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While the Bell Witch may be one of the most famous poltergeist cases for the United States in the last one hundreds, there is significant evidence that it may be a fraud.
Written by Kyle T. Cobb, Jr.
Nos tibi credere.
Some stories begin “once upon a time.” And end with happily ever after. This isn’t one of them. This is the story of the Bell Witch that plagued Robertson County, Tennessee in 1817. Depending on your perspective, this is the story of a visiting angel or plaguing devil. Of, course, this story could also be just another fairy tale.
Before it is possible to explore the Bell Witch event, the question of where is the witch in the story is usually lingering in the end. During the early 1800s, any kind of unexplained event was attributed to magic and witchcraft. So when describing the events surrounding John Bell, people would discuss the problems as being caused by the witch that cursed John Bell. Over time this became simply the Bell Witch. While there are elements of the story that suggest the events are magic and the result of witch’s curse, these are at best superficial. As will be discussed, there is validity to the argument that this case resembles a haunting but the entity is more powerful than a typical apparition. This case has the physical attributes of a poltergeist case but the verbal interaction of the haunting breaks the stereotype. In a modern sense, we would classify this as a case of demonic activity. Historically, W.F. Barrett in the 1930s classified this as a poltergeist event.
As a historian and a paranormal investigator, in looking at this story, it is necessary to shake away two hundred years of exaggeration, hype, and deliberate misdirection.
Around 1804, John Bell settled near Adams Station in Robertson County, Tennessee near the Kentucky state line with, his wife Lucy, their children:
1. Jesse (1790-1843, married and lived locally)
2. John Jr. (1793- 8 April 1862 according to the receipt for his gravestone)
3. Drewry (1796-1865)
4. Benjamin (1798)
5. Esther (1800-1859, married Alex Bennett Porter in 1817and moved out of the home).
6. Zadok (1803-1826)
7. Elizabeth “Betsy” Lucy (January 1806-1888)
8. Richard Williams (1811-1857)
9. Joel Egbert (1813-1890)
John Bell was born in 1750 in Halifax County, North Carolina as the son of William Bell, a prominent farmer. While John Bell loved farming, he was apprenticed to learn the cooper business (barrel maker). He fought as a soldier in the battles of Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans.
In describing John Bell’s character, it was said that:
John Bell made it a rule to owe no man. He paid as he went, and accumulated rapidly from his farm by economy in management. He was always forehanded, having money ahead, and was accommodating to his neighbors, who were not so fortunate. He was as firm in his convictions as he was dignified in character and generous in hospitality, consequently he was a tower of strength in the community.
In 1782, he married Lucy Williams, the daughter of an extremely wealthy family.
Along with two slaves, the couple bought a farm in Edgecombe County, NC. In addition to the farm in Edgecombe, Bell owned large amounts of land near Tarboro, a 1760 settlement on a crook of the Tar River. During this period John Bell joined the Union Baptist Church near Tarboro.
In January 1803, the family had grown too large to stay at that farm. Bell had five living children by that time and one of their slaves had eight children.
Records show in September 1803, John Bell received a letter of dismission from Union Baptist Church which released him from him current church to join a new one.
So he sold his land in North Carolina and prepared to journey west to colonize Tennessee. During the winter of 1803-1804, the Bells, along with a dozen other families (including Cate Batts and her husband Fredrick), made their way through the Tennessee mountain passes and stopped in Port Royal.
John Bell moved the family to the Red River Valley. By April 1805, John Bell had been accepted as a member of the Red River Baptist Church. In August 1807, Bell purchased 220 acres along the Red River near the Kentucky border from William Crawford of Louisiana. A second source claims that his land was purchase was 323 from William Barnes.
At that time Bell arrived, the county was home to 9,938 citizens and their slaves. The primary industries in the county were cotton and brandy.
The family lived in:
a double log house, one and a half stories high, a wide passage or hallway between, and an ell-room with passage, the building weather boarded on the outside, furnishing six large comfortable rooms and two halls, and was one of the best residences in the country at that time. It was located on a slight elevation in the plane, nearly a half-mile back from the river, a large orchard in the rear, and the lawn well set in pear trees.
