Demystifying the Bell Witch
An exploration of the best way to evaluate an old, unsubstantiated folk legend like The Bell Witch.
by Brian Dunning
September 9, 2008
Along Highway 41 in the hamlet of Adams, Tennessee, amid green fields and trees, stands Tennessee Historical Marker 3C38, entitled The Bell Witch. The solitary marker tells the following tale:
To the north was the farm of John Bell, an early prominent settler from North Carolina. According to legend, his family was harried during the early 19th century by the famous Bell Witch. She kept the household in turmoil, assaulted Bell, and drove off Betsy Bell's suitor. Even Andrew Jackson, who came to investigate, retreated to Nashville after his coach wheels stopped mysteriously. Many visitors to the house saw the furniture crash about them and heard her shriek, sing, and curse.
The Bell Witch story is frequently promoted with two popular claims: That it's the only haunting known to have actually killed a person, and that it's the only haunting to directly involve a US President. Let's briefly summarize the legend.
In 1817, John Bell encountered a strange animal in his field: It had the body of a dog, but the head of a rabbit. For some time thereafter, the Bell family was tormented by pounding on the outside of their farmhouse every night. They would rush out hoping to catch the strange animal, but never found anything. The noises moved indoors — scratching and slamming and strange whispers made sleep nearly impossible. Sometimes pillows and blankets were whisked away by an unseen force. The Bells' youngest daughter Elizabeth, nicknamed Betsy, got the worst of it. She was often slapped and had her hair pulled. Friends who spent the night with the Bells to help were subjected to the same torments. The whispers grew louder and became a disembodied female voice, singing hymns and quoting scriptures, and carried on conversations with the Bells and their guests. Word of the disturbances spread and in 1819 reached Andrew Jackson, a heroic Major in the US Army from the Battle of New Orleans.
Jackson and his men stayed at the Bell homestead to investigate. One of Jackson's men was physically attacked and beaten by an unseen force, and when Jackson himself finally gave up and fled the farm he said "I'd rather fight the entire British Army than to deal with the Bell Witch." Ten years later, he became our 7th President.
The witch's wrath focused increasingly upon John Bell himself, driving him into frail health, until one night in 1820, he was found on his deathbed with a vial of a strange potion. To see what it was, the family gave some of it to the cat, which immediately dropped dead. The witch laughed and sang, and boasted "I gave Ol' Jack a big dose of that last night, and that fixed him." John Bell was dead, but the hauntings continued, and the legend lived on.
If the name of the Bell Witch sounds familiar, it may be the similarity to the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project, which is said to have been at least inspired in part by the Bell Witch story. Following the success of The Blair Witch Project, a rash of movies about the Bell Witch came out hoping to capitalize on the popularity: Bell Witch Haunting in 2004, An American Haunting in 2005, Bell Witch: The Movie in 2007, and IMDB lists a movie called simply Bell Witch as being in production.
Now a lot of listeners are probably saying something like "Oh, another old ghost story, whoop-de-do, Dunning, I wonder what your opinion is going to be on that." Well, I've been doing the skepticism thing a long time, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that every story, no matter how familiar or seemingly obvious, presents some new challenge in honing your critical thinking skills. We've talked about two other popular hauntings on Skeptoid — Borley Rectory and The Amityville Horror — and both turned out to be fabrications by authors. You can't simply ask "Gee, the Amityville family found evil cloven footprints in the snow, how do you explain that?" because the question is based on a false presumption: That such an event actually took place. To use the scientific method to uncover the truth about the Bell Witch, you can't take anything for granted; and before you take the trouble to examine the specific claims, you need to look at the source of the claims to see if there's actually anything to examine.
We start by looking at the published accounts. There have been so many books written about the Bell Witch that I'm not even going to bother naming them. But, for their sources, they all draw upon the earliest book, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch from 1894, by Martin Van Buren Ingram, owner of a regional newspaper. This was the first book published about the Bell Witch, and it was published 75 years after the hauntings. That's a long time. Long enough that the author wasn't even born when the hauntings took place. So what was his source?
