Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Bell Witch Story - a poltergeist at work?

It was in Adams, Tennessee in the year 1817 when one of the most well-known hauntings in history of the United States occurred. Was it the work of a poltergeist or was it witchcraft? Let's look into the case.

This case, known as The Bell Witch case, was very strange and very violent and put fear in the hearts of everyone who lived in the small community of Adams and in the surrounding towns. Not only as it was happening, but it continues to cause fear and remains unexplained nearly 200 years later!

What we know:

Some of the happenings in this case were taken down by Albert Virgil Goodpasture in 1886 in his book, History of Tennessee where he wrote

"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 it 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. A volume might be written concerning the performance of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted."

As with most stories that inspire fear, they tend to be embellished upon with each telling....perhaps to instill more fear with each telling, or perhaps unconsciously to try to protect the next hearer from the fear. Whatever the reason, details in these stories do tend to vary but what we can tell from reading more than one account is that the "witch" was thought to be the spirit of Kate Batts, a kind of crusty old neighbor lady of John Bell who believed she was cheated by him in a land deal. No matter how the local courts saw the story, and no matter what Mr. Bell did to try to explain the matter to her, she cursed him still, even on her deathbed, swearing that she would haunt not only John Bell but also his descendants.
The story became so widespread it was even printed in a Guidebook for Tennessee, which was published in 1933. Primarily targeted were John Bell and his daughter Betsy. If household items weren't nailed down, they were hurled roughly across the room at their heads, with the intent to harm them. She also pulled their hair, stuck pins into them, ripped the covers off their beds and other nasty things. To Mrs. Bell and the other children, the witch seemed pleasant enough, or at least not too interested.
Visitors to the Bell home never reported seeing the witch but had made reports of hearing her voice which could change as she desired, between terrible tones akin to nails scratching down a chalk board to low and melodious.
News of the haunting spread quickly and when it spread from Adams to Nashville, it caught the ear of General Andrew Jackson who decided he wanted to learn more for himself. The Generals group came from Nashville with their wagon loaded with supplies, ready to investigate and share a good time. The men were following along behind the wagon, discussing what they would do with the witch when (notice - not 'if') they found her. All of a sudden, as they got closer to the Bell home, the wagon stopped dead in the road and the horses pulling it couldn't move it one inch more. The men driving the wagon team cracked their whip and tried the best they could but they couldn't budge that wagon. The even tried to move it by shear manpower, all trying to push it along, but it was stuck fast - to nothing - a smooth road. At this point, after having had the men remove all the wheels and inspecting them, it is said that the General threw up his hands exclaiming to his men that the only explanation is that it must be the work of the witch, at which point all the men vowed they heard a cackling laugh and a voice advising the wagon could now move forth, which it did as though it was as light as a feather.
The Witch left the John Bell household in 1821, saying that she would return in seven years. She did, "appearing" at the home of John Bell, Jr. where she left him with many prophecies of the future including the Civil War. The witch said it would return again in 107 years later – which would be in 1935 – but no one in Adams came forward to advise if that even occurred or not.
Some people in the area claim that the Bell witch still haunts the area. On the property once owned by the John Bell is a small cave, now known as The Bell Witch Cave. It's pretty much a place of local legends and a tourist spot now, but people dom report having seen strange apparitions at the cave and at surrounding spots on the Bell property.

So, was this a real haunting, the activity of a poltergeist....or a hoax?

Some people who have studied up on the case believe the haunting was a hoax perpetrated by Richard Powell, the schoolteacher of Betsy Bell and Joshua Gardner the young boy she was in love with. It seems Powell too was in love with Betsy and would do anything to destroy her relationship with Gardner. Through a variety of pranks, tricks, and with the help of several accomplices, some say that Powell created all of the "effects" of the ghost to scare Joshua Gardner away.

It is true that Mr. Gardner was the target of some of the witch's violent behavior, and that he did leave both Betsy and the area, no one could really explain how Mr. Powell could have done all the extraordinary effects that would have been necessary to fake this whole haunting.....including the the events which involved Andrew Jackson’s wagon. Interestingly though, he did marry Betsy Bell.

The jury is really still out on this one. I don't personally think that Mr. Powell thought this one up and orchestrated it along with a few friends just to break up Betsy and her young beau. I also don't believe the stories of Sexual abuse (although admittedly, I could be wrong) committed by John Belle against young Betsy which was the "in" for the poltergeist to start harrassing everyone involved. This theory has been popularized by hollywood because it sells movie tickets and books but their is nothing in the historical record that leads us to that conclusion. Mr. Bell was well into his 70's at the time and young Betsy was approx age 12. That's my oppionion, but again I could be wrong. If anyone has any info on this, please share.

So, where does that lead us....was this a curse? Did a future President of the United States and all of his men lie about hearing the Witch and coming into contact with her on their excursion to the Bell farm? What are your thoughts on this topic?


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