The 19th Century Haunting that Made This Small Tennessee Town Famous

Historian sheds new light on the dark tale of the Bell Witch

Rick Gregory October 29, 2023

In The Bell Witch in Myth and Memory: From Local Legend to International Folktale, released in September by the University of Tennessee Press, historian Rick Gregory traces how the Bell Witch hauntings on the Tennessee frontier became an enduring folk tale that has inspired everything from a Seattle doom metal band, a Danish heavy metal band, scores of tourists who visit the Bell Witch cave, as well as numerous adaptations in books, movies and theaters.

In late 1804 or early 1805, John Bell and his wife, Lucy Williams Bell, with their six children, settled near the banks of the Red River in Robertson County, close to present-day Adams, Tennessee. The Bells were also slave owners, and according to some accounts, it was Dean, one of the people enslaved by the Bell family, who was said to have the most encounters with the “Spirit.”

Here, Gregory recounts the origins of the Bell Witch story, its evolution and the fraught religious, racial and settler context from which it sprang. Legends like the Bell Witch, Gregory writes, reveal our proclivity to believe in those things we can’t prove to be true, and the power of such stories to endure for centuries.

Genesis

For over a decade, the Bell family had a good life in their new Tennessee home. They knew some of their neighbors from North Carolina and met families they had not known before. With the labor of enslaved people, they cleared land and began farming. Three children were added to their flesh and blood line. And then life changed. 

The first strange events began in 1817 and occurred outside the Bell house. This phenomenon transpired as John Bell was walking in a cornfield close to his home. He saw a dog unlike any he had ever seen before sitting in a cornrow looking at him. Because he did not recognize the animal, he raised his gun and shot at it. He felt sure that he had hit the creature. Even so, it ran off unharmed. 

Not long afterward, [his son] Drewry also saw a strange-looking creature he had not seen before. It appeared to be a turkey, but larger than any turkey he had ever seen. He ran to the house and retrieved his gun. By the time he got back to the field, the extraordinary large fowl was flying away. In both cases, father and son assumed that because they were living in a new part of the world, it was logical that they would see animals that did not live in North Carolina. 

And then Betsy saw the hanging girl. She made out a pretty young girl in a green dress swinging by her neck from a limb on an oak tree close to the house. She tried to communicate with the child but received no response. She went to the house to get family members to witness the sighting, but when they returned to the tree, the girl in the green dress was gone.

The Cursed Family

There was worse to come. Soon after the sightings, things began to happen in the Bell home. Family members began hearing strange sounds: soft whispering, slight knocking on doors and windows, choking and strangling, and gentle, rat-like scratching. They repeatedly searched for the source of the noises, especially when they grew louder and kept them awake at night. Even so, they could not discover the origin of the disturbances. Then things got worse. The rat’s gnawing sounds started on their bed posts, which made it even harder to sleep. They heard wings flapping on the ceiling, chains being dragged across the floors, and loud, invisible dog fights inside the house. When family members finally fell sleep, their bed covers would be mysteriously pulled off each of them, especially Betsy. 

Just when Bell family members thought things could not get worse, the physical abuse started. The “Spirit” as the malevolent entity came to be known was especially cruel to John Bell Sr. and Betsy. [Sons] Joel and Richard Williams were tortured to a lesser degree. The Spirit was easier on John Jr. and showed affection and respect for Lucy. When it began verbally communicating with people, the Spirit said that Lucy was “the most perfect woman living.”

The Spirit never gave a clear explanation for why she haunted the family, but it became clear that it hated John Bell and Betsy. The torture began in 1817 and continued until his death in 1820.

Illustration of the legend of the Bell Witch. (Washington C. H. Recorder-Herald, April 1937)

John Bell Sr. 

As early as 1817, John Bell Sr. was abused both verbally and physically. The Spirit regularly called him “Old John Bell” and menaced him with profanity, curses, and threats. Soon after the haunting began, he started to have trouble speaking, eating, and swallowing. He said it felt like he had a stick of wood lodged between both cheeks in his mouth. This agony would plague him until his death. The Spirit often threatened John Bell Sr.; when asked why (after it began talking), the Spirit would answer, “Because he deserves killing.” No further explanation was given.

Betsy Bell 

Apart from her father, Betsy was subjected to the most torment. The Spirit would prick her with invisible pins and cause great pain. It would also slap Betsy until her face was red and drag her around the room by her hair. This abuse happened repeatedly. Combs would fly out of Betsy’s hands and hair. The family was afraid that the Spirit would kill Betsy, and so sent her to friends’ houses to spend the night. Many of these nights were spent at Theny Thorn’s house. The haint would follow her to the Thorn household. Another trick it would play on Betsy was to untie her shoelaces and throw the shoes across the room. One night, Theny chided the entity for its actions. The Spirit responded with crude, loud laughter. An itinerate witch doctor gave Betsy a potion that would cure her from her affliction. Instead, Betsy vomited pins as the Spirit laughed.  

