Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Date: September 2006
Subject: The Bell Spirit
This is an updated version of my paper entitled, "The Spirit of Red River" which was originally self-published in 1991, updated in 1999, and is now presented here once again in its original form for the reference of the general public as an abbreviated source of information on the Legend of the Bell Witch. This article is a version without a bibliography.
Though I grew up with the story of the so-called "Bell Witch," I have been researching the Bell Spirit phenomenon since about 1980 in great depth with the intent of shedding light on the historical aspects of the entire story. The below article was originally given to some Bell family descendents and to local libraries near Nashville and in North Carolina who may or may not have actually kept a copy. With the advent of the internet, information such as this becomes available to many more individuals, and, thankfully, I get feedback on its contents quite frequently. I thank all of those individuals who have taken the time and effort to seriously engage me, inform me, or even challenge the information contained in my paper.
I am not a ghost hunter, and I do not care for the crass commercialization of the "legend." I am mostly interested in the facts of the case and the 1800's history of the communities of Robertson County. In a previous version of this preamble I stated that my family was distantly related to the John Bell (1750-1820) family. Several years ago one of my relatives gave me a detailed genealogical graph of my family dating back to the 'Winters' and 'Morrison' family immigration into Tennessee from North Carolina. In all honesty I must now report that I have no connections to John Bell except those of our common Celtic past in Europe. However, I'm happy to report that I can still claim lineage as a member of some of the earliest families and settlers of Tennessee, both prominent and lowly. And, I can also report that my Cherokee ancestors met my Euro-counterparts at the border (even though the border as we now define it did not exist at the time).
The Legend of the "Bell Witch" continues to be one of the most misunderstood and embellished stories you could ever want to hear. The closer you get to Adams, Tennessee the more of the legend you are likely to hear about it. Some residents of the area don't want to deal with the influx of tourists, and others prefer to add to their personal revenue using the name "Bell Witch" in some form or other. Just depends upon their business and which side of the coin they prefer. Of course, those who make it a business will sometimes swear that the legend is true. The story has been difficult and time consuming to research. It has taken a great deal of travel and communication with family descendents and serious researchers over the years.
Who am I? I grew up in Tennessee in and around the Cheatham, Sumner, and Robertson County area. My background is extremely varied, and I have a university education in Political Science, Psychology, Mathematics and Engineering. I began to research my book back during my employment with the Tennessee State Museum. I refused to write this paper until I had acquired some kind of skill and background in historical research. Hopefully, I've learned a bit more about writing history over the years, so you can consider my paper below as a source of good basic information, but some of the facts it originally contained are now quite inaccurate.
In the past, I have done seminars on the Bell Spirit, just to remind myself of what I do and do not know about it. Those requests have dwindled to zero in the last few years, and I no longer honor them because of the relative disinterest in detailed history. If anyone has a question about the Bell Spirit, I answer many inquiries from my files that do not delve into proprietary matters or details that are exclusive to the families involved. I don't normally answer questions about the hundreds of scary experiences that people claim to have at the Bell Witch Cave or on the property (we have never had any scary or unusual things happen to us at all while there and I don't expect we ever will). The Kirbys, who own the Bell Witch Cave property, do a fine job of keeping the "legend" alive and catering to tourist groups though the actual story has nothing to do with the cave. They are certainly more responsible than the previous owners were, and they take good care of the land.
Now that Brent Monihan's film version of "An American Haunting" has been released in theatres, God only knows how the "legend" will look in a few years. The public can now choose between several poorly conceived Hollywood versions of the Bell Witch, and several stage plays that cover the basics of the legend. Yet, you are not likely to see any credits mentioning the fact that the entire legend and subsequent information comes from one novel published by Martin Van Buren Ingram in 1894. Somehow I am not surprised at this oversight. This author acknowledges the source based upon the available evidence.
The Legend of the Bell Witch most likely arose from the frantic escalation and popularity of the phenomenon known as Spiritism or Spiritualism begun in the 1840's by teenagers Kate, Margaretta, and Leah Fox of New York (known as the Fox Sisters), who skeptics eventually claimed to be frauds. Despite skeptics and a confession by one of the sisters that they had fooled the public, their demonstrations and notoriety spawned a major movement that continues to this day. Many famous personages as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were energetically exploring Spiritualism from both the believers and the skeptic's perspective in the later 1800's. Though it is not the purpose of this internet page to explore the entire history of Spiritualism, it is worth noting that the Bell Witch story was introduced in the waning days of the movement when science continued to replace simple belief and baseless observation as a means of proof for unexplained physical phenomena. (Current day psychical research is still being conducted by reputable scientific organizations such as the Rhine Center of Durham, North Carolina). Science continues to be inadequate in defining the origins or nature of the spark of life, and it should be understood that as an observer of God's world, I continue to marvel at those things in the universe that are beyond the comprehension of our minds. However, the effective student and researcher continues to revise his or her understanding based upon real evidence.
I have kept the following paper on Obiwan's fine web site for many years in its original form. Many thanks to you Obiwan! In the interest of presenting basic information to the public, and because it didn't seem important to participate in a paper chase, I have decided not to change the first portion. However, much of the information it presents is no longer correct. My research has changed direction significantly. So, in the interest of all those folks who have contacted me for further information over the years, I have given updated explanations below in red copy. An updated wrap-up is included in the section entitled, "A Note Concerning Current Research."
Before writing to me, please read all of the information below first.
Also, I would recommend that if you are doing family genealogical research you should begin your search at the relevant county and state archives first. (Those of you who have stated to me that you are "related to the Bell Witch" have not bothered to research your family origins in a serious manner).
Explorers of Adams, Tennessee should be forewarned that the properties surrounding the old Bell plantation area are beginning to be sold off and subdivided. I have been told that the owners do not appreciate trespassers, nor do they particularly want to allow researchers on their property. I must therefore strongly suggest that you simply visit the Bell Witch Cave if you want to get anywhere near the legend or the property.
Jack Cook, Nashville, TN.
The Spirit of Red River
by Jack Cook
(from a paper originally written in 1991)
A journalistic analysis of the famous legend of the "Bell Witch" of Adams, Tennessee. This research is compiled from historical records and family papers dating from 1750 up to the present, and covers the background of the affected families and the circumstances surrounding one of the most incredible parapsychological events (legends) in Tennessee's history. A bibliography exists, but is not included in this work since this paper is intended for the internet.
This paper was written by request for individuals and family members who wanted information as it was researched.
This updated version was completed on 2 October 2006. All facts contained in the current work are as accurate as can be determined by ongoing research as of this printing.
* All rights reserved. Inquiries may be addressed to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Spirit of Red River
by Jack Cook
On Highway 41, near Adams, Tennessee, there exists a very unusual shrine marking the passing of an original Tennessee frontier family and a very unusual saga. In this day of modern science and movie magic, their story is not told as often as it once was, and is no longer taken seriously by many. Yet, this monument remains almost 200 years later as mute testament to the Bell family, and to what must surely be called the most incredible haunting in American History.
Known as the "Bellwood Cemetery", the monument was designed and built in the 1950's by Leslie Covington, a successful building contractor from Boston, Massachusetts. It lies at the edge of what was once a thriving 1000 acre plantation owned by John Bell, Senior, his wife Lucy, and their children. Being a descendent of John Bell, Covington not only engineered the cemetery with a precise design and alignment, he also set aside a trust fund along with hundreds of acres of rented farm land to insure its continuation into the future. Many of the descendents of the original Bells are interred here, and, as a tribute to the memory of John Bell, Sr., Covington has erected a very large, engraved obelisk with exact directions to the original gravesite. The site is located on a nearby hill of maple and cedar trees, wherein lie the remains of John and his wife, along with what must be some 30 slaves who had worked the plantation during its most prosperous times. It is a peaceful, shaded canopy harboring no trace or indication of the ordeals once besetting the family.
A board of trustees now administers the property, and several of Covington's relatives have inherited his family papers, many of which date back to the late 1700's. "Our collection and the Bellwood properties are the result of many years of work by Leslie", states Joel and Virna Covington, two retirees from the Northeast, who have preserved many of the original Bell records." Leslie was more concerned with preserving the Bell family history than with continuing the legend that surrounded them."
John's original headstone was stolen from the gravesite in 1951 and was replaced in 1957 with a modern marker of no real historical value. Such an event is likely to occur on these grounds simply because of the family's history and its connection with the legend of the so-called "Bell Witch." Vandalism and mischief have forced them to discourage any visits to the old farm by the uninvited. Many of the Bell descendents, in their turn, have discovered the presence of a certain misconception and public notoriety once those around them have discovered their ancestry. As a result, they do not generally advertise the fact that they are descended from John Bell. After eight generations, the descendents of Bell retain a striking understanding of their place in the formation of early America. All whom I have met are well respected in their communities, normal in every respect, and not at all the strange people I had originally been led to expect in the beginning of my research. Some of the family members believe the story, and some do not. Among those who believe in the Bell Spirit are individuals who are delighted with the tale, and relish the attention they occasionally receive from the curious. Then there are those who want nothing whatsoever to do with the story due to their social standing or to certain inner fears. In either case, my extensive discussions with these descendents reveal a deep respect for the consequences of the family legacy passed down to them through the generations. Many in the family will attest that strange events still happen to them, even today, which stretch the boundaries of coincidence to the breaking point. Yet, the events beginning in 1816 and ending in 1828 seem to hang over the family like a shroud.