There is a frequent claim that a portion of the property was purchased from a neighboring farm owned by a relative named Caty (or Cate) Batts. For an unknown reason, after the transaction for the land, Cate asserted that Bell had cheated her on the land transaction. Allegedly on her death bed Cate vowed to “haunt John Bell and all his kith and kin to their graves.” This is absolutely untrue. The Batts were relatively poor and owned very little land. Cate also died after John Bell in 1843.
The troubles of 1817 for the Bell family have been preserved thanks to several works, of which only one claims to be a firsthand account. Richard Williams Bell is credited with writing a diary in 1846 that later was entitled “Our Family Trouble.” When Martin Van Buren Ingram’ published his 1894 book, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, he claimed to have gained permission to reprint the diary. However, as will be discussed later, there is credible evidence that the diary is a forgery.
Prior to the publishing of Ingram’s book, the only verifiable reference to events surrounding the Bell family appears in Goodspeed’s 1886 History of Tennessee which again brought the story into popular consciousness.
According to Ingram:
The first evidence of the mystery, or the appearance of things out of ordinary course of events, occurred in 1817. Mr. Bell, while walking through his corn field, was confronted by a strange animal, unlike any he had ever seen, sitting in a corn row, gazing steadfastly at him as he approached nearer. He concluded that it was probably a dog, and having his gun in hand, shot at it, when the animal ran off. Some days after, in the late afternoon, Drew Bell observed a very large fowl, which he supposed to be a wild turkey, as it perched upon the fence, and ran in the house for a gun to kill it. As he approached within shooting distance, the bird flapped its wings and sailed off, and then he was mystified in discovering that it was not a turkey, but some unknown bird of extraordinary size. Betsy walked out one evening soon after this with the children among the big forest trees near the house, and saw something which she described as a pretty little girl dressed in green, swinging to a limb of a tall oak. Then came Dean, the servant, reporting that a large black dog came in the road in front of him at a certain place, every night that he visited his wife Kate, who belonged to Alex. Gunn, and trotted along before him to the cabin door and then disappeared.
These strange apparitions, however, passed for the time unnoticed, exciting no apprehensions whatever. Very soon there came a strange knocking at the door and on the walls of the house, which could not be detected. Later on the disturbance commenced within the house; first in the room occupied by the boys and appeared like rats gnawing the bed posts, then like dogs fighting, and also a noise like trace chains dragging over the floor. As soon as a candle was lighted to investigate the disturbance, the noise would cease, and screams would be heard from Betsy's room; something was after her, and the girl was frightened nearly out of her life.
Mr. Bell now felt a strange affliction coming on him, which he could not account for. It was stiffness of the tongue, which came suddenly, and for a time, when these ·spells were on, he could not eat. He described it as feeling like a small stick of wood crosswise in his mouth, pressing out both cheeks, and when he attempted to eat it would push the victuals out of his mouth.
John Bell continued to have eating problems for almost one year.
James Johnson and his wife were the first outside witnesses. The couple was asked to spend the night in the Bell house to help explain the mystery. They too experienced the knocking sounds and felt their bedsheets being removed.
The sleeping children were awakened to their hair being pulled and their bedcovers removed. Night after night, the issues continued and seemed to focus on Elizabeth. When Elizabeth was sent away to stay with neighbors, the events would follow her.
Eventually, the entity began to answer questions. First the answers came in the form of knocks but then they progressed into whispers. The whispers became a feeble voice and soon became a fully recognizable voice. The speech of the entity was described as sexless but sweet. It would say things like “Lord Jesus, how sweet old Sugar Mouth prays; how I do love to hear him.”.
The entity hated John Bell which she called “Old Jack” but it never showed disrespect or taunted Lucy Bell.
The entity also seemed to have a special attachment to the family’s youngest daughter. While Betsy was 12 at the time of the events, she is described by Ingram as
Betsy, however, developed rapidly, and at the age of fifteen had ripened into lovely young womanhood, and was noted for her extraordinary beauty and winsome ways. She was a blonde, symmetrical in form, presenting a charming figure of uncommon grace, with a fine suit of soft silky hair, which hung in beautiful waves, in contrast with her fair complexion, and with all, there was enchantment in the mischievous twinkle of her large deeply set blue eyes.