Perhaps the cruelest thing the Spirit did to Betsy concerned her affection for Joshua Gardner. The Gardners were neighbors of the Bells, and Betsy and Joshua were sweethearts. When the Spirit found this out, it started chanting, “Please Betsy please, don’t marry Joshua Gardner.” This incantation went on for months and, out of fear, Betsy ended her relationship with Joshua. This encounter would become one of the best known stories about the Bell Witch.

An artist’s drawing of Betsy Bell, done around 1894 and published in M. V. Inram’s book about the Bell Witch. (Wikimedia Commons)

Joel and Richard Williams Bell 

The haint did not pay much attention to Joel and Richard Williams, and only tormented them on occasion. It repeatedly pulled the covers off them, especially on cold nights and usually with a cackle. On one night, they were alone in their bedroom when the Spirit again pulled the covers off them. Joel lost his temper and spoke harshly to it. The Spirit spit on him, causing Richard Williams to utter angry words. Joel had to watch helplessly while the haint spanked his brother. 

John Bell Jr. 

John Jr. and the Spirit often had deep intellectual conversations. He often called the haint the “spirit of the Damned.” Even so, the Spirit did not harm him. Instead, it would give him good advice, which he usually ignored. After a while, the Spirit would take a break from hurting the Bell family and would have conversations with them. On one occasion, John Jr. was discussing a trip by horseback he was going to take to North Carolina to settle some family business. The Spirit broke the conversation and told John Jr. that it would be a wasted trip as the matter had already been settled. She also advised him that a rich woman was on her way to Robertson County to visit friends. Because both were unmarried, they could meet and would make a good couple. He went anyway. The trip was wasted, and he might well have missed the love of his life. Maybe he should have listened.

Lucy Bell 

When Lucy complained to the haint about its treatment of her family, it would reply that although it hurt her family it would never hurt her. When Lucy fell ill with pleurisy, an illness that made her bedridden and could have killed her, the Spirit talked to her in a soft, kind voice and brought her grapes even though they were out of season. It knew that Lucy loved to eat grapes. It would also drop grapes onto the bed when Lucy had company. The haint also knew that Lucy liked hazelnuts. It would drop nuts from the ceiling onto Lucy’s bed. Lucy said that she could not eat the nuts because she could not crack them open. Immediately cracked nuts fell on the bed. …

Moving on from the legend itself, we cannot grasp the development and growth of the Bell Witch story without understanding the religious, social, and cultural environment in Robertson and surrounding counties in the early 1800s. The story developed in the period between the Second Great Awakening and the Spiritualism Movement. The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant religious revival that had some of its strongest influence in the frontier regions of Kentucky and Tennessee from the late 1790s until the 1820s. The movement spread in part through revivals and emotional preaching. The religious gatherings took the form of camp meetings, often with hundreds of people attending and lasting for days. Two of the largest revivals took place at the Red River Meeting House in Logan County, Kentucky, and Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The Cane Ridge revival took place in August 1801 and attracted 20,000 people.

These religious revival meetings, in conjunction with circuit-riding preachers, caused Protestant church memberships to rise quickly. Many worshippers came to religion for the first time and were baptized. Even so, some people were worried about what they witnessed at the revivals and church meetings. In the throes of religious fervor, worshippers exhibited aberrant behavior. Participants went into trances, had the “jerks,” laughed uncontrollably, spoke in tongues, barked like dogs, and other behaviors that were unusual by previous religious norms. Historian Herman A. Norton called this behavior “acrobatic Christianity.”

Some observers of these behaviors saw them as proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit at the meetings, while other witnesses interpreted the events as evidence that Satan was at work. In his book on the Cane Ridge revival, historian Paul Conkin quotes an observer at the revival: “The most exorcised were literally possessed by evil spirits, and that the so-called revival, among those who had departed from scriptural worship by the introduction of human-created hymns, was a work of Satan.” Another viewer declared, “We can assume that Satan, or the Devil, held a very prominent place in the popular understanding of what happened at Cane Ridge.

In his autobiography, Methodist minister Peter Cartwright recorded that the revivals in Cane Ridge were “Satan’s work versus God’s work.” He reported that some people were “mortified by the ‘jerks’ and that two brothers threatened to horsewhip him for giving their sister ‘the jerks.’ ” The jerks occurred when a person overwhelmed by emotion fell to the floor and spasmed uncontrollably. A contemporary Baptist preacher, Elder Reuben Ross, described what was called the falling exercise, the jerks, the dancing exercise, the barking exercise, the laughing exercise, and the singing exercise. He quoted another Baptist leader, Elder Hoge, who, while watching a revival, said, “We can do nothing. If it be of Satan, it will soon come to an end; but if it be of God, our efforts and fears are in vain.” Ross also wrote about hearing stories in his childhood from his grandmother and other adults pertaining to witches and other supernatural entities. He reported that many of the storytellers “were very superstitious and could tell marvelous tales of witches, ghosts, and apparitions, to which as a boy, I listened with great interest.” He heard stories about witches who tormented local citizens and who could take the shape of animals.

