The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room.
Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate.
At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.
Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821.
This is the narrative laid out in Martin Van Buren Ingram’s 1894 book An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch; the only 19th century study of the haunting to have surfaced. Published long after everyone with firsthand knowledge of the real events had died, Ingram’s book contains many obvious elements of embellishment and fabrication, and draws much of its authority from a dubious diary (the childhood recollections of Richard Williams Bell, entitled Our Family Troubles) that only the author himself is ever reported to have seen. Aside from this, Ingram was able to interview some of the descendants of the secondary characters in his story and record the ancient yarns that they had grown up hearing about their hearths and dinner tables.
While An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch may not be anything like what it purports to be, we can reasonably treat it as an accurate sampling of the regional lore that was then in currency as regarded the strange events that took place some three quarters of a century prior; what people believed, and what they found believable. While the specifics of the so-called haunting may, in fact, be lost to history, it is possible that by examining the corpus of Bell Witch folklore in its broad outlines— its major themes and plot elements—we may be able to glean something of the nature of real events.
In fact, there is a pretty compelling subtext to Ingram’s book; an undercurrent that subverts the horror story that he is trying to tell. The Bell Witch haunting has a reputation for viciousness. It was the 19th century’s Exorcist, and the only event of its kind said to have actually taken a life. The Bell Witch story isn’t about flickering lights and uncanny cold spots; it is a story of bloody murder. What, then, should we make of the fact that one of the most oft-repeated anecdotes in the book concerns the witch’s tenderness toward Betsy’s sick mother? Richard Williams Bell’s alleged diary records that:
About the middle of September, 1820, mother was taken down with a spell of pleurisy, and then it was that Kate manifested a sorrowful nature, growing more plaintive every day as the disease progressed, giving utterance to woeful expressions that were full of touching sympathy. “Luce, poor Luce, I am so sorry you are sick. Don’t you feel better, Luce? What can I do for you, Luce?” These and many other expressions of sympathy and anxious inquiries were given vent by the saddened voice, that now appeared to remain constantly in mother’s room, prattling all through the day, changing to a more joyful tone when she indicated any temporary relief.
The witch not only expresses concern for Old Luce, but sings her songs and causes cracked hazelnuts and grapes to materialize for her. How do we reconcile this, and other stories like it, to the witch’s violent hostility toward John Bell and others?
Throughout Ingram’s book, the witch is portrayed as a separate an independent actor; moving about, having conversations and building individual relationships with the other characters in the book, who, in turn, respond to her almost as through she were an ordinary physical presence in the room, and not an eerie, disembodied voice. What seems to have gotten lost in the retelling is that these manifestations were supposed to have been centered around the person of Betsy Bell, who seems to have been acting as a medium for the witch.
Once we insert Betsy back into scenes like the one above, they begin to make a lot more sense. A child medium bringing nuts and grapes to her ailing mother is not too hard to understand, even if she does so by proxy. In fact, most of the Kate’s interactions with the Bells and their neighbors are pretty consistent with a disturbed adolescent girl who had discovered that she could convincingly take on the forceful and independent character of an otherworldly witch.
For instance, one of the major elements to Ingram’s narrative is that the witch consistently forbids Betsy to marry her suitor, Joshua Gardner, even after the haunting proper has ended. Ingram frames their star-crossed love as a stirring tragedy, and waxes poetic on this theme at great length. At the same time, however, he records a short anecdote about the witch getting into bed with one William Porter. Bell’s diary says of him:
William Porter was a very prominent citizen of the community, a gentleman of high integrity, regarded for his strict veracity. He was also a good friend to our family, and spent many nights with us during the trouble, taking his turn with others in entertaining Kate, which was necessary to have any peace at all, and also agreeable to those of an investigating turn of mind who were not afraid, and this was Mr. Porter’s character; like John Johnson, he rather cultivated the spirit, and said he was fond of gabbing with Kate. This seemed to please the witch, and they got along on good terms. William Porter was at this time a bachelor, occupying his house alone.
On one such night, alone in his house, the witch offers to sleep with him, and keep him warm. Porter consents, on the condition that she “behaves herself,” but when Kate wraps herself up in the covers, he takes advantage of an opportunity to ensnare the witch and attempts to throw her into the fire.
The witch’s aversion to Joshua Gardner is treated as a profound mystery by Ingram, but given that Kate/Betsy was apparently spending her evenings in conversation with a prominent bachelor, it’s not too hard to figure out. If Betsy’s family preferred Joshua Gardner as her marriage partner, at twelve or thirteen she might not have been in much of a position to assert herself, but the Bell Witch was not so shy. When we revisit Betsy Bell and consider her possible motives in each case, many of the enigmas associated with Ingram’s account of the haunting readily dissolve.
Hysteria, curses, and vengeful spirits have long been the refuge of the disempowered, who take recourse to supernatural forces when nothing in the material world can protect them. Ancient curses defend the sacred ruins of colonized peoples, wrathful specters exact justice from beyond the veil, and poltergeists have long been associated with troubled little girls. If Betsy Bell created Kate the witch as a kind of psychological defense mechanism, what, then, would she have needed to protect herself from? Surely, it takes more than an unwanted suitor to manifest a witch.
The witch was opposed to Joshua Gardner, but she violently despised John Bell, and only departed after taking credit for his death. Kate’s hatred for Betsy’s father is unequivocal, but never satisfactorily explained by her. Ingram quotes her being questioned on this point by John Johnson:
Johnson: “Have you really come to kill old Jack?” “
Kate: “Yes, I have told him so over and often.”
J: “What has old Jack done that you want to kill him?”
K: “Oh, nothing particular; I just don’t like him.”
J: “But everybody in the country likes him and regard him as a very fine old gentleman, don’t they?”
K: “Yes, and that is the reason he needs killing.”
If Kate’s motive for despising John Bell are unclear, what of Betsy Bell herself? Why would she want her own father dead? Just what were those noises the Bell boys were hearing in the night, anyway?—those knocking and scratching sounds that the family were, at first, so afraid to discuss openly?
It’s not too hard to figure out.
- Dunning, Brian. Demystifying the Bell Witch. (Skeptoid #118, Sept. 9, 2008).
- Ingram, Martin Van Buren. An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. (1894).