It was a story which the finest writers of classic horror would find difficult to develop without a sense of disbelief lingering in the minds of their readers. Indeed, its complexity of character and spirit of certainty deter the skeptic's inevitable assertion that the event falls only into the category of "folktale."
The family of John Bell moved from Edgecombe County, North Carolina into the newly founded state of Tennessee in 1804, settling into an area near the Red River now known as Adams. Being among friends and peers, they had very little to distinguish them as much different from other prosperous gentlemen planters in the region. As the Bell family cultivated their community position, life for them became normal and well ordered as the years passed.
Then, in 1817, a nightmare began to encroach upon the family and the community, proceeding to alter their lives forever. Taking the form of a noisy spirit or poltergeist, it invaded their home, manifesting itself slowly at first as strange, dark animals lurking about their property and odd noises that seemed to have no physical origin. Soon, whispering voices were heard about the house whose source could not be identified. The family suddenly realized the serious nature of their dilemma when their children began to suffer at the hands of the mysterious power. Then, one night, when the youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Betsy) Bell, was attacked in bed by an invisible entity, John Bell was finally forced into revealing the family secret to his friends. Despite the best of efforts by neighbors of good will, things only got worse. Within one short year, the spirit was talking, moving objects, performing supernatural deeds, and creeping into the personal lives of everyone in the community. Worst of all, it abused and tortured Betsy, almost to madness, while at the same time causing her to reject a proposal of marriage offered by her fianc'e, Joshua Gardner, who had been a bold and persistent suitor. The spirit, which eventually took the name of "Kate," seemed to take on a personality mirroring the thoughts and prejudices of those in the local community. No person seemed capable of uncovering its origins nor the true purpose of its presence. Yet, many tried with sometimes frightening and often humorous results. The spirit seemed capable of incredible feats of knowledge, mimicry, and painful violence. Kate soon caused such a sensation as to attract "thousands" of witnesses to visit the farm, including a purported visit by the nationally famous southern military commander, Major General Andrew Jackson, who would, in due time, become the President of the United States.
Then, in December of 1820, after haunting and torturing the family for four years, while causing a disruption of the grandest kind for that era, it accomplished one final self-admitted mission. It murdered John Bell by poisoning him.
In carrying out that one objective, the spirit, "Kate", had accomplished three things which no other documented poltergeist in recorded history had done. First, it spoke, in plain, conversational English about any subject of the era to anyone it cared to communicate with. Second, it affected an entire community of hundreds of individuals. It seemed to know everything about them and revealed many of their individual secrets. Needless to say, the number of sinful deeds in the area declined for many years. Finally, it actually murdered or claimed to have murdered a man. That one act by a disembodied life energy has confounded and amazed scholars of psychic phenomena for almost two centuries. Short of ancient holy scriptures, it is perhaps the most unique psychic phenomenon ever documented.
Due to its unusual nature, the story has always attracted those individuals who consider the supernatural their personal domain. Witch hunters, kooks, marginally serious story collectors, psychic investigators, the media and midnight prowlers have all taken their turn at experiencing the mystery of the "Bell Witch". Each of them has felt the curious attraction the property and family have over people. In fact, the sheer number of modern day stories concerning visits to the Bell property is staggering, and no serious researcher is immune from hearing them. Some are told with an obvious flair for the theatrical and turn out to be quite humorous. Others can either be dismissed altogether or are so believable as to make one wonder.
One descendent of John Bell has been physically close to the original property for many years. "I get frequent requests for information on the "Bell Witch", states Carney Bell, a retired Naval jet pilot and unit commander. He now owns Tennessee's oldest operating funeral home in Springfield.
"My grandmother told me the story long before she passed away," he says. "She told me that her generation and the generation before her had made a great effort to suppress the story in hopes that it would die a natural death. But, the family had decided they were wrong when there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in the Bell Witch which would not go away. She told me that my generation should know what she had been told by her grandparents. That's when I finally heard about the family trouble many years ago."
Periods of public interest in the "Bell Witch" legend seem to have arrived in cycles, with the years 1934 to 1937 being the most frantic. That was the period during which oral legend stated the spirit would return to this world! Such interest has continued throughout Tennessee and Mississippi for decades by the tradition of "Bell Witch" folktales told in hundreds of different ways to thousands of adolescents, usually near the holiday of Halloween. Perhaps it has always been an ideal season for spine chilling stories around a campfire with the cooling weather, the smells of harvest, and colorful leaves cast aloft by wintering breezes to set any hyperdrive imagination ablaze. As campfires gave way to the two minute television vignette in the 1960's, the original tale was relegated by photo-journalists to that of a humorous ghost story from Adams. Soon the actual details of the devastating event were forgotten, and the story was no longer even a legend. Yet, many people have read the original book, and remember many of the "documented" details. But, what are its origins?
M. V. INGRAM AND THE "AUTHENTICATED HISTORY"
Almost 100 years have passed since the publication of one of the most intriguing stories in the history of Tennessee folklore. Though it has become difficult to acquire these days, many southerners get their first exposure to the details of the Bell Witch story from a relatively obscure book. The "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch" does not seem to have been a best seller, nor did it have a popular audience much beyond a certain limited, yet intensely interested group of individuals numbering perhaps a couple of thousand at most. In spite of a limited circulation, and due to several modern reprints, its narrative has managed to perpetuate the folktale into the present decade. Its release in 1894, during a time of frantic interest in spiritualism, caused a sensation, which even now rekindles fear and speculation among those who are only too familiar with the story. The legend itself has been fueled year after year by the use of altered versions of dimly remembered anecdotes from this entertaining novel. It is no matter who tells the tale, however, the account written by M. V. Ingram is always the original source of the information whether it is used for fact or fancy.
In authenticating the "Authenticated History", we must first resolve its origins and reason for publication. Is it an accurate account of a real event? Are the characters in the story real people? Who was M. V. Ingram, and why did he write this book?
Only in the history of Clarksville is Martin Van Buren Ingram treated as a somewhat significant character in Tennessee's past. It is quite unfortunate that such a man and his contemporaries are relegated to a footnote in Tennessee history, for Ingram and other unique individuals joined together in pioneering modern newspaper journalism in this state. Being one of its founders, it is a tribute to his tenacity and effort that the "Clarksville Leaf Chronicle" continues to publish the oldest surviving newspaper in the state today.
Ingram was uniquely qualified to write about the Bell family's story. Born in Montgomery County in 1832, he grew up in and around Robertson County, where the wife and children of John Bell were still living. Having been reared practically at the back door of the affected family, there could have been no escaping a familiarity with the story of "Kate, the Bell Witch". His marriage to Annie Farmer, whose family was directly related to the Bells allowed him access to information others could not obtain. Despite the secrecy with which the Bells kept the details of their story away from the public, Martin Ingram was able to convince his friends, Joel Egbert Bell, who was the youngest son of John Bell, and State Representative James Allen Bell, John's grandson, to allow him to publish their story along with a diary entitled "Our Family Trouble", written by the father of James Allen, Richard Williams Bell, in 1846. Ingram was told not to release his "Authenticated History" until all the children of the immediate family had passed away. With the death of Joel in 1890, Ingram had done most of his research, and had gotten about as close to the story as any man cared to, short of talking to the spirit itself. It was quite a departure for a man who had dedicated a career to political reporting and business and promotion.
Like many newspapermen at the time, M. V. Ingram remained reticent concerning his own identity and history in the pages of the "Authenticated History". Few of his writings remain in existence, leading many readers to cast a shadow of doubt over the validity of his only known published book.
His legacy is traceable, however, starting with the "Robertson Register" newspaper, which he founded at Springfield with his business partner Archie Thomas in 1866. At the time he had absolutely no experience in the printing business. Ingram's paper became such a success, he was asked by city merchants to move his business to Clarksville where he was loaned enough money to begin the "Clarksville Tobacco Leaf" in 1869. Despite competition with the "Clarksville Chronicle", Ingram's newspaper thrived by answering the needs of the commercial community and by publishing popular editorials suitable to the Reconstruction period. Over the years, family afflictions, failing health and the great Clarksville Fire of 1878 all took their toll on Ingram's health. After training several apprentices, he finally sold his interest in the paper in 1880 at the age of 48. Publishing was a very physically taxing occupation during his career. Despite continuing family illness and the premature death of several of his children, his activities in publishing continued with many other projects during the last part of the 19th century, including the publication of a special interest newspaper called the "Progress Democrat" and, of course, his book, the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch". Ingram died on October 4th, 1909, at the age of 77. Suffering the fate of temporary literature of those times, most of his other works have disappeared over the decades with only a few examples surviving to the present day. Perhaps, with some luck, we may discover more of his writings or descendents in the future.
