Professor Powell: The Mind behind the Bell Witch?

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Bell Witch

Many theories have emerged since the haunting began, yet the most suspicious character is seldom mentioned. Betsy Bell was accused of conspiring and orchestrating the events that led to her father’s murder. Her brothers were accused of the same. John Bell has been grotesquely accused of sexually molesting his own daughter(s). Lucy Bell has been accused of poisoning her husband. Kate Batts is still accused. Yet, one individual close to the Bell family had everything to gain if John Bell and Joshua Gardener were out of the picture.

There is a host of evidence linking the spirit to a very human originator, who may have utilized some kind of supernatural manipulation. The most telling fact is the witch had to learn its abilities. A spirit would’ve already known how to simply talk. The being at the Bell house had to learn how to be visible, how to make noise, to whistle, before it could ever talk.

The spirit couldn’t decide if it wanted to be malevolent or benevolent. The witch also helped the family. It knew where to find berries and the best kinds of wood, such as the best wood for an axe handle. It cared for Lucy when she was ill, just as it laughed at John when he was. For all the horror it unleashed, history also recorded bizarre helpful side. No similar case, not the Clip Wizard, or the Oak Level Witch, ever displayed a tender nature.

It claimed it hated John Bell, and that was the reason for its manifestation. It also claimed it would follow “Old Jack,” no matter where he went. It didn’t. It followed Betsy. Every time she stayed with a neighbor, and even when she visited her sister, the spirit followed. It could not provide a single reason for its hatred of John Bell, or why Betsy shouldn’t marry the boy she loved.

The spirit knew many secrets within the community, but not all. It repeated sermons hours after they happened, but a person in the community, such as a minister or schoolteacher, could do the same. This may be because the spirit was there, or because the individual behind the spirit was there. Those who shook its hands reported the spirit had soft hands, which could be the hands of a schoolteacher.

Betsy’s schoolteacher was named Professor Richard Powell. Richard Rowell Ptolemy Powell is a strange figure that left a mammoth amount of circumstantial evidence everywhere he went. Little is known about him, despite his “ciphering book,” also called his “computation book.” The volume carried many mathematical problems and a tiny amount of the Powell family history.

Powell was born in North Carolina, on December 8, 1795. His parents were Richard and Parthenia Powell. He married Esther Scott on December 7, 1815. She lived in Dickenson County, Tennessee, and was 18 years older than Richard was. Strangely, despite Powell’s work as the schoolteacher, no one in the community ever knew he was married. He mentioned his marriage to Scott in his book, but didn’t provide any information on his own wife’s death. In contrast, he was certain to mention his marriage to Betsy.

Powell had an obvious interest in Betsy that went beyond the classroom. He frequently visited the Bell house to talk about her and her academic accomplishments. Johnson family folklore states that neither James Johnson, nor John Bell, ever trusted Powell. They saw an inappropriate nature to his interest in the young girl. John openly stated that, at 26, Powell was far too old for Betsy. Both men were privately said to believe there was something sneaky and dishonest about him. Family lore also stated Bell declared Powell would marry Betsy, “over my dead body.”

With nearly two centuries separating the events at the Bell household, of course we can’t make a concrete declaration, but a tremendous number of red flags point in Powell’s direction. These go far beyond just hiding his marriage, or pursuing a child while he was married.

The witch never manifested when Powell visited. This is a peculiar aspect, as it manifested for everyone else. Powell never spoke of the witch to anyone, which is also suspicious. The Bell Witch and the constant stream of spectators was a common topic in the small village of Adams. As a schoolteacher, he would be privy to many private matters within the community. Utilizing this information could make the witch seem omnipotent.

The witch also didn’t bother Betsy unless she showed interest in Joshua Gardner. Esther, Betsy’s eldest sister, was married and never had any issue from the spirit. Her husband actually shot the spirit, but there was no spiritual cry for vengeance. Another strange facet is that the spirit repeatedly told Betsy not to marry Josh Gardner, but never gave a reason. Out of all the Bell children, Betsy was the only one who was tormented if she attempted to have a relationship.

The witch was abnormally vicious when it came to the family’s slaves. It absolutely hated them. This could be seen as either a show of simple ignorance, or a sign that the slaves suspected correctly. In the history of the paranormal, no popular haunting is known to involve a racist spirit. Most of the Bell servants suspected Powell was behind everything all along.