The early 1800s in frontier Kentucky and Tennessee was a time of surging religious beliefs among many citizens. It was also an era when many people also believed in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural events. Thus, many local inhabitants who heard of the strange events happening at the Bell house believed that supernatural events were in fact occurring. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that as religion evolved on the frontier, these beliefs and traditions directly contributed to the genesis of the Bell Witch story.

The concurrent belief in both Christianity and the Bell Witch is still prevalent in the town of Adams and Robertson County. Further research would undoubtedly reveal a symbiotic relationship between Christianity and the supernatural in other regions as well. On Halloween Day, 2006, the Nashville Tennessean published an article concerning Adams, entitled, “Christians Can Believe in Bell Witch, Town Says.” The article quoted a local preacher saying, “As a Christian, we recognize angels as being messengers of God and demons being messengers from dark sources, from Satan, the devil.” A prominent Robertson County citizen supplied this quote: “Certainly the Old Testament is full of encounters with spirits and oracles. And then, of course, the New Testament clearly has the discouragement of becoming involved with witchcraft and the occult.” A prominent Adams resident added, “If you believe in the Bible, there are spirits walking around. The dead got up and walked. Some folks come back and forth. If you read that, it’s not a stretch, Christians can believe in this and not be far off from what the Bible teaches.” According to a Baptist-affiliated Baylor University poll, people in the South are more likely to believe in haunted houses than residents in the rest of the country.

In the early 1800s, religious faith and belief in the supernatural could clearly coexist in the minds of local citizens. Current religious ethos demonstrates that this “coexistence” has survived and thrives to present day, which helps us understand how the Bell Witch story endured and grew over the 200 years since its beginning. To better understand the story’s endurance, it is equally important to recognize that the early 1800s was a time of both fear and hope, depending on how each individual interpreted the events of the era. At many points in history, this epoch included, people have either feared or welcomed the “apocalypse” or end of the world. Some people viewed the apocalypse as a time when knowledge would be revealed; others believed it foreshadowed the physical return of Jesus on earth, as prophesied in the Bible. Still others took a darker view, believing that the event would be cataclysmic and would bring about earth’s complete destruction.

Several events converged in the early 1800s that contributed to apocalyptic views. One such event was what became known as the “Great Comet of 1811.” In Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace, one of the characters describes the comet as a warning of “all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” The following year, a series of massive earthquakes, which became known as the New Madrid earthquakes, hit along the Mississippi River on the western borders of Tennessee and Kentucky. The effects were felt throughout the mid-South, including, of course, Robertson County. Many inhabitants interpreted the event as a sign from God that they needed to repent their sinful ways and that the end times were near. Many churches reported a surge in membership, at least until the crisis abated.

One religious leader used this poem to warn people to repent: 

The prophets did foretell of old,
That great events are coming;
The lord Almighty’s bringing on
The days of tribulation
Prepare, before it is too late,
To meet the Lord from heaven;
King Jesus stands with open arms,
To save your souls from ruin.

Add to these events a long-standing memory of conflict with Native Americans and the War of 1812, and it becomes easy to understand the pervasive uncertainty and anxiety that contributed to religious revival on the frontier.

People living in the region that produced the Bell Witch story shared these concerns with other Americans. Methodist preacher and circuit rider Peter Cartwright called Logan County, Kentucky, “Rogues’ Harbor” and contended that the country was full of “murderers, horse thieves, highway robbers, and counterfeiters.” Logan County was on the Tennessee border, a few miles from the Red River settlement. He also wrote that “the earthquakes struck terror to thousands of people and under the mighty panic hundreds and thousands crowded to and joined the different churches.” Reuben Ross, a Baptist minister who preached in the same general area as Cartwright, called the new converts to religion “earthquake Christians.” He also told the story of “Old Brother” Valentine Cook who, when the first earthquake hit, jumped out of bed and ran down the street shouting, “My Lord is coming! My Lord is coming!” He also recorded that in 1811–1812, the combination of “Indians, war, comets and earthquakes . . . were beginning to cast their shadows before and to fill the public mind with forebodings of trouble.”

From The Bell Witch in Myth and Memory: From Local Legend to International Folktale by Rick Gregory (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2023), pp. 25-40. Reproduced by permission.

Rick Gregory

Rick Gregory received MA and PhD degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. He is a local historian and lives in Adams, Tennessee, the home of the Bell Witch Legend.

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