Ingram's believability as an author is enhanced by the October 5th, 1909 issue of the "Clarksville Leaf Chronicle". Editor, W. W. Barksdale, broke all the rules of his paper, dedicating the front page and editorial section to eulogize the death of his friend and mentor. Apparently very highly respected in the community, Ingram was a devout Baptist and Free Mason. As an editor and writer of the period, Ingram colored his writings to enhance their public effectiveness. However, due to the strict attitudes of the time, he had to remain on guard that the facts of his stories were correct in such a tightly knit, Victorian era. The editor, Barksdale, says of Ingram, "(he was) a man of true mold, he despised all deceit, trickery, and littleness, and with a courage which nothing could daunt, he laid on the journalistic lash unsparingly whenever he thought the occasion required. Naturally, his was not a pathway strewn with roses- his was an aggressive nature, a fact which often brought him into serious collision with those with whom he took issue. Time, however, usually justified him in the positions which he assumed."
Time indeed! One cannot imagine that a man like M. V. Ingram, whose positions of community responsibility were numerous, would have or could have concocted an amazing story like that of the "Bell Witch." Official records in the state archives of Tennessee, North Carolina, and family records in Mississippi prove that most of the information contained in his book is more than accurate enough in names, dates, events and locations to justify taking him very seriously. All of the people he used as witnesses were alive during the period in which he interviewed them, and it can be verified that the people involved in the story are historically real and were living in Robertson County during the time of the Bell family haunting. Ingram's description of community activities is also very accurate. It is certain that families or friends in the area would have objected strongly to such use of their relatives in a fictitious story claiming authenticity. Yet, no record of such objections is known to exist. Ingram's tools were footwork and face-to-face. Current day experience in researching the legend has shown the time and trouble taken by Mr. Ingram in obtaining his information during an era when community archives were scarce and family honor was foremost. Even in these modern times, there are a few members of the Bell family who would rather not see this story come before the public again. Though we must respect their fears, the story itself is a very important historical account which involved not only the Bells, but an entire community of families as well.
Martin Ingram recognized the significance of the incident to a wide range of people who could not suppress their curiosity over such an unnatural event, and though some of his facts are incomplete or inaccurate, there is good reason. If anything, Ingram is only guilty of coloring his story for the time in which it was written. He could not have had access to the information compiled and indexed in today's modern archives by an army of dedicated historians over many decades. Much of the data in his narrative is from first hand memories and family information. It can be easily determined by government records that the named individuals were highly credible, responsible citizens, and though some of the "Negro Stories" may contain a great deal of material written for entertainment, the book for its location and time is a most remarkable record. Had it not been for the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch", we would now know very little, if anything, factual about the incident or the legend.
A NEEDLE IN THE HAYSTACK
How do you explore the most elusive form of historical research? The legend of the "Bell Witch" reveals so little solid evidence from which a scientific history or explanation can be derived. The research methods needed to unravel the mystery made it necessary to examine this legend as an event surrounded by the history and aspirations of hundreds of individuals whose legacy only exists now on headstone or yellowed paper. Their lives were littered with twists and turns and closeted skeletons laden with several inches of dusty intrigue.
Family records and government archives were used to identify the situation and background of those who had lived in the Red River area in the early 1800's. The archives used in this case belong to North Carolina, Tennessee, and include family records in Mississippi. Being a prime resource to the average student of history, these libraries and archives of state protect vast treasuries of information gleaned from the deeds of past generations. The researchers working amidst these repositories are people whose knowledge of the collection is even more useful than that of the most powerful computer, and each person is a unique asset. They have stripped away the confusion and cut thousands of hours from many research projects. "You'll have to limit how far you look into a family history," states Ann Alley, an archivist with the Tennessee State Library and Archives, "because genealogy is like a huge, never ending spider's web. I have known people who literally research for a lifetime and never see an end to it!" While wading through the library's 21 million official records, 4 million manuscripts, and 6,000 family histories, it is wise to seek the aid of someone like Ann, as time, patience and blind luck are never plentiful! Yet, those were the ultimate tools used to discover the truth behind the legend of the Bell Spirit.
THE ULTIMATE POLTERGEIST
For four years the family of John Bell was forced to endure what has come to be called a "noisy spirit" or poltergeist of a type which was unique when compared with similar events documented before or after it. Developing the ability to speak, the spirit soon began to call itself "Kate", after an odd local woman named Kate Batts. People in the community mistakenly referred to it as "Kate Batts' witch", though its physical form, if any, was never truly identified. The center of the unseen entity's activity was John's youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Betsy) Bell, a very attractive girl, who suffered from physical abuses brought on by the spirit which included merciless beatings, scratching, slapping, and constant mental anguish brought about by the spirit's seemingly inexhaustible mischief and verbal harassment. It consistently ridiculed the choice of Joshua Gardner as her future husband, and induced in Betsy, and her father, a sickness, the symptoms of which included odd physical disturbances that eventually resulted in the death of John. The spirit could read the thoughts of those around it, describing in great detail the backgrounds of total strangers. It could accurately describe simultaneous events in other areas of the world within moments of being asked. Kate could move objects, sing, preach, and accomplish the most baffling pranks without detection. Its knowledge of the universe was astonishing, yet curiously incomplete in many details. Upon being exposed to both Baptist and Methodist doctrines, Kate began to display violent and contradictory behavior resulting, no doubt, from the many differences of those philosophies. Perhaps the spirit's most astonishing manifestation occurred when four other spirits named Blackdog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem appeared briefly during the later years of the haunting. All seemed to be subservient to Kate and were invisible as well. It was during this period that the spirit's mischief grew more intolerable with each passing day. Its evil hatred was often matched in kind with benign understanding and kindness, making it, in essence, a great paradox in the spirit realm, and an unwelcome guest in the intensely religious community it had chosen to haunt.
Was this an elaborate hoax, or a real event of tremendous consequence to the area of Red River? For an answer, it was essential to piece together a giant puzzle of widely separated and obscure information which 17 decades have sifted, distorted or destroyed. The Bells had not left a great number of records, and the discovery of one small fact in a case such as this could occupy weeks of cross referencing. Yet, in time, the origins and nature of this most typical frontier family began to merge with the written facts concerning the witch's legend to form a very plausible progression of events.
FAMILY MOVEMENTS AND THE CHURCH
We know from extensive genealogical studies that the Bell name is originally Scottish, and that these families were part of the mass emigration forced upon Northern Ireland and Scotland by James I and II beginning in 1650. Most were middle class plantation owners whose protestant religion proved incompatible with the prevailing Roman Catholic doctrine, and their movement into America lasted into the early 1800's. Energetic, restless and fearless, the emigrant Scot and Irish practiced thrifty ways and harbored an intense ambition for individual freedoms. They were well known as people to whom an education was vital, and many of America's finest schools can be traced to their efforts. Unlike the backwoods country people of the old folktales, the residents of Red River were very literate and well cultured for the times. Theirs was an era of articulate speaking and writing. Unlike Americans in the Northeast, their general demeanor was not that of the stoical, boring British planter, but that of their Irish ancestors, whose outgoing nature and love of frolic made them more approachable. Many accounts of British travelers recall that the accents of early Tennessean speech remained like that of the Irish and Scots, but with distinct regional differences peculiar to America.
Landing in New England, the ancestors of John Bell moved southward to North Carolina while taking advantage of early land grants being offered by England. John's grandfather, Arthur, and his parents, William and Martha, had established themselves as planters on lands in Halifax, Nash, and Edgecombe Counties. It was in Edgecombe that John met his future wife, Lucy Williams through her parents, John and Mourning, who owned major lands west of Tarboro. The only record of their marriage still exists in her father's will, written in March of 1792, in which Williams names John Bell as Lucy's husband, and gives his daughter one slave named Cloe. This slave would later give birth to a son named Aberdean, who became the most valuable slave on the Bell plantation.
As a young man, John Bell apprenticed as a cooper (barrel maker), a much needed skill for that time. Most of the Bell land holdings centered around Tarboro, a settlement on a crook of the Tar River, which was founded around 1760. It was here that John made a commitment which would affect his entire future. He joined the Union Baptist Church (later known as Upper Town Creek). This and many other congregations were supported by the Tar River Association a religious advancement group of great importance to the Baptists. Before receiving his "letter of dismission" to Robertson County, Tennessee in September of 1803, John had most likely made his decision to move based upon the earlier relocation of many of his friends, including the Fort family, whose members became very influential in the Red River Baptist Church.
Having weathered assaults from the English Monarchy, Anglican Church, and the Revolutionary War, settlers like Bell welcomed the promise of cheaper more fertile lands, now made more attractive by American independence. Such settlements were being outrageously advertised, and land speculators fueled the hope for opportunity and prosperity in the new lands beyond those of the depleted farmlands of North Carolina. Many arrived with dreams of exploiting a territory rich in natural resources, yet, these virgin, forested lands were unforgiving to those who did not have the endurance and skill necessary for survival in an undeveloped wilderness.
One of the misconceptions arising from an 1800's Mississippi folk legend was the idea that John Bell had left his native state to escape persecution from the murder of a cruel slave overseer. There is no record of this incident, and such an escape from legal action by a man of Bell's standing was quite unlikely. Evidence indicates this legend most likely arose from a legal action taken by John Bell in May of 1820 against a local planter, John H. Arnold who had rented a slave from the Bell plantation. Arnold had beaten Bell's most valuable slave, Aberdean, causing a wound to the head which threatened his life. The affair was settled out of court to the satisfaction of Bell, and Aberdean would, in later life, tell incredible stories of how he got the scar on his head from a confrontation with Kate, the witch.