When Joshau Gardner attempted to date Betsy, the entity began to plague him. It should be noted that Gardner was Betsy’s school teacher and he was also six years older than she was. Their “relationship” was a subject of scandal in the community.
Whenever Gardner would approach Betsy, the entity would be heard saying in soft voice:
Please Betsy Bell, don't have Joshua Gardner. Please Betsy Bell, don’t marry Joshua Gardner.
When Betsy ignored the entity’s commands to abandon Gardner, the entity became more aggressive and attacked the girl. Theny Thorn and Rebecca Porter witnessed Betsy seemingly under attack and screaming violently. Betsy would complain that the “old thing” was sticking her with needles. The friends would hear the sound of a slap and then bare witness as a red mark appeared on Betsy. There were claims that combs and shoes would be thrown.
The supposedly the entity was never seen in its natural state. As mentioned earlier at the initial point of contact strange animals and a little girl appeared. At another point, the entity was said to create a doppelganger of a neighbor and then transform into children. Virtually every sighting of an odd acting animal in the area was attributed to the entity. Most frequently the entity was said to take the form of a rabbit.
The entity also became the scapegoat for every mishap or the angel for every blessing throughout the community.
In spite of most often being invisible, over time it was alleged to interact with the community and would speak in church shouting “Lord Jesus.” To those that it didn’t like, it would allegedly pinch.
While the entity was initially seen as a positive force, this began to change.
The entity was linked to disturbances at John Gardner’s still house. After times in the still house, the entity would come:
in very drunk, cursing and fuming, filling the house with bad breath, spitting on the Negroes, overturning the chairs, stripping the cover from the beds, pinching and slapping the children, and teasing Betsy in every conceivable way and to such an alarming extent that her parents feared for her to remain alone in her room…
One claim was the entity was freed from an Indian grave on the property.
Historically, thanks to Ingram a link was made between the entity and Caty Batts. As mentioned earlier, there was a rumor that because of an unexplained hatred of John Bell, Caty had cursed her neighbor on her death bed.
Caty Batts was married to Fredrick, who was crippled while felling a tree on their Red River homestead.. They had two boys and a daughter.
Ironically, Genealogist recently discovered documents suggesting that Caty was the daughter of John Williams Jr., the brother of Lucy Bell. In addition to that family relationship, Caty’s brother in law Jeremiah Batts was married to Lucy’s sister Elizabeth.
In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that Batts was part of the same wagon train as the Bells that came to the Red River Valley.
Because of her husband’s handicap, the Batts barely kept their farm profitable. Ingram claims that the couple owned slaves and frequently loaned the community money. Census and estate records of the Batts prove otherwise.
Ingram describes Caty as a giant woman, weighing over two hundred pounds that generally felt insecure in dealing with men as a business level equal. Because women in business were so rare, and because of Caty’s insecurity, she often asserted that she felt she was being cheating in business dealings. Historical records suggest Caty was tall and thin.
Ingram also asserts that Caty was also known to have a strange manner of speaking and did not hesitate to berate anyone she felt offended her. Another of Caty’s eccentricities, according to Ingram, was an obsession with brass pins. She seemed to constantly be looking for brass and would ask people she encountered it they had any for her. This strange obsession lead to rumors that Caty was a witch.
Caty was deeply religious but never made it to church on time.
The linkage between Caty and the entity came when the Reverend James Gunn questioned the entity on its origin and it told him:
that it could not trifle with a preacher or tell Brother Gunn a lie, and if he must know the truth, it was nothing more nor less than old Kate Batts’ witch, and was determined to haunt and torment old Jack Bell as long as he lived.
While that considered Caty as a pious religious person doubted the entity’s claim, Caty’s detractors embraced the idea. Whispers of a young girl years earlier claiming that Batts was a witch surfaced. Rumors of Caty saying negative things about John Bell were retold (of course the truth was Caty rarely said a positive thing about anyone!).
It is worth noting that on cause of friction between the Batts and the Bells involved Benjamin Batts. According to some researchers, John Bell and Benjamin Batts became involved in a dispute over a slave issue that ultimately resulted in Bell being excommunicated from Red River Baptist Church in January 1818.
