The Trials of Betsy Bell

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Bell Witch

The Trials of Betsy Bell is a little-known song that once appeared in Southern Lyrics, a book published in 1907. The song is noted as being written in July of 1906, but there is no information on the writer.

‘Tis scarcely yet one hundred years
Since came and went the things I tell,

Since lived and loved, in direful fears,
The blue-eyed beauty, Betsy Bell.

‘Twas in the land of Tennessee,
Beneath those skies of deepest blue,

Where rarest things are wont to be,
And all I tell is surely true.

Now, Betsy was in gladsome youth,
Just bordering on fair womanhood,

When Love, young Love, in sweetest truth
And pleading smiles, before her stood.

Josh Gardner, whom she met in school,
Had wooed and won that pulsing heart;

They met and loved in spite of rule,
And pledged they nevermore would part.

But ere the nuptial knot was tied
A spirit came, a goblin sprite,

Who talked and sang and plead and cried,
And gave to Betsy greatest fright.

It begged our Betsy not to take
Josh Gardner, yet no reason why;

At last this elf in firmness spake:
“You shall not, or you surely die!”

Kate was the name they gave the sprite,
And, oh! what sorrow none can tell

It brought in anger day and night
And heaped upon poor Betsy Bell!

Sometimes it struck her face a blow
And threw her shoes no telling where;

Then all her hairpins next would go
And leave a mass of tangled hair.

Sometimes a host of pins were stuck
Into her flesh while Kate would scoff;

On coldest night ’twas Betsy’s luck
To have the bedclothes all stripped off.

Sometimes this mystic sprite would sing
The sweetest songs or pray a prayer;

Again its hidden hand would bring
The daintiest things to eat or wear.

But, oh! so often in the night
Kate came just like a drunken beast;

Poor Betsy, in her awful fright,
Ran screaming till Kate’s anger ceased.

Then Kate would plead, “Sweet Betsy Bell.
Don’t marry Josh, I beg you so;

Don’t marry Josh, just go and tell
Him I have bid you answer no.

Once in the evening Betsy walked
Beneath an oak, and, strange the scene,

There swung before her, as it talked,
A little woman dressed in green.

Again one day the spirit stood
Before her, combed its long, dark hair,

And, talk as much as Betsy would,
It did not see her standing there.

She saw it next,—a big black dog
Went laughing by, its heads were two;

Sometimes it passed as talking hog,
Oft strangest bird above her flew.

Oft Josh and Betsy walked about
On flowery bank beneath shadowy oak;

But Kate was sure to find them out—
“Don’t marry Josh,” she always spoke.

“Don’t marry Josh, just answer no;
My Betsy Bell, Kate speaks to you;

I’ll make your life a scene of woe;
Then off her dainty slippers flew.

It killed her father, then it said
To Betsy, “Josh you must release;

Old Jack, your father, now is dead,
And you must live, but not in peace.”

And then in pleading tones again,
“Don’t marry Josh, my Betsy dear!

Take Powell, he’s the man of men,
And never have you aught to fear.”

For three long years this spirit strove
With Betsy Bell her vow to break;

It could not once suppress her love,
But Josh, it seemed, she must forsake.

So one day beneath a giant oak
Whose shadows weirdly, densely spread,

To Josh with tearful eyes she spoke,
“My dear, I know we cannot wed;

A spirit bids us separate,
A wicked fiend we can’t control;

But long I’ll rue our helpless fate,
A fate that wrecks my mateless soul.”

“And must we part,” said Josh, “and go,
No more to meet beneath this shade?

O, Betsy Bell! the grief I know
Can never from my bosom fade.

Yet we must part, the spirits say,
And I must bid you now farewell;

Apart we take our silent way;
Adieu, adieu, my Betsy Bell!”

Then came a laugh from out the tree,
A chuckle as from deepest Hell:

“I told you, Josh, it could not be;
I told you so, sweet Betsy Bell.”

Southern Lyrics: A Series of Original Poems on Love, Home, and the Southland, Robert Paine Hudson, Southern lyrics Publishing Company, Nashville, TN, 1907

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  1. >>Kate was the name they gave the sprite,
    And, oh! what sorrow none can tell<<

    Interesting that the writer associated the spirit with Kate Batts. Considering there are many inconsistencies regarding Kate's involvement, I am curious what details the writer/poet considered when writing this, hmm.

    This is also strange, considering Dean, the slave (and other slaves) knew, or suspected, Powell early on, so why would anyone there gthink "Kate"? Even YOU said there was little to no animosity between her and John Bell.