At age 54, John Bell arrived in the thriving town of Port Royal, Tennessee with his wife Lucy and five children. Records indicate that a traveling party of about twelve families used the winter of 1803-04 as a time of passage through the mountain passes of East Tennessee, using earlier routes which many others had used when entering that strangely flat and open grassland known as the Barren Plains. The family decided to settle on the edge of the Barrens, seven miles east of Port Royal near the Red River. As a frontier area, Robertson County had already provided homes for hundreds of planters and their slaves by the time the Bells arrived. John wasted no time settling in, and with his children and slaves proceeded to develop 1000 acres of land into a future. In time, the family would see the arrival of three new children, including their first born in their new home, Betsy, who would later figure so prominently in the legend.
Early Robertson County residents were witness to many major events just prior to the appearance of the Bell spirit. A new movement known as the Great Revival was sweeping the nation in response to the evil and chaos promoted by the Revolution. Though the more fervent celebrations were carried out by the Presbyterians, the Baptists had also taken advantage of the opportunity to carry the Gospel into new regions. Prior to 1791, central Tennessee had been a closely guarded Indian hunting ground in which tribal occupation was totally discouraged. Settlers like Bell were, in effect, occupying consecrated ground against which they felt the aboriginals had no claim. A movement of a different kind occurred at the New Madrid fault line in December of 1811 creating the strongest recorded earthquakes in American history. From these tremors there arose a great fear in all residents of the western states from which the church claimed thousands of new members. Finally, as America's new freedoms fermented, British harassment of the United States continued on until full-scale war had erupted once again in what is now known as the War of 1812. John's oldest sons were eventually called into service by the 2nd Tennessee Regiment under Andrew Jackson to help repel the British. From all this outpouring of human passion, one can see that many emotional events concurred in the appearance of the Bell Spirit by 1817.
An analysis of the Bell Witch legend must also include several odd circumstances which began to surround John Bell and his family. After many years of prosperity, John had become an elder of the Red River Baptist Church, which was soon presided over by the respected minister, Sugg Fort. During this period many religious issues were being discussed which amplified altercations already existing in the Baptist community. These problems were related in a small, leather-bound minute book kept by the Fort family from 1769 to 1826. This volume reveals that the Red River Baptist Church and her sister churches were originally strictly Calvinist in doctrine. This principle supported the view that God would only save the elect or the chosen few for entry into the kingdom of Heaven. A great debate over the churches' belief system began to form around 1810 concerning a new doctrine known as the Arminian Movement. It derived from the belief that all men were sinners, and that any person could achieve salvation in the kingdom of Heaven by approaching God for forgiveness of their sins, thus refuting the ideals of Calvinism. This belief fostered the ideal of the missionary concept as well. Most elder members found the Arminian Movement to be blasphemous during this period.
The year John Bell realized he had a very strange problem at home, an extraordinary elder named Reuben Ross preached a funeral sermon at the Red River Baptist Church in July of 1817 which helped to alter the entire direction of many local Baptists toward the ideal of the Arminians. This doctrinal change had, for many years, thrown the church into great turmoil over basic religious policy, yet Pastor Sugg Fort and many in the church were converted by the logic and conviction that Reverend Ross displayed. Peace was fleeting however, as the son of the minister, Josiah Fort, became embroiled with John Bell and his church in disputes involving church doctrine, family, and legal matters. Despite their arguments, Fort and Bell would later profess that their disagreements had been dissolved, while the rift between the church and Josiah Fort took many years to heal. The nature of the battle between Bell and Fort has only recently come to light from carefully restored documents written by the Church.
Curiously, only a few months before his problems with Josiah Fort, John Bell had been accused by his church of usury, (the charging of excessive interest) involving a slave deal he had made with a local farmer, Benjamin Batts (whose sister-in-law, Kate Batts was associated closely with the spirit, Kate). Though the church acquitted him of any wrong-doing, the State of Tennessee, represented by William Fort, had already brought a suit against Bell which was tried in the circuit court of Robertson County. In August of 1817, he was convicted of the charge by a jury. Since those court records are missing, it is unknown what penalty Bell paid the court at that time.
Yet, he had not seen the end of this case, for in November, the church, being very strict in its doctrines, decided by committee that Bell had insulted the religious cause by his conviction in a court of law. Even though the charge and the incident were inconsequential by today's standards, John Bell was officially excommunicated from the church in January of 1818 at the very time when his family haunting was becoming widely known in the community. Not once is the spirit or John's home problems mentioned in the minutes of the Red River Baptist Church, yet it is obvious from the written proceedings that unusual things were happening within the congregation. It was most extraordinary for an elder or deacon to be barred from the church, and one can only guess at the emotional turmoil these events generated.
In October of 1819, during the height of Kate's demonstrations, John Bell requested that the church reconsider its charges against him, and a committee representing five outside churches was asked to come in and judge the usury incident. Even though these representatives found that Bell's case should be reconsidered by the church, the members kept postponing any action for an entire year, and by December 20th of 1820 it was too late. John Bell had died, supposedly by the actions of the spirit, Kate. In the Minutes of the Red River Baptist Church the sole entry for the month of December reads, "No Conference in December."
Despite John Bell's death, the curse of the so-called "witch" did not prevent his children from continuing their lives. Many of their records still exist, and, as such, it is interesting to note what fate awaited John and his family after the haunting had ceased.
(The content of the original biographies were dependent upon the Bell Witch story. So, I have rewritten them to reflect a more accurate history.)
John Bell, Sr.
(some family records indicate his middle name was William)
John Bell was a native of North Carolina and grew up in and around Tarboro just prior to the American Revolutionary period. John was one of the original new Americans although his name does not appear on the roles of the Continental Army, his name is associated closely with other residents of the area who did serve to secure American independence. He apprenticed as a cooper (barrel maker), and made his fortune in Edgecombe County where he married Lucy, a daughter of the prominent family of John Williams in 1782. Curiously, no signatures have been found in court records or church records executed by Bell. John eventually bought land southwest of Tarboro on several north prongs of Town Creek near the property of his father-in-law. Records indicate that he held and sold many parcels of land in that region. John and Lucy had five children during their residence in North Carolina. In 1804 they migrated to what was then West Tennessee. Developing one of the major plantation properties of Robertson County, Bell became a prominent citizen and deacon in the Red River Baptist Church. His stern attitude on church and business issues brought him to the Circuit Court on many occasions against his neighbors. His most difficult case arrived toward the end of his life when the State of Tennessee, represented by William Fort, brought a suit against Bell under a charge of usury (the charging of excessive interest) which was tried in the Circuit Court of Robertson County. In August of 1817, he was convicted of the charge by a jury. It is not recorded what penalties he had to pay. Yet, he had not seen the end of this case, for in November, the Red River Baptist Church, being very strict in its doctrines, decided by committee that Bell had insulted the religious cause by his conviction in a court of law. Even though the charge and the incident were inconsequential by today's standards, John Bell was officially excommunicated from the church in January of 1818. This was equivalent to losing all support from one's family, and suffering a major disgrace. Though the church finally decided to reconsider its case against him, Bell died before the committee could fully re-examine his case. Ironically, Bell was buried on his plantation and received his eulogy from some of the very people who had excommunicated him. He left no legal will, and a casual glance at his probate estate settlement quickly establishes that he was a man who had prospered. His main produce appears to have been quite varied, and this supports Ingram's assertion that he could afford to be so generous with all of the curious people who visited his farm to witness the antics of the Bell poltergeist. His plantation properties were auctioned or turned over to his wife and children by probate and auction. His grave is located approximately one mile to the northeast of the Bellwood Cemetery in Adams, Tennessee.
Lucy was born to John and Mourning Williams of Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Her family held significant lands southwest of Tarboro along Town Creek, and were very influential. She married John Bell in 1782, and took up the life of an average, hard working mother. In this era she was required to defer to her husband in all issues of ownership and decision making. Yet, she is listed on many legal transactions in North Carolina and Tennessee by her mark, and though Lucy is described in the "Authenticated History" as a very loving and likeable woman, it seems reasonable to assume that she had more influence with her husband in many matters than most others in the community could claim. She eventually bore nine children for John Bell, of which only one failed to make adulthood.
After her husband's death, she continued to live with the youngest sons, Richard and Joel, in their original plantation home about one mile to the northeast of Bellwood Cemetery in Adams, Tennessee. John's slave, Aberdeen, was given to Lucy as her servant until her death. Like her husband, Lucy failed to leave a legal will with the courts in Robertson County. She died on the 27th of January, 1837, and her estate was settled by probate. She is buried beside her husband. Tradition holds that not long after her death, the old Bell house fell into disrepair, and was used as a corn crib for many years. It finally fell into disuse and was dismantled sometime in the mid 1800's. Only traces of the old home's foundation and fireplace remain in the dirt where corn and tobacco have been grown for many years.