Martin Ingram's book is based entirely upon the handwritten diary of Richard Bell. Richard Bell, one of John Bell's sons, was born in 1811, so he was about six years old when the hauntings began. According to Ingram, Richard waited until 1846, more than 30 years, before he actually wrote down the events in his diary. He recorded his 30 year old memories of being a six year old child. Ingram goes on to say that in 1857 Richard gave the diary to his son, Allen Bell, who subsequently (and quite inexplicably) gave it to Ingram, with instructions to keep it private until after the deaths of the immediate family. That happened around 1880, when Ingram began writing his book. Conveniently, every person with firsthand knowledge of the Bell Witch hauntings was already dead when Ingram started his book; in fact, every person with secondhand knowledge was even dead.
Martin Ingram never said anything about what became of this alleged diary. There is no record of anyone else having seen it, and logically, Ingram should have promoted the diary's existence in his newspaper to publicize his book. He did not. I am certainly not convinced that the diary ever existed at all. Why would Richard Bell wait 30 years to write down such an incredible story? Why would Allen Bell give away such a unique heirloom to Ingram? Those are big questions, and Ingram had every reason to falsify the diary's existence.
Ingram's book also falsified at least one other source. His book claims that in 1849, the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about the Bell Witch, blaming the crazy daughter Elizabeth for everything, and then retracted the story shortly thereafter once she threatened to sue. People have looked for such an article and none was ever found. I called the Saturday Evening Post, and was told that their microfilmed archives for that period no longer exist. Researcher Jack Cook went through other microfilms of the Post for several years on either side of 1849 and confirmed that no such article was ever published. Even people looking for it in 1894, following the publication of Ingram's book, failed to find such an article; which casts doubt on Ingram's own ability to have found it. Without exception, all of Ingram's sources for his book were conveniently untraceable.
Historians have found only one printed reference to the Bell Witch that predates the publication of Ingram's book, and it's a brief one-paragraph blurb in the 1886 first edition of Goodspeed's History of Tennessee in its chapter on Robertson County, which reads as follows:
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 freaks if 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 discomfiture 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.
Notice the two most significant events are missing: The witch's murder of John Bell, and Andrew Jackson's involvement. No newspapers described either event. No court records or recorded minutes from churches described either event. The story of John Bell's murder at the hands of the Bell Witch was never described in any published account, nor placed into the pop culture version of events by the frightened family's reports. It seems almost incredible ...unless Ingram made it up.
Ingram almost certainly made up the entire Andrew Jackson incident. Andrew Jackson's whereabouts between 1814 and 1820 are well documented, and there is no known record of his having visited Robertson County during those years. In all of his own writings and in all of his many biographies, there is not a single mention of his alleged Bell Witch adventure. The 1824 Presidential election was notoriously malicious, and it seems hard to believe that his opponent would have overlooked the opportunity to drag him through the mud for having lost a fight to a witch. All known documentation shows Jackson elsewhere during the period in question, and all published material about his encounter with the Bell Witch relies on Martin Ingram's book as its sole source.
So what evidence of the Bell Witch are we left with? Vague stories that there was a witch in the area. All the significant facts of the story have been falsified, the others come from a source of dubious credibility. Since no reliable documentation of any actual events exists, there is nothing worth looking into. Ingram also wrote that the Bell Witch promised to return in 1935, and since nothing happened in that year either, I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Demystifying the Bell Witch." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
9 Sep 2008. Web.
21 Nov 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4118>
References & Further Reading
Cook, Jack. "The Spirit of Red River." Bell Witch Legend. Jack Cook, 1 Sep. 2006. Web. 16 Jan. 2010. <http://bellwitchlegend.blogspot.com/>
Fitzhugh, P. The Bell Witch: The Full Account. New York: The Armand Press, 2000. 21-28.
Goodspeed Brothers. History of Tennessee. Nashville: Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1886.
Hudson, A., McCarter, P. "The Bell Witch of Tennessee and Mississippi: A Folk Legend." American Folklore Society. 31 Mar. 1934, Volume 7, Number 183: 45-63.
Ingram, Martin Van Buren. An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. Clarksville: M. V. Ingram & Co., 1894.
Middle Tennessee Skeptics. "Bell Witch." Middle Tennessee Skeptics. Middle Tennessee Skeptics, 21 Aug. 2008. Web. 14 Feb. 2010. <http://mtskeptics.homestead.com/>
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