The Red Book indicates the slaves were convinced Powell terrorized the Bell family, with the goal of marrying Betsy Bell, and getting her inheritance. Believers often ponder Powell’s behavior and note that New Orleans, the home of American voodoo, was only a boating trip away from Adams, Tennessee. The activity in the household could be some sort of curse, or even a matter of something like bilocation.

The episode of intoxication is another “unheard of” event in the spiritual world. No widely known spirit, at any point in history, has gotten drunk. It’s impossible for a spiritual form to be under that kind of influence. This is further confirmation for those who suspect human manipulation behind it.

The spirit claimed to read minds, but that theory was tested and debunked. Two of the spirits’ names were also suspicious. Powell was an expert with all things mathematical. His ciphering book held over 270 pages of advanced mathematical problems written by his father. Two of the spirits claimed to be, “Mathematics” and “Cypocryphy.” Cypocryphy is an advanced mathematical term that’s still obscure, even in the Information Age.

Powell eventually got what he wanted. John Bell died in late 1820 and the witch disappeared after his death. Perhaps it had tired of the Bell house, or it had accomplished its goal. Powell’s wife, Esther Scott, also conveniently died before August of 1821. In late 1821, the Bell witch appeared at the fishing party. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Betsy attended this event with Josh Gardner. Powell’s whereabouts at the time are unknown.

She broke off the engagement due to the witch’s warning. Powell pursued her until 1824, when the two were married. Powell had a strange legacy afterward. He became Sheriff of Robertson County for three years, 1830-1833. He then represented Robertson County in the Tennessee State Legislature for another three years.

He continued his rise in power until 1837. Perhaps he hit a startling patch of bad luck, or perhaps the time came to make divine payment for earlier actions. The Powell family, Richard, Betsy, and their eight children, lost nearly everything they had in a steamboat accident. The grand total of their loss reached $10,000. That amount adjusted for inflation would be over $199,837 today. Powell petitioned the Legislature for financial assistance, for $6,000, but his petition was rejected.

If the financial loss wasn’t bad enough, Powell had a major stroke at the same time. The family remained destitute until he died in 1848. They were too poor to even afford his headstone and he remains buried in an unmarked grave. Betsy eventually moved to Mississippi and lived forty years as a widow. She didn’t die until 1888.

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  1. Um, Laura, if Powell had live to be over 100, he would have been a whopping 153 in 1948 (considering his birth in 1795). I presume you meant 1848? Since Betsy lived until 1888, the latter would make better sense. Just thought I’d point that out to you.

    Yes, this information, or rather these details, on this story are known, but they are always interesting to read. I thought his involvement a strong possibility as well, although how he managed to create the ghostly manifestations would be another story. Also, with Powell as the suspect, how would one account for the apparent adolescent behavior you document in the previous post? Would a possible reason be that Powell incorporated such adolescent attributes as a way of throwing off suspicion? If this be case, perhaps Powell had known others suspected him. This would even account for the meanness the spirit directed at the slaves whom you say knew him to be a likely culprit.

    I presume you are planning to compose a book on this subject? I look forward to reading it. 😉

    1. Author

      Lol. TY for catching that. Yes, it was 1848. I’ve read about the Bell witch for decades, and had never heard Powell mentioned in anything. When I started doing my own research, it was like a lightening bolt. He was in many of the old accounts, but I guess somewhere along the way he just got omitted. Or dismissed.

      I think Powell knew people suspected him of many things, even before the haunting started. He wasn’t from the area, didn’t have any close friends, and no one really knew anything about him. He wasn’t particularly eager to be involved in a great deal of anything, aside from the Bell house. John Bell sensed something “off” about him before the haunting started. I’m sure others noticed that nothing happened while Powell visited and that he had a very inappropriate interest in Betsy, as a student. Rumors of voodoo practice among slaves came as far (that I know of) as Northeast Tennessee, so I’m sure they would have been around Adams, Tennessee. I’d say many of the slaves in that region would be familiar with the practices and rituals, which Powell could’ve used.

      Powell could’ve been a logical genius, like people with autism or savants, who are intellectually gifted, but socially and psychologically backwards. His first wife was 18 years older than he, and they were married until her death, but did not live together and Powell never involved her in anything in Adams. Yet, somehow, they remained married for years. I think that’s a good implication that he was abnormal to start with. I don’t know if he abandoned her or what. Not much is known about her, either.

      Actually, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, yet. I’m putting together another compilation of Appalachian stories and history and thought I’d include it. I guess it’s long enough though to make it’s own volume. When I get in the old books, I can’t stop. There’s so much that’s so new to me, about subjects that are centuries old. It’s amazing.

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