So based on the event with Reverend Gunn, the entity was also called “Kate” from that point forward.
Ironically, Caty Batts outlived both John and Lucy Bell, dying in 1843.
While the 1894 M.V. Ingram book was not the first telling of the story, it was the first to claim access to a diary of the events. Reportedly written by Richard Williams Bell in 1846, the diary, if authentic is the only contemporary or firsthand record of the event.
In Ingram’s book, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, the chapter containing the diary has been entitled “Our Family Trouble” but it is entirely possible that this document was forgery created by M.V. In fact, there are no known copies of “Our Family Trouble” prior to 1891.
As the diary begins Richard Williams claims that as a child he had no early knowledge of the events. His first recollection was from May 1818 when the sound of a gnawing rat had awoken his brother Joel and himself. The sound persisted for days between 1 AM and 3 AM and was also reported in Betsy’s room.
After several weeks of persisting, the gnawing was accompanied by reports of the bed covering slipping off throughout the night. New sounds such as gulping and choking were introduced. As the situation escalated, the sounds grew louder and began to become knocks like “heavy stones falling on the floor” or “trace chains dragging.”
The next escalation came when the children reported their hair being pulled.
As mentioned earlier, the family invited the Johnson’s in as witnesses.
Following the Johnson’s experience, the community became involved and tried to determine the source of the sounds.
As some point, the idea of asking the knocks to respond was presented. So questions asking the entity to respond in numbers were asked. Things like “How many persons present? How many horses in the barn? How many miles to a certain place?” would be asked. The answer would then come in the form of hard knocks.
It was at this same time that John Bell and the children reported rocks being thrown at them in the evening as they returned from the field. The family also began to experience the sensation of being slapped.
With the passage of several more weeks, the entity began speaking, using a soft whispering voice. The development of speech only contributed to the fame of the events occurring.
When the spirit was asked, “Who are you and what do you want?” it replied “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.”
Next the witch claimed:
I am the spirit of a person who was buried in the woods near by, and the grave has been disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered, and one of my teeth was lost under this house, and I am here looking for that tooth.
The diary then claims that brother Drew and Corban Hall had opened an Indian grave and removed a jawbone. In the process, they had dropped a tooth through the floorboard.
After the revelation, the family removed the floorboard but there was no truth. The entity then laughed that it was only a trick.
Next the entity claimed:
I am the spirit of an early emigrant, who brought a large sum of money and buried my treasure for safe keeping until needed. In the meanwhile I died without divulging the secret, and I have returned in the spirit for the purpose of making known the hiding place, and I want Betsy Bell to have the money.
The witch convinced a group of men to move a great rock in search of the treasure and eventually they dug a 6 foot by 6 foot hole. When they found nothing there, the witch mocked the men for being so foolish.
Periodically, the entity would recite scripture or sing a common hymn.
Betsy began to suffer from fainting spells and shortness of breath that would last thirty to forty minutes. While there was no evidence to support it, the family believed that the fainting was caused by the entity. During these spells, the entity would also fall silent.
John Bell continually suffered from the ailment that caused his tongue to feel stiff and soreness on each side of his jaws. In modern terms this also be explained as Osteomyelitis, Trigeminal Neuralgia or something as simple as a cavity. Bell later developed facial contortions and muscle spasms.
Four weeks the entity behaved as a benevolent guardian of community values, the suddenly the witch seemed to take on four personalities. These personas were described as:
Blackdog assumed to be the head of the family, and spoke in a harsh feminine tone. The voices of Mathematics and Cypocryphy were different, but both of a more delicate feminine tone. Jerusalem spoke like a boy. These exhibitions were opened like a drunken carousal, and became perfect pandemoniums, frightful to the extreme, from which there was no escape.
The behavior of the entity then begins to act more erratic to the extent that it even argues with itself in the various voices.
The entity hated the slaves and they feared the entity. The diary tells several tales of the entity hurting various Bell slaves.
The abusiveness of the entity was not reserved strictly for the slaves. When a detective named Williams came to debunk the case, initially the entity fell silent. The investigator concluded the case was a fabrication. That night, while in the Bell house, the investigator felt his body restrained against the house’s floor. While being held, the entity physically beat the investigator.