As John and Lucy�s first child, Jesse spent his first thirteen years in North Carolina. As he grew to maturity, circumstances of family and war probably made him into a man on the move. Jesse probably had more to do with the establishment of his father'�s Tennessee plantation than any of the other children. His entire early adulthood was spent during years when his father formed contacts and built his farm and reputation. Jesse and his brother, John, Jr., served together as volunteers in the infantry of the 2nd Regiment of West Tennessee during the War of 1812. Jesse was honored by being elected corporal in his infantry company for service at the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend under the command of Colonel Archer Cheatham. Later, he took orders from his brother, John, Jr., who was elected corporal for the Battle of New Orleans under Colonel Cocke. Both men, no doubt, had brief encounters with the immensely popular Tennessean, Major General Andrew Jackson, but there is no evidence to suggest that the General knew them personally. Starting June 25th of 1815, he taught school, as many young men did, with 21 local students in the old (Fort'�s) meeting house for three months. This certainly indicates that he had received what for his day would have been an excellent grounding in reading, writing, and mathematics, as did all of John Bell�'s children. He married Martha Lee Gunn on the 7th of October, 1817, with whom he eventually had nine children. After the death of his father in 1820, he decided to move his family to Panola County in Mississippi, where he developed land in Courtland. He died of unknown causes while visiting Christian County, Kentucky (a short drive north of Adams, Tennessee) on the 28th of October 1843. It is not currently known where he is buried. He has left many descendents in Mississippi and the Midwest.
John Bell, Jr.
John Bell, Jr. stayed nearer to the original farm than any of the other children of John and Lucy Bell. By all accounts he was a quiet, industrious lad who harbored a very good sense for business and politics. He and his brother, Jesse, served together as volunteers in the infantry of the 2nd Regiment of West Tennessee during the War of 1812. John was honored by being elected corporal in his infantry company for service at the Battle of New Orleans under the command of Colonel Cocke. Earlier, he had taken orders as a private from his brother, Jesse, who was elected corporal for the Battle of Horse Shoe Bend under Colonel Archer Cheatham. Both men, no doubt, had brief encounters with the immensely popular Tennessean, Major General Andrew Jackson, but there is no evidence to suggest that the General knew them personally. As his father's namesake, he became the heir apparent of the plantation, building his house near the original Bell Home. It is mentioned in the "Authenticated History" and it is probably true, that John, Jr., brother Drewry, and their brother-in-law Alex Gunn began flatboating goods down river to Nachez, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana in 1815. Both John and Jesse had returned from New Orleans on the old Natchez Trace road. A soldier's journey returning home on the Trace prompted many men to make such profitable ventures in the early 1800�s. He married Elizabeth Gunn, the sister of Jesse'�s wife, in 1828. They eventually had eight children. John was a prosperous farmer and politician of some reputation up until his death. He most likely had the physical appearance and manners of his father. We know how both men appeared physically from a painting that was commissioned during John'�s lifetime from a Nashville artist known as Cabanis. A reproduction of this painting was published in the 1934 novel, "The Bell Witch, a Mysterious Spirit" written by John'�s descendent, Dr. Charles Baily Bell (1869-1945). Several family genealogies list his death as the 7th of May, 1862. There is no obituary listing in existing copies of local newspapers of that period for John, Jr. (not surprising for that period considering the turmoil of the War Between the States). Robertson County Court listed estate sale records show that John died without a will, and that his estate had been disbursed by May 16th. It is possible that he suffered a long and difficult end, and that his family quickly organized his estate sale when they realized his death was nearing. John Bell, Jr. is buried in a small cemetery near what remains of his old house (long since burned to the ground) on the old Bell property to the northeast of the Bellwood Cemetery in Adams, Tennessee. His descendents are numerous, and have spread to the far corners of the empire.
Not much is mentioned in the written records about Drewry. His initial fortune seems to have been made while shipping local goods down river to Natchez and New Orleans by flatboat with his brother John, Jr. and his brother-in-law, Alex Gunn. Drewry remained a resident of the Robertson County area his entire life, and never married. Instead, he went into many partnerships and became a farmer and landholder, living directly across the Red River from his father's plantation on several tracts of land he had bought and consolidated for his farm. Drewry owned many slaves for that era, and may have used them as somewhat of a replacement for the family he never sired. Local stories paint Drewry as an odd sort of reclusive bachelor. Drewry saw the sudden demise of slavery on the horizon, as did many of his neighbors. In his will, drawn up in 1864, he gave all of his property to his negro slaves, and gave them their freedom as well, while warning them in writing that they should try to get along with each other. To each of his brothers and sisters he willed "five dollars and no more", except Betsy. She got a full "Twenty-five dollars!" (The offer may have been in response to his sister's plight as the wife of a husband who could no longer work to support his family). Drewry died with his slaves in attendance on the 1st of January, 1865. His house still stands across the Red River not far from Adams, Tennessee.
The fourth son of John and Lucy Bell did not survive. Though no exact information is available, we can assume that he was born in North Carolina in Edgecombe County, and that he died shortly after or within a few years of his birth of childhood illness or just plain misfortune, something not uncommon in that era. Thus it is that Benjamin was most likely buried on the Bell properties just north of Town Creek in Edgecombe County, North Carolina.
Esther Bell Porter
John and Lucy Bell finally conceived their first daughter just before leaving North Carolina. Esther would have been no more than three years old while making the crossing into Tennessee. Not much at all is recorded about her locally, and her trail is difficult to follow. We must assume that she was your usual girl growing up on the Tennessee frontier. Such women were expected to marry early or move in with families that practiced home industry to make themselves useful and educated in home affairs. Her mother, Lucy, would have given her a grounding in household business, weaving, sewing, mending, cooking, and the thousand other chores necessary for her role as a wife. She married Alexander Porter on the 24th of July, 1817. This was the period during which church scandals and legal actions were destroying John Bell'�s reputation. After her father�'s death, she moved with her husband and her brother, Jesse, to Courtland, Mississippi. She lived around the Panola County (Old Panola) and Yalobusha County areas while supporting her husband's farming and trading interests the rest of her life. She and Alexander produced twelve children. Esther died on May 26th of 1859, and is buried at Union Hill Baptist Church, near Oakland, Mississippi. Many of her descendents continue to live in Mississippi while others have spread throughout the empire.
Zadock Bell, esq.
Zadock was born shortly before the family trek to Tennessee. He was easily the brain of the family as evidenced by documents he wrote in school that still exist. As a young man, Zadock eventually developed into a very promising lawyer, and realizing the need for his services in the newly settled southern territories, traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, where he attempted to set up his business. Letters sent back home tell of mass immigration by homesteaders and settlers, and describe the area of Tallahassee in great detail. One year later he had returned to Alabama where he died in Montgomery during a widespread southern epidemic. A letter written to John Bell, Jr. by John Blackwell of Montgomery, Alabama states that Zadock was buried in that city after an extended illness. Blackwell describes Montgomery as a city of the dead and dying in his letter. Most of Zadock�'s remaining property was sent back to John, Jr., who settled all accounts that his brother had been unable to pay. Zaddock was only 23 years old when he died on the 6th of July, 1826. No doubt, his mother, Lucy and his siblings were devastated to hear the news.
Elizabeth Bell Powell (Betsy)
Betsy was described as the baby of the family, possibly somewhat spoiled for that era. She easily became the most famous of John and Lucy's offspring as the victim and center of activity (medium) for the family poltergeist according to Martin Ingram's novel, "The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch." During the haunting, as described by Ingram, Kate completely dissuaded Betsy from marrying her first suitor and school mate, Joshua Gardner. Because of the activities of the entity, Kate, it was not long before they had separated as serious lovers.
According to historical record, Betsy became a housekeeper very much like her mother and sister, as all women were expected to be in that era. After her father'�s death she married Richard R. P. Powell, who had served for several years as a subscription school teacher, where he originally met Betsy as a child and as one of his students. Although he was supposed to have been a single man according to Ingram's novel, court records indicate that Powell had been married to Esther Hays Scott of Dickson County in 1815. She was 18 years his senior. Esther died in 1821, leaving Powell free to court Betsy until their marriage in 1824. He served for one term as sheriff and one term as State Representative of Robertson County until 1837, when he was handicapped by a massive stroke. In a community assisted attempt to earn enough for the future support of his wife and children, Powell lost $10,000 in goods during a steamboat accident on the river launching at Clarksville. This left his family completely destitute. A petition to the Tennessee State Legislature, drawn up on his behalf by over 80 friends in Robertson County, failed to win relief for Powell. His affliction worsened until his death in 1848. Details of Elizabeth Bell Powell�'s adult life are sketchy at best, but it can be seen from her husband's political ambitions that her main activities were centered on his political advancement and the well-being of their eight children. Despite the 11 year hardship she endured after her husband's stroke, Elizabeth maintained that her only marriage had been a happy one. Betsy lived in the town of Cedar Hill in Robertson County until late in life when she was finally forced to move in with her daughter, Eliza, in Mississippi. An old family story from Mississippi relates that "Granny Betsy" would not sleep alone at night, and would not discuss the spirit named "Kate" openly with anyone. Yet, no known evidence has been discovered linking her to an actual haunting. She died on July 11th of 1888. Her body lies in a small, somewhat forgotten cemetery called Long Branch Grove near what is now Water Valley. At 82 years of age she had lived longer than any of the other Bell children.
