The Real Bell Witch of Tennessee


The story of the Bell Witch has been a mainstay around campfires in the Tennessee area for many years. It is considered to be the most well documented haunting in American history. In 2005 the story received national attention when it served as the basis for the movie An American Haunting starring Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. The movie, unfortunately, was not an accurate retelling of the story. It took the basics of the story and shoehorned it into a Japanese style ghost-revenge flick. The real story of the Bell Witch is far more interesting and frightening than the movie ever thought about being.

In the early 1800s a man by the name of John Bell decided to follow the lead of many other Americans at the time and seek opportunities out west. He uprooted his family from the Carolinas and moved to the Red River community in Tennessee, present day Adams, Tennessee. John was very successful in Tennessee. He acquired a large amount of land and a large house in Tennessee to raise his family. He also became a high-ranking official at his local church. His success would unfortunately come with an unbearable price

The haunting did not start until 1817, after the Bells had been settled in their new house for several years. One day John was inspecting his crops when he spotted something strange in his field. He slowly approached the animal armed with his gun. The creature was an abomination of nature. It seemed to have the body of a large dog, but with an unusual head that resembled a rabbit. John took several shots at the animal before it got away from him. John thought nothing more of the incident, as guns in that time period were not known for being accurate, so he just assumed he had missed the strange animal.

Side note: Why do you think wars in this time period were fought where people stood in line and took turns taking shots at each other? It was to increase the chances they would hit something. This is not a joke, but the truth. This is how inaccurate weapons were.

That same night the Bells began hearing strange noises outside of their home. Sometimes it would sound as if someone was beating on the house from the outside. Other times it sounded as if an animal was loudly gnawing on something. As time went by the Bells frequently began experiencing these noises. The Bell men would often rush outside when the noises would start and try to find the source of the disturbances but to no avail. One day the noises moved to the inside of the house. The children began claiming that they were hearing the gnawing noises coming from within their rooms and were having trouble sleeping. The activity became more intense when the children began complaining that something was jerking the covers off them and taking their pillows while they tried to sleep.

As time passed the entity appeared to gain strength. Soon the family started hearing a faint voice in their homes at night. What the voice was saying was impossible to determine, but it appeared to be the voice of a feeble old woman. The voice eventually become more clear and would sing church songs, quote scripture, and sometimes even took part in conversations, though the voice was always cynical in these discussions. The entity even began identifying itself as the “witch” of Kate Batts, a former neighbor who John had several verbal altercations with after a slave purchase between the two ended badly.

Three of John Bell’s eldest sons served under General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. Jackson at the time (1819) was mayor of Nashville and was considered a family friend of the Bell’s. While passing through the Red River area, the future President of the United States decided to visit his old comrades and also satisfy his own curiosity of all the rumors he had been hearing of the witch of the Bell house.

Jackson arrived on the Bell property in a horse pulled wagon accompanied by a group of several war hardened personal soldiers. While approaching the house the carriage suddenly halted. The horses struggled to move the wagon, but some unseen force was preventing its progress. Jackson was initially angry. He yelled at his men and cursed at his lazy horses. After a prolonged period of trying to rally his horses into moving the carriage, Jackson finally proclaimed “By the eternal, boys! That must be the Bell Witch!” Suddenly Jackson and his men heard a loud voice laughing and proclaiming that they could proceed. Jackson was startled and cautiously approached the Bell estate.

Side Note: Those who know their history would know that if a human had stopped Jackson’s carriage he would have shot him, so this entity startling a man as hardened as Jackson is indeed impressive.

Jackson eventually made it into the home of John Bell in which the two friends began chatting. They discussed the pressing matters of the time period, like what to do about the violent Indians protesting westward expansion and the economic collapse of 1819, when suddenly one of Jackson’s men jokingly stated that he was a witch hunter and could rid John bell of his ghost. The Bell witch did not take kindly to this and physically beating the man before all who was present.

Jackson’s men were now terrified. They begged and pleaded with Jackson to leave the Bell estate and find a different place to camp for the night. Jackson, instead of being frightened by the situation, seemed to be intrigued and insisted that they stay the night. The next morning Jackson and his men were spotted in the next town over from Red River. It is unclear whether or not any other paranormal activity was inflicted upon Jackson and his men.

John Bell was a prominent figure in the south. He did not want word to get out that he and his family believed that a ghost was haunting them, but he soon had no choice but to confide in someone when the ghost became brutally violent toward his youngest daughter Betsy. The entity would often pull the poor girl’s hair and slap her repeatedly leaving welts and handprint marks on her face and body. One night the witch even tied Betsy’s hair to the bedpost. This caused Betsy a tremendous amount of pain and distress. John, unable to bear the stress of the situation alone, eventually told his close friend James Johnston what was happening to him and his family.

Johnston was skeptical of his friend’s claim, but he volunteered to come and stay at the Bell home to see what he could make of the so-called ghost. Johnston and his wife arrived at the Bell home late one evening and preparations were made for them so they may stay the night. As it turns out the Bell witch was not shy. Johnston and his wife experienced the same abuse that was bestowed upon the Bell Family. Their covers were repeatedly torn off them and they were beaten by the invisible entity.

The witch was the cause of much anguish not just for the family but also those associated with the family. When Betsy got old enough to marry she took interest in a man named Joshua Gardner. The two began dating and eventually became engaged. For whatever reason the witch despised Gardner. Anytime that Gardner and Betsy were on the Bell property together the ghost would verbally taunt the couple and even physically assault them. The ghost would also pester Betsy about the marriage while Gardner was not present, warning her that marrying Gardner would end badly. This would eventually lead to Betsy Calling off the Engagement. As much as the witch hated Gardener, her worst enemy was undoubtedly John Bell.

Part 4: John Bell’s Death

The witch’s favorite person to torture in the Bell house was John Bell. In his old age John would often fall ill, but the ghost would not let John rest. She would poke, scratch, and hit John so he could not sleep when he was in these states of illness. All of this occurred while she would gleeful express her contempt for John loudly enough for the whole house to hear.

On the morning of December 20, 1820 John Bell was found dead in his bed. A couple nights before John had complained of feeling ill and went to bed and never recovered. The morning of his death a strange vial containing an unknown black liquid was found in a cupboard near his bed. One of John’s sons gave a drop of the liquid to the family cat and it died instantly. Upon the cats death the witch’s disembodied voice laughed and exclaimed, “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!” In a fit of rage, John’s son immediately threw the container in the fireplace. The fire roared and shot out a large puff of smoke.

His funeral was one of the largest that the small Tennessee county that John called home had ever hosted. As John was placed in the ground mourners began hearing laughing and singing that had no explainable source.

After John’s Death all was quiet on the Bell for a little while. A few months past and the ghost returned. She began speaking to John’s wife proclaiming that she would return in seven years. She kept her promise and again began tormenting the bell family, particularly focusing on John Bell Jr. She again would soon announce her departure and vow to return in 107 years to torment those who remained of the Bell family. That year would have been 1935 and the closet living descendant was a physician named Dr. Charles Bailey Bell. It is undocumented whether or not Dr. Bell received his visit.

Today not much is left of the old Bell estate. The popular spot to go and search for the witch is a cave on the bell property. Cameras and other electronic equipment are known to malfunction in this area. Cameras particularly will return photos that have mists, orbs, or humanoid shaped splotches that appear in the foreground of the pictures. Many claim that the Bell witch never really left the Bell estate but instead dwells in this cave