters. I don’t think skeptics really care about how logical their assumptions are, in much of anything. For most of them, I don’t think any amount of proof would convince them. I probably said before I think the hyper-skepticism we see today has ruined much of what made science so wonderful.

      Ultimately, it’s up for grabs when it comes to how it happened, or even why, in the grand scheme of things. I just provide my own theory, based upon what evidence I can locate. No other haunting has an ending quite so neatly packaged, Bell died, and the spirit behaved for a couple of weeks before it was gone altogether. It wasn’t exorcised, wasn’t confronted in spiritual defiance, it just left of its own accord. I think I could see a vengeful spirit more if Bell were some kind of criminal or murderer. Not just a simple planter with a farm. They had slaves, but weren’t overtly cruel or degrading as far as I can find. I know just one of the Bell’s house slaves had 7 children, and he kept them together as a family. Many others would’ve sold them all off. I think they were emancipated after the Bell parents died, because most of the kids moved out-of-state.

      I’ve hit the old books on the Bell Witch haunting for several years. I guess since I watched An American Haunting, and was so disappointed. I have a few more related articles to post, and then I should be done with it for a while. I have a stack of research on many topics, but can’t seem to find the time to finish them. I’m hoping when son is out for Christmas vacation, I’ll get caught up. I hope.

      Reply

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