Richard Williams Bell
According to M. V. Ingram, Richard was only six years old when the haunting began. Yet, of all of John Bell's children, it was supposedly he alone who broke the silence requested by his father and family concerning the spirit. In 1846 Richard is said to have written the only known first-hand account of the Bell spirit and its effects on his family. Ingram states that this diary was eventually handed down to his son, State Representative James Allen Bell. James allowed its contents to appear in the M. V. Ingram novel under the title, "Our Family Trouble". It details many of the incidents that Richard Bell claims his family could remember clearly. The diary included in Ingram's novel has become the main source of information about the legend, and is often improperly printed out of context as a separate book or brochure from the "Authenticated History." The actual hand written diary has never been brought to light as evidence and Ingram does not state in his novel who eventually received it.
Family and official records indicate that Richard became a highly respected farmer and settled near the old plantation. He died in his prime at the age of 46, yet, even by that age he had been married three times!
Joel Egbert Bell (1813-1890) was so young during the period of the haunting, he would have had very little memory of the family trouble.
He became a respected man in Robertson County and married two times.
Joel was probably more responsible for the handing down of the story to the public because of his familiarity with Martin Ingram, though it is not known exactly what kind of relationship existed between the two men. It is possible that some kind of discussion on the subject of a haunting might have helped to motivate Ingram into writing "The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch." In any case, he and Elizabeth would have been the only two remaining children of John Bell available after the 1860's to discuss the story with Ingram before the novel was published.
Professor Richard Rowell Ptolemy Powell
Powell served as a subscription school teacher, as many young men of the times did, where he originally met Betsy as a child. Though the "Authenticated History" states that Powell was a bachelor, it is recorded that he had married Esther Hays Scott of Dickson County in 1815. She was 18 years his senior. Esther died in 1821, leaving Powell free to court Betsy until their marriage in 1824. Obviously politically well connected and respected in the community, Powell served for one term as Sheriff and for one term as State Representative of Robertson County until 1837, when he was severely handicapped by a massive stroke. In an attempt to earn enough for the future support of his wife and children, Powell's friends helped him to accumulate $10,000 in goods that were then lost during a steamboat accident on the river launching at Clarksville. This left his family completely destitute. A petition to the State Legislature, drawn up on his behalf by over 80 friends (including Joshua Gardner!) in Robertson County, failed to win relief for Powell. His affliction worsened until his death in 1848.
None of this unfortunate history is related to readers in Ingram's novel.
In Ingram's novel, Gardner was supposed to have lost Betsy to the wrath of a spirit and then to a school teacher's affections. Tradition says he was also supposed to have left the area of Red River shortly after Betsy refused him.
Yet, he continued to live in Robertson County for many years. He actually left the County much later, and established himself in Henry, and later, in Weakly County near a small town named after his famous brother, Col. John A. Gardner, who is hailed as a hero of the Civil War. Joshua successfully farmed near Gardner Station and served once as a County Magistrate. He was married twice.
OLD BONES AND DOCUMENTS
There are several reasons to account for a seeming journalistic silence concerning the Bell Witch until 1893. Newspapers suffered from a shortage of paper during the early colonization of Middle Tennessee. Only national, foreign, and political news made it into print beside advertisements which barely supported the publisher. Local and family affairs were expected to be transmitted by mouth, or were not spoken of at all. Due to religious and social attitudes, any involvement with the supernatural was avoided to preserve a family's good reputation. Gossip about the Bell problem later remained quiet and subdued, yet human nature managed to spread the news faster than the press, with no lingering, printed evidence. After 1820, the Bells tried desperately to remain silent about the haunting, and, in their embarrassment, discouraged all efforts by strangers to question them on the matter.
Among those family descendents questioned for this paper was Joan Dorr, a living, direct descendent of Betsy Bell. She remembers that stories about the witch were not often heard in her family. "My mother would not discuss the story with anyone she did not know well, but she knew the story of the Bell Witch, and could quote from memory our entire family tree, starting with John Bell's father!"
It was September in northern Mississippi, and I awoke to a raging, violent sky. After guesting at the home of Mrs. Dorr, I now knew in what area to look for Longbranch Cemetery, wherein lay the remains of the first citizen of the Bell Witch Legend. The land is now very different from the swamps and cane thickets of the days when masses had wandered down the old Indian and buffalo trail known as the Natchez Road. Driving down Interstate 55, massive columns of lightning descended on both sides of the highway to greet my search for the final resting place of Elizabeth (Betsy) Bell Powell. The town of Hatton, her last known residence, showed no sign of its existence, for it had disappeared into the landscape many years ago. Sheets of rain soaked my hat at each cemetery explored.
Touring perhaps 30 or 40 miles of back roads and bypassing a destroyed bridge, an accidental turn finally revealed a possible candidate with grass as tall as a man's head on a muddy back road. Clearing the grass away from what must have been 200 headstones that day, a chill ran up my spine. There stood the headstone of Elizabeth Powell in perfect preservation, safe from desecration by mischief and teenage thrill seekers on Halloween nights long since past. This is all that is left of Betsy's last refuge from the curious.
I had come to Mississippi simply to find information on who Betsy had become in later life, thus putting real flesh on the bones of the legend which had surrounded her since 1820. For it was Betsy who had remained the living figure of doubt concerning the family's credibility. Such public debates haunted her longer than Kate ever did. Ironically, she had outlived everyone in her family when she died, having lived 82 years.
As I began to photograph the grave, clouds suddenly parted over the cemetery allowing 20 minutes of beauty in this flowered field. Then, as my photo-session ended with a few words of respect over the lonely stone, the rain began to fall once more from a gray sky. This and many other odd circumstances through the years have bestowed upon me a feeling of kinship with this most interesting of stories.
After all is said and written, can any analysis, however complete, identify the tormenting energy released upon the Bell family? What science cannot explain or exploit, it can surely ignore. Taken in its simplest sense, the Bell Witch Legend is at once frightening, mysterious, and an uncomfortable reminder, to those of us trapped in our own mortality, of another reality, a clear view of which is denied to us all. Yet, if a disembodied entity may hold sway over human destiny, this legend will remain as a parable in which all beings are connected by some unknown universal fabric. Its very essence suggests that the insatiable creativity of the human spirit will always be subject to existence.
FACT FROM FICTION
(Many of the statements made in my original paper above are not accurate. You can attribute the statements I made in 1991 to some unfamiliarity with the history of the period as I did my research.)
Back when I penned the above information, I was, of course, assuming that somewhere in all of Ingram's novel were some major bits of truth that would reveal the nature of both the book and the story. Unfortunately, those truths contained in the "Authenticated History" were tested time and again both by me and by other researchers. And, as real data began to accumulate, the information attested to by Ingram as "fact" weighed more and more heavily toward fiction. Below are some comments in reference to my previous paper concerning statements that have now caught up with the reality of the research.
The Bell family was NOT an "original frontier" family. Instead, they were actually part of the secondary immigration into Middle Tennessee. Also, I can no longer state that this is the "most incredible haunting." There are other, less publicized, ghost and entity stories that have used this theme before Ingram did. Though not exclusive, the most notable of these is the "Mystery of the Wizard Clip," a collection of documents published in 1879 by Father J. M. Finotti, a Catholic priest, who relates details concerning the haunting of the Livingston family of Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. Apparently Finotti's story was supposedly well documented when it occurred in the late 1700's. Certain segments of the Catholic Church have since used Finotti's story as an example of faith within the religion. Most stories of this type seem to rely on characters who are strongly religious and who witness some kind of extraordinary and unexplainable spiritual activity.
According to his family, the designer of Bellwood Cemetery, Lesley Covington, did not believe the Bell Witch Legend.
The Bell family did indeed have public ordeals that are fully documented in official records, but the "haunting" by the invisible entity remains documented in only one known source so far, namely, "The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch."
Some members of the Bell ancestry have become downright vocal about the legend in the last few years. And, the events attributed to them by the original book continue to linger in stage plays, books, and several motion picture attempts. As usual, the local Middle Tennessee news media continue to pump up the Legend as an amusing anecdote without regard to researching the facts.
I have spoken with many skeptics and believers over the years concerning this legend. They all had very strongly held beliefs, and most were convinced that they knew the truth about many aspects of the family, community, or historical details. I always attempted to learn from them, but there comes a point where one can detect just how much of the information offered is seriously researched. Hopefully I did not deter or treat anyone with anything less than the respect they offered to me. Skeptics and believers alike should never be "deterred." Just open minded. I continue to keep an open mind for any further new information that may be revealed in the future.
Most of the documented accounts by 'confounded scholars' (as mentioned in my original paper) only seem to appear after about 1930. This is the year that Harriet Parks Miller published her account in Clarksville, Tennessee.)
Mr. Carney Bell's son, Robert, now operates the funeral home in Springfield.
The Robertson County Bell families have produced no verifiable first-hand documents concerning the haunting that I know of. All of the information in my research files concerning the Bell Witch as related by the descendents of John Bell (1750-1820) comes from stories "handed down" in the family. Yet, there are numerous preserved documents available from the period that have been generously offered as evidence of the actual historical activities of John Bell's family. None of the documents I have seen mentions any kind of paranormal activity.
Ingram was not really a pioneer of journalism. He was only a pioneer in the sense that he developed a regional journalistic style in support of the new South and its politics during the Reconstruction era. Such an attitude had never been required anywhere in the United States prior to the War Between the States. Ingram was a very astute student of his local southern readers, yet he frequently and intentionally came into conflict with community authorities by introducing unpopular proposals intended to incite discussion among his readership.