The diary recounts an incident where Joel was unhappy at the entity awakening him and called her names. As a reward, he was severely beaten.
During this period, the entity was not always abusive. In September 1920, Lucy Bell developed pleurisy. As the mother grew worse, the entity would sing to her and then brought her nuts and berries.
One night William Porter had the entity show up at his home and the creature told him that it would sleep in his bed with him. As the entity lay next to Porter, he felt extreme cold. When he realized the entity was under his blanket, he grabbed up the blanket in an effort to burn the entity. As he crossed the room, the entity grew heavy to the point he dropped the rolled up creature. It was also mentioned that the entity released a foul smell while it was trapped.
One day, Elizabeth Porter, a neighbor of the Bells, was gathering eggs. She noticed a woman walking up the road toward the Porter house. Recognizing the woman as her neighbor, she tried to speak with her but the neighbor remained silent. As the neighbor wandered around strangely, she passed behind a large log. Instead of the neighbor emerging, two women and a boy appeared from the other side. The three figures sat on bushes and bounced up and down.
Bennett Porter returned home just as this was happening and saw the bushes moving but no figures. Alarmed by his wife’s terror, he went inside and retrieved his rifle. Getting direction on where to shoot, Porter fired the musket. He was told the apparitions disappeared at that point.
The entity would later claim that Porter’s shot broke Jerusalem’s arm.
The bulk of the activity ends with John Bell’s death from poisoning. According to “Our Family Trouble”:
The crisis, however, came on the morning of December 19th. Father, sick as he was, had not up to this time failed to awake at his regular hour, according to his long custom, and arouse the family. That morning he appeared to be sleeping so soundly, mother quietly slipped, out of the room to superintend breakfast, while brothers John and Drew looked after the farm hands and feeding the stock, and would not allow him to be disturbed until after breakfast. Noticing then that he was sleeping unnaturally, it was thought best to awaken him, when it was discovered that he was in a deep stupor, and could not be aroused to any sensibility. Brother John attended to giving him medicine, and went immediately to the cupboard where he had carefully put away the medicines prescribed for him, but instead he found a smoky looking vial, which was about one-third full of dark colored liquid.
He lingered along through the day and night, gradually wearing away, and on the morning of December 20th, 1820, breathed his last. The witch remained at the farm until the Spring of 1821, when it said good-bye and departed.
In February 1828, only Lucy, Joel and Richard Williams Bell remained in the house. The entity returned with the usual scratching and gnawing that had heralded its beginning. The noises continued for two weeks and then ended forever.
Betsy had married her other school teacher, Richard Powell, on 21 March 1824. They were married for 17 years his death. . In 1875, she moved to Yalobusha County, Mississippi to live the remainder of her life as a widow. Betsy Bell Powell died on 18 July 1888 and was buried in Long Branch Cemetery in Yalobusha.
One of the possible perpetrators of the Bell Witch fraud could have been Professor Richard Powell. Born in North Carolina on 8 December 1795, Powell maintained a secretive life when he came to Red River. Poweell was so secretive that no one in Red River knew he had married Esther Scott on 7 December 1815 and maintained a separate home in Dickenson County, Tennessee. Even when Esther died in 1821, there was no mention of her death in Powell’s diary.
Powell’s motivation for the getting rid of Joshau Gardner was clear. It is also documented that neither John Bell nor James Johnson trusted Powell. Supporting allegations of Powell’s involvement were statements that events never occurred in his presence. The entity only seemed to harm Betsy in response to attention show to Gardner. When Ingram mentions the slaves and their interaction with the entity, there seems to be indication of a bias against Powell. In this case, this is the only known racist spirit.
In sections following the death of John Bell, the Ingram book takes a forced step to the left. There are stories of one of the Bell slaves encountering the entity. There are stories about Andrew Jackson encountering the entity. There are second hand stories by the daughter of Theny Thorn.
In Goodspeed’s 1886 History of Tennessee, Albert Virgil Goodpasture described the events are described as:
A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the "Bell Witch." This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The freaks it performed were wonderful, and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. A volume might be written concerning the performances of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted. It is merely introduced as an example of superstition, strong in the minds of all but a few in those times, and not yet wholly extinct.