    Still, Powell's name came up l;ater in the poem, so the implication can be made that Powell used Kate's identity to throw off suspicion. On the other hand, of the four identities shared, presumably by Powell, none was "Kate," so this deviation is indeed a curious one.

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Author

      It’s difficult to tell. The Bell Witch claimed it was “Kate Batts witch,” last of all, so by that point no one believed it. Most people didn’t pay any attention to it, but it was mentioned in Ingram’s book. That was probably where the writer got it.

      I think simple racism prevented most people from considering much of what blacks said about it. I hit several articles published from the 1890s through the 1920s that just dismissed anything the slaves said. We owe a great amount of debt to talkative slaves. Many places I research have no proof or mention anywhere, unless the slaves talked to others. I don’t think anyone listened to them in the 1820s, either. Here was Powell, quirky, but still a schoolteacher, as opposed to uneducated slaves. I think (sadly) most just would’ve sided with Powell, even if it did come out.

  2. That may be, but John Bell’s “over my dead body” attitude regarding Powell’s desire to marry Betsy, as swell as everyone’s view that his interest in her was inappropriate, would suggest suspicions coincided with those of the slaves, at least those of Dean. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, under those circumstances, that Bell and everyone else involved would consider the slaves credible, even if they didn’t actively support the beliefs of the latter. Why would anyone side with a man exhibiting suspicious and/or inappropriate behavior? That would be inconsistent and senseless.

    Then again, perhaps I am missing something.

    1. Author

      I would like to think that they would. Society was absolutely atrocious to blacks before the 1940s. That’s one of the reasons I don’t think the Civil War had anything to do with slavery, when it was ongoing, because Jim Crowe was slavery, but that’s another story altogether. I do think Hollywood helped bridge the gap a little when World War II began. There was a Jack-the-Ripper in Atlanta in 1910-1912. Operated just like White Chapel Jack, mutilated corpses, everything. Killed upwards of 12-15 girls, but they were racially mixed, so no one cared. I have a section on it to put up sometime, too.

      Newspapers had separate sections for “colored” readers well past the 1920s. That’s one dangers of diving into the old texts. I had no idea the racism was as bad as it was. I have history books that show black people with captions like “sleepy, illiterate negro.” And the crimes, you wouldn’t believe what kind of crimes happened across the entire nation to them. I could preach a sermon on it…lol.

      Anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did support a shady white character over a honest, reliable black person. I hate to say it, and I hate to think they would, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

      I know we can’t change history, but sometimes it makes you feel a little better to bring awareness to what happened. I have one case I’m going to put up at Virginia Creeper ( about a black man, who was caught in an affair with a white woman in TN. She accused him of “putting a spell on her.” He fled, but her husband and relatives caught him, and they tortured him like Nazis. I can’t stand thinking people who’ve suffered such horrors are forgotten. I can’t help, but think of the old adage that if we forget our past, we’re going to repeat it.

  3. I recall reading about a young black man from Chicago (don ‘t recall his name) who, in 1955, visited a family member in northern Mississippi and was killied by a group of white men for leering the wrong way at the wife of one of the men who killed him. His grandmother subsequently said that the hole in her grandson’s head was so large, she could see the sky through it. His corpse, at his funeral, was pretty disturbing. Apparently, this young man had no chance for a fair trial (not that he violated any crime, technically). The slightest thing out-of-line, and southern whites make a serious point such as this. It resonates.

    1. Author

      Yes, things like that. And it wasn’t just in the South, which is mostly what is assumed today. Look at Boston when integration was being enforced. The KKK also gained notoriety due to attacks in Indiana and Wisconsin, just to name a couple. Well, I know it’s Wikipedia, but it’s a good place to start if you ever want to research it:

      It’s astounding. I don’t generally mention any specific region as being the worst in regard to racial brutality, because they were all equally bad.

      1. Thanks for the links, and please don’t apologize. I am very familiar with such behavior throughout the entire country. I was using an example that took place in a southern state. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is prevalent throughlout space and time.

        Wikipedia has a questionable reputation, but it IS getting better, algthough it isn’t quite there yet. I tend to review the sources used to support claims there. Some are notable, others not so. I go by a case-by-case approach when it comes to this particuar online reference.

        1. Author

          I think the mainstream info has really improved and it’s well-sourced. The stuff I usually research though is still like it was…lol. I’ve been tempted to correct it, but always feared linking to my own web site would be considered spam. My husband has tried to work on some of the pages connected to genealogy and, apparently, they’re guarded. Every time he tries to fix something, a few hours later, it’s just like it was.