The name of "M. V. Ingram" of Montgomery County is not listed on Confederate soldier's roles, although we know from his writings that he was a sympathizer. The only M. V. Ingram listed is from a county not associated with Ingram's family. It should also be noted that according to the Clarksville City Guide of 1859, Ingram had formed a wagon manufacturing and blacksmith company with John Miller. Therefore, Ingram was living in Clarksville with his first wife, Annie Farmer, during the Civil War and moved to Springfield with his family at the war's conclusion.
All of the above statements in my original paper assume that Ingram's novel is a true account. When I originally wrote "The Spirit of Red River," I expected to find some kind of plausible evidence to indicate Ingram was writing about a factual incident while enhancing the story for his intended audience. Also, it must be noted from Ingram's newspapers that he occasionally published fiction for the entertainment of his readers. So, fiction was not new territory for this publisher.
Ingram's personal history is documented in both official records and those of his newspaper. We have indeed discovered many more of Ingram's writings and have traced his descendents. To my knowledge, Ingram only published one book in his lifetime. We must also add that he was seriously injured in later life when he was struck by a Clarksville streetcar, and evidence clearly points to some serious misfortune besetting him both professionally and personally. Ingram survived most of his children and both of his wives. Several newspaper items in the "Clarksville Leaf Chronicle" hint strongly that Ingram was beset by many unfortunate challenges in his final years.
Ingram "assumed" many old world opinions that modern minds would find greatly offensive, including his opinions concerning the issue of slavery. As with most humans, Ingram had many sides to his personality, and many of them were controversial in his time and in the current era.
At this point in my research, I can indeed imagine someone of Ingram's standing writing a tale like that of the Bell Witch. By the time he published his book, his standing had diminished considerably, and his only contribution to the "Leaf Chronicle" was by means of short, political commentary. It must also be noted that all of the "witnesses" in his novel were secondary witnesses. None were first-hand accounts except for the so-called "diary" of Richard Bell. Many of the details of the Red River community mentioned in his book are accurate, but curiously lacking in historical details. Also, Ingram did indeed have access to many pertinent details and records needed to write a novel of this nature. I will cover more of this issue in the wrap-up below.
I included a statement in my original paper to inform the general public of the incredible resources available to historical researchers. With the advent of the internet, those resources have become a formidable world-wide library (to be used with caution and common sense, of course).
Though it has little to do with the legend, I included a section to aid with understanding the mannerisms of the era. One should never interpret history based upon how people think in current times. It turns out that the history of the early 1800's in America is a very rich and complex blend of cultures, attitudes, and events that are frequently misunderstood or overlooked in history classes. The era of empires preceded the formation of the United States as we have come to know it.
There is considerable disagreement among family genealogists concerning John Bell's parents and grandparents. Although his father, William, is connected to many records in Edgecombe County, North Carolina, I could not find records of his wife to verify that her name was Martha. Apparently, William left no Will with the Court. Arthur, who I name as John's grandfather, wrote a Last Will and Testament in Nash County (later split off into Edgecombe County) in 1778 that very closely matches the Bell family location, names, and time. Although they are interesting, these earlier family connections have little to do with my research on the legend. I will simply leave the job of verification to the family genealogists.
One can deduce from official records that John and Lucy did not leave Edgecombe County until after the new American government had been reliably established, and until some local family problems had been resolved. The trip across the mountains was extremely physical and difficult, not to be taken by an established family unless they had determined with surety that they were able to survive the transplant. Many did not.
The tale told about a confrontation with the witch by John Bell's slave, Aberdean, (also known as Dean) comes directly from Ingram's book. However, the personal injury case involving Dean's injuries at the hand of John Arnold is documented in family records.
Port Royal is now a Tennessee State Park with only a few buildings and a covered bridge. Last time I visited the park its newly constructed, covered bridge had been washed from its foundations in a flood. There are few signs remaining that the area was once a thriving arrival point for thousands of eastern immigrants.
If indeed a paranormal event happened in the region of Red River, there were certainly enough passions to go around in the first part of the 19th Century. All of the information in my paper about religion in this region of Tennessee and Kentucky is well documented, and historically reliable.
In cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention Board Library, I spent one full week in 1991 restoring several pages of the Red River Baptist Church Minutes that had been blacked out by elders of the church concerning the nature of a major argument between Josiah Fort and John Bell, Sr., who were both deacons. It was a serious matter involving a land dispute that affected the Goyne family, and was also a dispute over Fort's comments concerning some religious matters. Both men eventually talked over their problems during a church committee meeting, and settled the issues to everyone's satisfaction. I suspect there were emotional scars remaining in the church congregation many years after the settlement.
All of the information involving the Red River Baptist Church's judgment and the Robertson County Court charges of usury against John Bell is documented in the Church's record of its Minutes and some original family notes. None of this conflict is mentioned at all in Ingram's novel. However, a passage in the diary supposedly written by Bell's son, Richard, seems to hint at the usury case in a very obscure fashion. Once again, as with other historical incidents, the "Authenticated History" avoids this issue.
We can assume that John Bell was going through some very difficult health issues during the year of 1820. There was obviously significant doubt by the Church that Bell's excommunication had been a fair action, or perhaps the committee harbored some guilt about how his punishment had been given. In either case, he did not live to face his accusers or clear his name.
Though generally true, publications of the late 1700's and early 1800's did indeed print unusual stories and events for entertainment. However, I and other serious researchers have come across no mentions of the Bell family incident in any of the newspapers of the early 1800's surrounding the Red River region or in more prominent eastern publications of the time. It would have been extremely difficult if not impossible for an incident such as that described by Ingram to have remained unmentioned in someone's letters, a personal diary, or in some newspaper that was contemporary to the period. The concept of published popular novels in America was just beginning during the early 1820's. And, such strong habits as gossip follow civilization throughout history. And, gossip sometimes passes on or affirms that which will not be reported otherwise.
Joan Dorr, a direct relative of Betsy Bell, and a very kindly and wonderful soul has since passed away. I have since learned from Joan's daughter that Betsy's gravestone was severely damaged by vandals not too many years ago. The family has since removed it from the Cemetery. Elizabeth's headstone is a fine example of cemetery art from the late 1800's and a very fitting memorial. I strongly doubt it can ever be placed back in the cemetery again. (I must also make note here of the fact that as of the first mention of the Bell Witch legend in 1886, Betsy only had two years left in her life.)
A NOTE CONCERNING CURRENT RESEARCH
"It is not the purpose of this writer to present a romance for the entertainment of lovers of fiction, nor to establish a theory to please the fancy of adherents of so-called theosophy, but simply to record events of historical fact, sustained by a powerful array of incontrovertible evidence, as it comes to hand, testifying to the most wonderful phenomenon the world has any account of: a visitation known as the "Bell Witch" …….
And, thus begins the novel by Martin Van Buren Ingram in the preface of the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch" published in 1894. Yet, in all those years since Mr. Ingram released his publication, the story itself has generated mostly the opposite appeal, namely that of being a "romance for entertainment." Despite serious attempts at explaining the story at hand, most of the published attempts at analyzing the content of the story have ended up without a complete or scholarly basis. My admission is that I also presented some data in my original paper as if it were self evident fact. Let's face it, historical facts are not self evident. They have to be backed up.
Before it can be taught as history, there must be some actual historical or documented basis by which an event can be traced to its origins. In the academic world this one rule has given us much of the truth behind history that was either wrongly publicized or reported erroneously by newspapers or magazines. The purpose of popular media is to report, but it is also to sell papers and advertisements and to support the mandates of a community. Unfortunately, the truth is not always forthcoming, but when events happen that sell papers, you can generally find mention of the event during the period in which it occurred.
As of this notation on The Spirit of Red River it has been over twenty-five years since I decided to tackle the formidable job of researching the real and verifiable history of the legend of the "Bell Witch." After collecting thousands of documents and visiting all of the known locations where the family, and supposedly, the story happened, my research slowed significantly.
Upon publishing my original paper and commentaries on the www.ghosts.org web site, I began to receive some very serious and some very odd e-mail messages from self-admitted witches, marginal history dabblers, television producers, writers, serious university researchers, family genealogists, and, as expected, some folks who were about two cans shy of a six-pack.
Then there were all the high school students. This story always makes a great paper for some types of written high school assignments and, following in the tradition of the inexperienced student, far too many of them seemed to want me to write their paper for them. (I politely declined).
As of this date I actually have enough data to draw many reasonable conclusions about the reality (or unreality as-it-were) of the Bell Witch story. Generally speaking, people do not want to hear about what issues scholarly research leads to. That's OK. The details are exhausting, and even the most serious researchers on the subject do not seem to have access to the data that would make this legend a reality. At this point, I seriously doubt that they ever will. However, in the spirit of the serious researcher, I continue to keep an open mind. In the face of so many other more important distractions of the world, legends are intellectual entertainment that are fun to play with, but rarely significant in a broader sense. So, every once in awhile I put some time into the Bell Spirit project to see what new information comes up.
For those of you who have been polite enough to complement my effort, I thank you very much. For those of you who continued to ask about my unfinished novel, I'm afraid it remained on hold due to the appearance of new and significant information that filled in many of the frustrating gaps that so confounded everyone for so many years. So much has happened to delay the novel that I no longer make apologies. My admission here is that it is difficult to decide on a reasonable format for such a novel based upon the information at hand.