A slightly different version was produced in the 1939 Guidebook of Tennessee which reads:
The BELL WITCH FARM, 5.6 m., has long been so called because it is widely believed that a witch hag rode John Bell and his family here during the early part of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century John Bell came to Tennessee from North Carolina, bought a tract of land here and settled with his large family and numerous slaves. To round out his holdings, Bell bought a section of land from Mrs. Kate Batts, a neighbor who had a reputation for meanness. Bell was noted for an almost grim piety and uprightness; yet no sooner had the land transfer been completed than Mrs. Batts began declaring that Bell had cheated her. This fancied injustice vexed the old woman for years. On her deathbed she swore that she would come back and “haunt John Bell and all his kith and kin to their graves.”
Sure enough, tradition says, the Bells were tormented for years by the malicious spirit of Old Kate Batts. John Bell and his favorite daughter Betsy were the principal targets. Toward the other members of the family the witch was either indifferent or, as in the case of Mrs. Bell, friendly. No one ever saw her, but every visitor to the Bell home heard her all too well. Her voice, according to one person who heard it, "spoke at a nerve-racking pitch when displeased, while at other times it sang and spoke in low musical tones.”
The spirit of Old Kate led John and Betsy Bell a merry chase. She threw furniture and dishes at them. She pulled their noses, yanked their hair, poked needles into them. She yelled all night to keep them from sleeping, and snatched food from their mouths at mealtime.
The witch, so they say, did not confine her capers to the Bell farmstead. She attended every revival in Robertson County and out-sang, out-shouted, out-moaned the most fervent converts. The unseen Kate was also very fond of corn whiskey.
She constantly raided still houses, they say, got roaring drunk and went home to belabor John and Betsy Bell with renewed fervor. When Betsy fell in love with Josiah Gardner, a young man who lived on the adjoining farm, Old Kate included Josiah in her vigorous displeasure. Gardner finally gave up and fled from the State.
When Old Kate’s fame at length reached Nashville, Andrew Jackson and some friends determined to face the terror and 'lay” it once and for all. In very high spirits they set out for the Bell farm. Suddenly, on the boundary of Bell’s property, it is related, the wagon in which Jackson and his friends were riding would move no farther. The mules strained and Jackson cursed. Out of the empty air came Kate's voice: “All right General, the wagon can move on.” And it did.
That night Kate kept the house in an uproar. She sang, she swore, she threw dishes, overturned furniture, and snatched the bedclothes from all the beds. Next morning the harried Jackson made an early start, crying out to Bell as he left, "I'd rather fight the British again than have any more dealings with that torment."
The Bell Witch disappeared when John Bell died. The original farmhouse has been torn down.
Like Goodspeed implies in the above passage, while there may be some basis for the story but it is just as probable that this is a local legend that was embraced by popular culture 60 years later.
Even while the events were occurring it was suspected that the children were responsible for the events. It was suggested that John Jr. and Drew had learned ventriloquism while working in New Orleans. This skill had then been taught to Betsy. As a motive, it was suggested that the events were then part of a money making scheme.
The defense against the Bell children being involved hinges on the knocking on doors and walls having occurred when all the children were present.
In trying to determine the authenticity of the diary, several key elements must be taken into consideration. First prior to the 1894 publishing of Ingram’s book, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, there are no references to the existence of a diary. There are virtually no records of the events around the Bell paranormal events prior to the 1870s even though the entity’s fame drew spectators from far away. Certainly, a phenomenon this popular this would have made the Nashville Gazette or the Tennessee Herald.
Ingram references an 1849 Saturday Evening Post article on the Bell Witch. No such article has ever been located.
There are also a number of very credible writing style reasons that the diary is actually a fabrication created by Ingram.
Throughout the entire book there is virtually no difference in the style, the verbiage or the tone of Ingram text verses the diary text.