  4. I usually don’t rely on Wikipedia, but it does provide a basis on which to expand, depending on the subject and the sources cited. I always corroborate it with more reputable sources. I always remain wary, though.

    Why not correct it and link your sources? I presume you catalog and maintain archives of your various sources. All the editors there can do is simply disagree with whether or not the source is reliable, and that would be their right. I know some of those editors can be self-righteous. I have read many of their comments. For example, a couple of editors actually had the gall to question Robin Williams’s birthyear, even though he had stated it more than once on various TV talk shows as being 1951. The reasoning of the editors was that Williams memory could be off or some such thing. They would require a birth certificate. Don’t get me wrong. As an editor myself, I understand the need to be responsible, but to question the PRIMARY source of information is out-of-line at best. If I were to tell them my birthyear to be 1964 for a page on me, they better be damn sure to accept it. I am 100% certain I was born that year, and I have the documentation to prove it, lol.

    Yes, Wikipedia has had the problem with many people going on and putting in whatever. This is why the website needed expert administration to ensure its reliability.

    As for Sean, has he ever communicated with the editors there of his background and offered some sort of proof? What does Sean do?

    1. Author

      I think it’s pretty hopeless. He’s tried to talk to many, but the subject has been formally hijacked. It takes a bit of explaining. For example, he tried correcting the article on the Melungeons. The Wikipedia article relies on much dubious and questionable sources. You can’t change it. There’s a lot of money in a lot of little towns that use the term “Melungeon,” but it’s a lie. The title just applies to a single community of isolationists in Hancock/Hawkins Counties in TN. Every little town in the Appalachians has leeched on to the name and it’s sad. The actual group hated the term because it is a racially derogatory word. There’s also some suspicious activity in the DNA genealogy industry. Many residents in the southern states are being told they’re African-American, when they’re not, and they have their family trees traced. There is apparently still a bit of post-Civil War sentiment in a number of such groups that want the southern states to be “mongralized” for lack of a better term. The going notion seems to be that no European, African, or Native American in the south is anything, but of mixed ancestry. Which, no one really cares about color, but when you spend decades tracing your family lines, you don’t want to be told it’s wrong because the current experts are essentially clueless. Many of the current experts have no degrees, but have the time to really push these theories. You wouldn’t think something like that would be the hot-button issue it is. People are being told their family histories are just wrong because there had to be slaves in there, or vice versa and there had to be a white overseer. Sean was actually told there was a slave in his family because of his DNA, despite the fact that he traced it, and those DNA results actually go back thousands and tens of thousands of years. You would never know things like that happened if you didn’t encounter it. People are being ostracized and barred from genealogy groups because of their DNA results. It’s pretty ridiculous and it happens daily. And those who protest the system or try to make corrections are called “racist” or accused of being “uncomfortable with their roots.” DNA for genealogy is one of the newest areas of DNA study, yet they’ve already given every race their own DNA haplogroup, based upon modern populations. It’s like saying we’re Native Americans because we’re currently the largest population in North America. They have no historic basis to construct such theories, and rather than waiting to establish some kind of logical basis, they went ahead and put everyone in a niche. It’s a headache in itself. He’s a technician in a automotive company.

      1. If they continue to revert his comments back to the way they had the text before, they apparently have different sources they believe are reputable. It’s all subjective, even with editors. In lieu of this, you can’t really fight them, as aggravating as the situation is. Why do/did they adhere to certain sources? Your guess is as good as mine. What was their reasoning behind it?

        As for the term “Melungeon,” I have heard of this term and the people to which it refers, and I agree that generalization is a dangerous thing, especially when it misleads and/or causes confusion. Taking the easy way out is both lazy and incompetent. If correct information requires further research, then so be it. It’s better for information to be complex in expression and right than simple and wrong.

        Sorry. Did I miss anything here?

        1. Author

          The sources they rely upon are not scholarly, things like blogs. They cite the people who reenforce the stereotypes and generalizations. One of the individuals they hail as an “expert” on genealogy DNA actually dropped out of school in the 8th grade and retired from work in a glass plant. But, he has a plethora of followers that adhere to everything he says, including any biases or prejudices. It’s really remarkable, as he’s been interviewed for newspaper articles and genealogy studies for years. It’s wonderful that he’s done so much with so little formal background, but strange that he’s relied upon by so many, so entirely.

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