The Pursuit of the Bell Witch

bell witch
An image of the “Red Book” taken from the Amazon page where it is listed as “out-of-print.”

 

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 past two centuries. One of the earliest non-biographical works was a poem called The Trials of Betsy Bell, writer unknown, published in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1906. More recently, the film An American Haunting (2005), gave the story a very modern, albeit shallow and stereotypical interpretation.

The physical location of the Bell house was on the south bank of Red River. It was around a mile from Adams Station and around 40 miles north of Nashville, Tennessee. The house was torn down after Lucy Bell’s death and the materials were repurposed elsewhere.

 

Unfortunately, the facts are not so neatly packaged as what is seen in books and movies. A variety of issues and challenges plague skeptics and supporters alike. Today, we can look back upon the evidences and see one haunting possibility that no one seems to have considered since the first book was published. Before we discuss this seemingly obscure twist, we’ll discuss the family and their story.

 

It Begins…

This mysterious haunting didn’t receive much media attention until Clarksville newspaper editor M. V. Ingram published his book in 1894. Even then, the volume was only regionally circulated and only a few copies were distributed. The book’s actual history was far earlier.

Richard William Bell, Elizabeth “Betsy” Bell’s brother, authored a book in 1846. It had been 26 years since John Bell’s death. The book was hidden away after he wrote it. His work, Our Family Trouble, was to counter a newspaper article created by one of the Bell Witch investigators. The investigator published his account in 1849, but the actual work has been lost to time. The only existent information on the piece is that a newspaper-sponsored investigator concluded, since he couldn’t think of any other possibility, Betsy Bell was responsible for the entire hoax. She not only terrorized her own family, but also murdered her father in cold blood. William was so angered that he knew he had to clear her name. Betsy lost a great deal from the witch, not only her betrothed, but also her father and her peace-of-mind. She was unable to sleep in a bed by herself, for the rest of her life, even after the witch disappeared.

 

It Is Published…

Richard died several years after he completed the book and the manuscript went to his son, James Allen Bell, who also kept it hidden. James didn’t grant Ingram permission to publish the book until he was into his golden years, long after all members in the original family were dead. Ingram added Bell’s manuscript to his own sizable collection of personal accounts and documentation. The original book had a massive title:

“An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era. The Mysterious Talking Goblin that Terrorized the West End of Robertson County, Tormenting John Bell to His Death. The Story of Betsy Bell, Her Lover, and the Haunting Sphinx.”

Agent, Printer, and Binder: William P. Titus

Fortunately, we can simply refer to these volumes by their jacket covers. The original volume with the white cover is virtually non-existent. Even the Tennessee State Archives lost the only copy it had. Most copies have likewise been stolen from Tennessee libraries. In 1961, the book was reprinted and packaged with a red cover. This became referred to as the Red Book. A subsequent volume was authored by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, John Bell’s great-grandson. The Black Book was first published in 1934.

Ingram’s book lightly implicated Bell’s neighbor, Kate Batts, as being behind the family’s nightmare. It is worthy of note, however, that the Batts and the Bells were always on speaking terms. Kate Batts was also furious when the spirit said it was affiliated with her. Ingram 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, although many suspected human forces were behind much of it. Most of those who accept the story believe the witch was actually a poltergeist or demon. During the Nineteenth Century, it was called a “goblin.” To simplify matters, we’ll simply call it a “spirit” in this series of articles.

Series NavigationThe Bell Family History >>

2 thoughts on “The Pursuit of the Bell Witch

  • December 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm
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    All known copies have disappeared? Doesn’t that seem rather strange, Laura? It makes one think these books either really didn’t exist or perhaps they (or the one on which they were based–the original?) contained something that someone wanted maintained as a secret. The multiple disappearances of the same book in itself is a mystery for a post or even a book.

    So you don’t believe the witch actually existed? The evidence tends to point to human orchestration, although details challenge those theories as well.

    Reply
    • December 7, 2013 at 10:43 pm
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      No, the printer was a small outfit in Chicago (unknown today) and there just weren’t that many books created. I think the only printing was the first run and that was a few thousand, which isn’t many at all for a national topic, and the Bell Witch was a national topic at the time. By 1920, it was already a rare book, but a few copies still existed in libraries and things. I think the Tennessee archives had theirs until around the 1960s or 1970s, so it’s something that people alive today have seen. And then the 1961 reprint helped keep the history alive.

      I don’t think it was a witch per se, but a witch might’ve helped the person responsible. I believe it was something summoned and used against the family. I found so much on the Bell Witch, I had to break it down into a series for the blog. I’ve got plenty more to go. You were right in that much of my research has expanded many of the topics on here, but that also means the articles are just way too long to be “articles.” So, I’m having to break them all down into article series to get the info organized and delivered in readable portions.

      I think the entity or force was oddly human, and that is what made it unique, as opposed to something like the Oak Level Witch or the Bouncing Bed Witch. For now, I’ll just say someone wanted something John Bell had, and they were going to kill him to get it. And they did get what they wanted. But, time to pay for getting what they wanted came only a few years later. That’s later on in the series, too.

      So, I very much believe it happened and it was supernatural, I just think a human was behind it.

      Reply

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