For example both the diary and Ingram use the unusual phrase “high carnivals” to describe the entity’s parties. The diary refers to “the greatest of all secrets” and “the great mystery.” Ingram uses the phrase “the greatest of all mysteries” and “the greatest mystery and wonder that the world has any account of.” Both authors seem to describe facial features using the term “physiognomy,’ which was a term extremely popular in the late nineteenth century. The diary describes John Bell by saying he “was always forehanded, paid as he went.” Ingram describes Bell as, “He paid as he went... he was always forehanded.” The use of the phrase “forehanded” is both uncommon and frequently used by Ingram.
Both sources use frequent reference and similar reference to the Bible and Shakespeare to illustrate their points.
Even statistically, both authors score virtually the same writing level of a college sophomore and yet Bell only received a single school education.
In the Ingram text, he uses the word “detective” for example (p 13.):
If the Bell brothers and sister, had been capable of making such demonstrations, could they have continued the exhibitions so long undiscovered by the shrewd detectives who were constantly on the alert? Or would they have heartlessly inflicted so much distress upon their father and family?
This was perfectly normal in 1894 when his book was written. However, during Richard Williams Bell’s period for writing the diary in 1846, the word had not yet been created as a noun. The earliest known use of detective was as a verb in England in 1840. It did not cross the Atlantic to America until 1844 when it is used as an adjective to describe police actions. In 1849, the word emerges as a verb. By 1850, it had completed the transition in America to a noun.
The passage in the “Buried Treasure” section of the diary reads:
The excitement in the country increased as the phenomena developed. The fame of the witch had become widely spread, and people came from all quarters to hear the strange and unaccountable voice. Some were detectives, confident of exposing the mystery.
The word “detective” is again used in a section of the diary called “Detective Williams”:
A good looking stranger arrived who introduced himself as Mr. Williams, a professional detective, stating that he had heard much of the witch mystery, which no one could explain, and having considerable experience in unraveling tangled affairs and mysteries, he had traveled a long distance for the purpose of investigating this matter, if he should be permitted to do so…
Beyond anachronism, Williams Bell had been a farmer like his father. Yet the vocabulary used in the diary far exceeds the education of a 1820s rural school. Words like personation, declamation, vociferator, beneficence and felicity are scattered throughout the diary. Not surprisingly, Ingram uses the same level words such as lodgement, unregenerated, indomintable, mordacity, and alacrity.
Within both texts, there are also style errors that point to a single author. For example the periodic use of the word “myself” instead of the pronoun “I”. There are frequent uses of the word “that” where the word “who” would have been appropriate. Question marks and semi-colons are frequently used incorrectly but in the same manner in both texts.
Throughout the diary there are references to spiritualism and spiritualistic concepts. The spiritualistic ideas presented in the diary where virtually unknown in the United States prior to the Fox sisters in 1848. The appearance of these ideas in a diary written in 1846 is simply not possible.
At least one possibility is the entire book is basically a concealed masonic text. Throughout the work, there multiple masonic references. For example in the masonic tradition, one of the key elements is the Rough Ashlar or raw stone which symbolizes man’s natural state of ignorance. A portion of the diary story has the witch pointing to a hidden treasure under the giant stone in the south-west corner of the farm. In the Masonic temple, the south-west corner of the lodge is used in the second (Fellow Craft) degree as a holding point for the unenlightened on their journey to knowledge in search of the light. It is opposite both the starting and ending point.
Near the end of the diary, John Bell experiences an attack where his shoes are pulled off. This echoes the requirement in the Masonic Rite of Discalceation which requires removal of the shoes when entering a sacred place. In Bell’s case, the entrance to death is approaching.
There are references to the special handshake between the entity and Calvin Johnson. Once this handshake is established several other receive it. Again this practice echoes the expected behavior between initiated members of the Masons. It is also important to note, that the entity refuses to shake the hand of John Johnson in the same manner.
Mason text also uses certain key phrases which are found in the Diary text. For example, in the ceremony to raise a member to the level of master mason, the Candidate is “suddenly jerked backward.” In an encountered with the entity, John Bell is described in the same way.
Ingram was a lifelong Freemason and was buried in 1909 “under Masonic auspices.”
While Ingram was not generally a reporter, he owned and operated the Clarksville (TN) Tobacco Leaf. It is of particular note that the Leaf frequently included fictional stories during Ingram’s tenure.
