The Bell Witch Legend

Many areas in the southern United States are rich with stories about hauntings and superstitions. Several of my ancestors who lived in Northern Alabama passed down many stories of hauntings, folklore, and unexplained events to younger generations.

The legend of the Bell Witch is a tale of American Folklore from the state of Tennessee. The legend supposedly attracted the attention of then future president General Andrew Jackson.

Like many legends, there are varying accounts as to the identity of the Bell Witch and the purpose of her visits.

John Bell, along with his wife and children, moved from North Carolina to Robertson County, Tennessee in 1804. The Bell Farm comprised 320 acres of rich farmland along the Red River. For the first thirteen years, the family lived a peaceful life. They attended the Red River Baptist Church, where John Bell became a deacon.

A Tenneesee Historical Commission Marker near Adams, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the summer of 1817, events happened that changed the lives of the Bell family. Some of them began seeing strange looking animals around the property. Knocking sounds on the doors and outer walls of the house came late at night. Sounds of rats gnawing on bedposts, chains dragging through the house, and stones being dropped were heard. These strange occurrences culminated in the sounds of someone gulping and choking.

The terrified family kept their problems a secret for over a year. Finally, John Bell confided in a neighbor, James Johnson. He invited Mr. and Mrs. Johnson to spend the night. After witnessing these strange occurrences, Mr. Johnson suggested more people needed to know.

Before long, people came from miles around to see and hear the unknown force that terrorized the Bell house. I find it interesting that as more people came, the unseen entity developed a voice. When asked, the voice gave different identities. The spirit once stated it was the witch of a neighbor woman named Kate Batts. From then on, people called the entity, “Kate,” the “Bell’s Witch.”

There are differing accounts of Kate’s reasons for visiting the Bell family. Even on the farm’s website (now a popular tourist attraction), the reasons vary.

Some say Kate wanted to kill John Bell. She also wanted to stop John’s youngest daughter Betsy from marrying a neighbor boy named Joshua Gardner.

For three years, “Kate” tormented the Bell family almost daily. John and Betsy received the worst physical abuse. Betsy’s hair was pulled, she was pinched, scratched, and stuck with pins.

John Bell suffered from spells of swelling of the throat. He later developed twitching and jerking of his facial muscles. Kate would blast him with curses and hideous threats during these spells. As time went on, John Bell became weaker and weaker.

Kate finally accomplished her mission when John Bell died in December 1820. The following March, Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua Gardner.

Sources say Kate said goodbye, promising to return in seven years. Supposedly, she returned in 1828 for a few short weeks to the home of John Bell Jr. where she had several long talks with him about the past, present, and future. Kate also said there was a reason for his father’s death, but she never stated what it was.

Again, there are discrepancies. One account says Kate Batts was angry with John Bell, believing he cheated her in a land deal. On her deathbed, she vowed to haunt him and his decedents forever. Other accounts say the voice said, “I am a spirit. I once was very happy but have been disturbed.” The spirit gave diverse explanations of why it appeared, tying its presence to the disturbance of a Native American burial ground located on the Bell Property.

After “Kate’s” second visit, she vowed to return in 107 years. That would have been in 1935. However, some believe she never left the area.

The legend, along with numerous tales, continued into the twentieth century. There are many skeptics, and some who knew Betsy suspected her of fraud. One skeptic, Ben Radford, said the Bell Witch story is important for all paranormal researchers. “It shows how easily legend and myth can be mistaken for fact and real events and how easily the lines are blurred when sources are not checked.”

Regardless of skepticism, The Bell Witch Legend is a part of Tennessee history and is still taught in schools today.