At this point in our research the facts have spoken for themselves many times. Several university researchers have contacted me over the years with some very well thought out and professionally researched data. They were especially kind in sharing their insights and tremendously familiar with newspapers and journalism of the 1800's. We traded information that significantly filled in the history of Martin Van Buren Ingram, and thus gave us some very good ideas concerning his reasons for writing the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch."
I thank those researchers for clarifying and helping to identify many of the unknowns of the case. It saved significant time and effort. Unfortunately, it also led me to slow my research on the legend to a crawl. The legend has become a non-issue at this point in time, and rightly so.
As stated before, we have tried to approach this project from an historical perspective in order to return dignity and authenticity to the legend. Despite all of the data concerning the reality and official records of the Red River region of the early 1800's, Hollywood continues to mangle the content of Ingram's original tale. However, that is sometimes the state of the art when it comes to stories that are in the public domain.
So, for the information of those folks who remain interested, here are some facts that you may or may not want to hear from me. Due to the nature of distortion on the internet, I will not include a bibliography here. All of this information is available in public records.
The information on Andrew Jackson given in the "Authenticated History" is incorrect. It is well written and very entertaining, but incorrect. Simply put, in 1819 Major General Andrew Jackson accompanied President James Monroe on a tour of the Western Armies of the United States that ended in Lexington Kentucky. This tour occurred during the period in which Ingram tells of Jackson's encounter with the Bell Witch. (Ingram never actually revealed the date, but we must assume by real history that it was in 1819). Despite his public popularity, Major Jackson almost failed to make the tour due to a major illness and declining health. He had recently escaped official censure by the United States Congress for unauthorized actions he had taken on a military campaign, and was advised not to accompany the President through the state of Georgia where he was not welcome. Jackson had also admonished the President to allow him a peaceful retirement. Monroe declined. Upon returning home, he remained bed ridden for some time in recovery. At no other documented time from 1814 to 1820 was Jackson in the Springfield area for any reason (even though records from the clerk reveal that he did indeed own tracts of land in Robertson County as did many absentee speculators of the period). Actual letters and documentation freely available from the Library of Congress and several published histories, especially those of Congressional Historian, Dr. Robert Remini, verify these events. The only major event in Robertson County that happened during Jackson's return to Nashville was the dedication of the new courthouse in Springfield. There were no newspaper accounts that Jackson was present for that event.
Everyone to a person seemed to have one common question when they discovered what my project was. "Do you think it really happened? Is it real?" Unlike past versions of this paper, I must now proffer an educated opinion that the Bell Witch phenomenon is mostly a modern invention that did not seem to build momentum until around 1930. And so, it is time to make a challenge, .... it is now up to history and the remainder of the affected families (or someone who may have some kind of irrefutable evidence) to prove or disprove the series of events portrayed by Martin Van Buren Ingram in his 1894 novel. Whatever evidence comes forward must be first-hand, and it must be an original source, not a reprinted or secondary copy.
Based on all of my research into so many aspects of the story, and based upon who M. V. Ingram represented to the area of Robertson and Montgomery County, I must conclude that there is very strong evidence that Ingram and other uncredited authors put together a very believable set of characters, and events that were engineered to attract a specific audience around Middle Tennessee and perhaps beyond. After in-depth discussions with several serious academic historians, it became obvious to me that the burden of proof for the haunting of the family of John Bell, Sr. now resides with any person who is holding actual written proof concerning parapsychological events in Red River legitimately recorded prior to 1886.
Although there are plenty of theories concerning why Ingram chose to write this particular novel in such an odd style, we will not cover them here.
But, we have a small book full of questions that still need to be answered, and we welcome any verifiable evidence that can be brought forward.
As in any story based on ONE inclusive work such as the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch", I have attempted to discover newspaper stories or written documents which date prior to 1893 (the year of the book's printing) in order to discover an angle of thought beyond that of Ingram, perhaps acting as a possible verification of the incident. Discounting the advertisements announcing the publication of the book just prior to its release, as of this update I have only found one printed reference to the Bell Witch from the year 1886 (and I very strongly suspect that it was written or dictated by Ingram, though the source is not listed in Goodspeed's History).
Most of the later related newspaper articles I have seen between 1886 and shortly after the publication of the "Authenticated History" were composed to incite interest in Ingram's novel.
Searching microfilmed newspapers is very, very time consuming and extremely hard on the vision to say the least. One generally has to know the year in which an article appeared to prevent an endless search. Despite the reading of every page of the target year, certain pages or even whole issues may be missing or unrecoverable from the file. Sections may also be in such poor condition as to be unreadable. One instance of this difficulty was a reference made twice in the "Authenticated History" to an article written in the Saturday Evening Post during the year 1849. This particular article supposedly made certain accusations of such a nature that Elizabeth Bell threatened to sue the publication. There is no evidence available in the official record because Ingram states that the Post was never brought to court. Despite a very thorough search of rare microfilmed copies of the Post for that and many years on both sides of 1849, I have so far not been able to find that article. The search is made particularly difficult due to the destruction by an accidental fire of all known archival copies of the Saturday Evening Post for all of the years in question. The only remaining microfilmed copies were made from poor and sometimes almost unreadable copies of the publication. Despite claims about a published date from some researchers, no one has yet come forward with its actual location. I am almost certain the Post article does not exist.
The other researchers with whom I spoke also verified that they had discovered no articles on the Bell Witch prior to 1886 in any of the newspapers they had studied. And, this despite Ingram's assurance in his novel that short newspaper articles had been written and published in past years. I have personally never come across those articles either.
Another example of Ingram's literary stealth is his mention in the "Authenticated History" of a court case involving Thomas Clinard and Richard Burgess in the alleged murder of a Mr. Smith near Cedar Hill (just down the road from Adams). Smith, a strange and bothersome person, was supposed to have claimed some rapport with the Bell Witch that gave him power over other people (ie. mesmerism) that he used without permission on Clinard and Burgess. Playing for sympathy with the jury, the defense attorney managed to get the case dismissed against both men.
Although it was supposed to have been such a highly publicized case, there are no mentions of the case at all in local newspapers, and court records in the Robertson County Archives shed no light on the case except for the presence of sketchy notes left there concerning the defendants and their attorney.
I must also point out that much of the information about individuals who are considered central to the story have erroneous or incorrect information attributed to them throughout Ingram's book. Characters about whom humorous stories are related have little means of defending themselves in the present era. A case in point would be Kate Batts. Her history and descendents are somewhat difficult to trace, and there are no clear paths by which her personality can be verified. By the best of available records her history is very sad due to the disability of her husband, Frederick, and anyone who has been forced into caring for a sick family member can tell you of the drain in time and energy such an undertaking requires. If anything, Kate Batts must be given due credit for survival in difficult times while supporting several children.
Also, need I mention that Betsy's husband, Richard Powell, was not the gay, young bachelor portrayed in Ingram's novel. He was married to Esther Hays Scott during the period mentioned, and certainly intended on making a name and political reputation for himself. Like Kate Batts, Richard Powell's later history after his marriage to Betsy is a sad tale of fate. Yet, none of this history is presented in Ingram's novel.
And, finally, one must consider the inaccuracies of the description of John Bell in the so-called "diary" of Richard Williams Bell. Some of Richard Bell's authoritative comments about his father can be reasonably refuted by checking official records along with the detailed accounts included in the Minutes of the Red River Baptist Church. Did John Bell's son intentionally lie or color the truth about his father? Did Ingram pen the diary? Did someone other than a Bell family relative submit the diary? The obvious and truthful answer is that Ingram was responsible for the diary whether he wrote it or not.
So, we are left with this thought: when one approaches such a challenge with the intent of proof, there are a specific set of rules that historians must abide by in order to verify the details of our past.
With those rules firmly in mind, we must, for the present, conclude that there is very strong evidence to indicate that the Legend of the Bell Witch is just that .... a legend. And, a very strong legend at that! Like the best of writers, the story fashioned by Ingram contains most of the elements of life that tug at the emotional heartstrings of the masses. Ingram and his collaborators have played our tune for more than one hundred years, and a book that could have easily been forgotten after its introduction has spawned a modern haunting that continues to intrigue and mystify us to this very day. And, in like manner, the broadcast media will continue to mold the legend to fit the evening news. Though it makes poor journalism, a legend makes wonderful entertainment. Even one that has so few visible remnants.
I must once again give credit to the many descendents of the Bell family and other associated historical families of Robertson County. I did not always have information regarding the genealogies and family lineage that have been requested, nor did I research those families much beyond the period under study. On a very positive note, it is obvious that the Legend has spawned a very healthy interest in tracing family lineages. And, there is always room in our education for knowing one's heritage.
I must also thank everyone who sent me serious historical research information and suggestions. Much to my amazement, I kept receiving some very deeply thought out questions and analysis from an array of students of history who were much more skilled with the protocols of scholastic presentation than I have been. I have learned a great deal from your prodding, and continue to challenge myself to meet those standards.
This study continues to be a work in progress, Thank you very much to the hundreds of individuals who have been kind enough to provide information or inspiration of any kind. This has not been an easy task, but it continues to be a very rewarding one.