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We Still Can’t Wrap Our Minds Around the Terrifying Legend of ‘The Bell Witch’

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Warner Bros./ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/ MovieStills DB)

We sincerely hope that the legend of the Bell Witch is simply fiction – not fact. There are not many ghost stories as famous as that of the Bell Witch, and yet for the past two centuries, no one has been able to debunk this horrifying tale.

A vendetta against the Bells

The Bell Family home

Illustration of the nineteenth century home of the Bell Family in Red River (now Adams), Tennessee. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

Our legend began in the summer of 1817 when farmer John Bell was walking around his 360-acre farmland. During this walk, he allegedly saw and shot a creature that was described as a rabbit-headed dog. He didn’t dwell on this strange creature too much, however. After killing it, he went inside and ate dinner with his family.

However, the strangeness continued that night when strange noises awakened John Bell and the rest of his family. The family heard knocking sounds and chains rattling throughout the house. They also heard the sounds of rats gnawing on the bedposts and gulping and choking sounds.

President Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845), seventh president of the United States of America, who went and visited the Bell Witch. (Photo Credit: Stock Montage/ Getty Images)

These noises terrified the Bell family, but what scared them more was the ridicule of their community. For nearly a year, the Bell family kept these spooky sights and sounds to themselves. It was only after John’s youngest daughter Betsy woke up with welts and a handprint on her face that John confided in his friend, James Johnston, about what had been happening.

Bell invited Johnston and his wife to spend the night at their home so they could understand what the Bells had been going through. After several nights of witnessing firsthand the strange phenomena occurring at their home, James Johnston gently suggested to John Bell that more people should be told.

The most famous ghost in America

Illustration of Betsy Bell

Artist’s drawing of Betsy Bell, done in 1894 for a book published about the Bell Witch. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons via Public Domain)

As word spread, people began coming from far and wide to investigate the Bell house for themselves. According to legend, the Bell Witch even had an encounter with future president Andrew Jackson, who wanted to visit the property after hearing the stories about what was going on at the Bell residence.

Supposedly, the spirit eventually gained enough strength and announced itself as a woman named Kate Batts. In life, Kate Batts had allegedly been one of the Bells’ neighbors. Batts had two primary reasons for haunting the Bell family home. The primary reason she was hanging around was because she wanted John Bell dead.

The second reason for her haunting was because she didn’t want Betsy Bell to marry a neighbor boy named Joshua Gardner.

Illustration depicting John Bell's death

Illustration depicting John Bell’s death. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

For the next three years, Kate (who had become known as “The Bell Witch”) relentlessly tormented the family. John Bell specifically suffered choking attacks that he described as akin to a stick being stuck sideways in his throat. Betsy also had her hair pulled, was pinched, scratched, and beaten.

On December 20, 1820, John Bell died. His family later found a vial of poison in his room. The Bell Witch proudly admitted that she had forced John to drink the poison. Three months later, in the spring of 1821, Betsy broke off her engagement to Joshua Gardner.

After three years of persecuting the Bell family, the Bell Witch seemed to have accomplished everything she had originally set out to do.

The witch leaves… and then returns

The Bell Witch cave

The Bell Witch Cave. (Photo Credit: Www78/ Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1821, Kate Batts allegedly told the Bell family that she would leave them alone- but only for seven years. By the time of her departure, Kate’s spirit had a reputation for knowing people’s pasts and predicting the future. In 1828, The Bell Witch, sure enough, made a reappearance to John Bell Jr. During this visit, she supposedly told him secrets about the past and future. Some accounts suggest she even predicted the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

After her 1828 visit with John Bell Jr., the Bell Witch said she would return in another 107 years. However, many people believe she never actually left the property and decided to dwell inside a cave, which is now known as the Bell Witch Cave.

Facts vs Fiction

Signs advertising the Bell Witch Cave

Signs at the entrance to the Bell Witch Cave. (Photo Credit: BRad06/ Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 3.0)

So is the legend of the Bell Witch real? We suppose the answer to that question depends on whether or not you believe in ghosts. Some accounts suggest that the Bell Witch was actually just an elaborate stunt put together by Richard Powell, whom Betsy Bell would end up marrying.

Powell was a schoolteacher who took a liking to Betsy. But as she was already engaged to Joshua Gardner, Powell could not court her. However, several accounts suggest that Richard Powell dabbled in the occult while he was a teacher. To make matters even more interesting, Powell’s first wife died in 1821 – the same year Betsy ended her engagement to Joshua. Perhaps Powell staged the Bell Witch shenanigans so Betsy would break off the engagement and he could marry her.

More from us: The “Witch of Wall Street” was America’s Richest (and Stingiest) Woman

The Bells’ original farmhouse is long gone from the family’s property. Tours are offered of The Bell Witch Cave, which was listed on the National Historic Registry in 2008. The Bell property still sees its share of strange and unexplainable sights and sounds.