It is also worth noting at the time of the publishing of the Bell Witch, Ingram was a member of a group called the Liar’s club. The club’s stated purpose was for every member to “fashion a tale with such design as to convince all readers of its veracity.” It was also a trend during the 1890s to periodically drop fake news stories in newspapers for entertainment. Since the audience was in on the joke, this was not a shocking practice. An examples of Liar’s club pranks from this period was the “Great Kansas cownapping” which basically featured a cow being stolen by a dirigible. All across the United States at that time, newspaper men and other writers tried to one up each other with stories to fool the readers.
It should be noted, that presently only one source has been identified to that asserts Ingram was a member of the Liars’ Club, so this allegation may itself be lie.
The Real John Bell
While John Bell is described as an honest, upright citizen in Ingram, he is also a figure that had an above average amount of conflict of legal conflicts in his life.
The first legal entanglement seems to have occurred around 1800 in North Carolina. Prior to John Bell moving the family to Tennessee there is evidence to suggest that he was involved in a murder concerning Mary Bell. Exactly who Mary Bell is confused matter. By one account Mary Pyrent Bell was John Bell’s sister. Several researchers have also suggested that John Bell had a daughter Mary by a wife to prior to Lucy. In either case Mary is never mentioned in relation to the Tennessee events but plays a factor in the Mississippi witch variant.
According to several sources, in 1800 John Bell hears the overseer of his farm, John Black, bragging about sexual relation with Mary Bell. A fight erupts and Bell kills Black. Because there are no witnesses, Bell is acquitted based on self-defense. Thus far no public records have been found to verify this claim.
Before John Bell’s death in 1820, there are several curious events that are left out of the diary.
When Bell transferred to Red River Baptist Church on 20 April 1805, the church was heavily influenced by Calvinist doctrine, which declared that God would only bring a chosen few into the kingdom of Heaven. In 1810, the Arminian Movement made its way through Baptist churches in the region. Under the Arminian doctrine, it was believed that all men were sinners and that anyone could achieve salvation asking God for forgiveness of their sins.
While initially, the congregation continued to follow Pastor Sugg Fort, Bell came into conflict over doctrine with the son of the minister, Josiah Fort. After a sermon by Fort, Bell publically objected to the Armenian message. These objections were note in the Red River church log on 4 September 1815. The disagreement over doctrine eventually expanded to a family and minor legal dispute. While the issue was privately settled, the schism laid the foundation for the events to come.
In July 1817, a preacher named Reuben Ross conducted a funeral sermon and effectively converted the church to the Arminian doctrine. For more conservative members like Bell, the churches conversion laid the groundwork for friction.
One of John Bell’s downfalls occurred when he came into conflict with Benjamin Batts over a slave girl in July 1816. According to Bell’s statement in the Red River Church minutes, Batts agreed to sell a female slave to Bell for $100. Bell paid for the slave but agreed that there would be a delay in delivering her. When Batts finally delivered the slave to Bell, he insisted that she was worth more (because he had another, higher, offer for her).
Batts gave the slave to Bell but asked to cancel the deal and wanted to refund the money. Bell demanded $50 interest before he would return the slave to Batts.. After several days of wrangling, he pair settle on $20 but an additional argument develops and Batts, the brother-in-law of Cate Batts, claims that Bell had charged him an extraordinary amount of interest on the sale of slave. The church council reviewed the case and ruled that Bell had acted appropriately. Parallel to the case being reviewed by the church, the case appeared as a lawsuit. In August of 1817, Bell was ruled against by the court in Springfield, Tennessee for usury.
During the trial, Bell had made several statements in conflict with church doctrine. Noting these statement and viewing his conviction as a mark against the church, on 16 November 1817, the church council again charged Bell. On 3 December 1817, the church as a whole heard the charges against Bell but a majority of the members did not vote. On 21 December, Bell addressed the church, to explain his position. In his speech he criticized the change in church philosophy and offered to take a voluntary leave.
On 13 January 1818, Bell was excommunicated from Red River Baptist Church.
In October 1819, John Bell appealed his excommunication. A committee from five outside churches reviewed the charges and recommended John Bell’s reinstatement. In spite of the committee’s recommendation, the Red River Church refused the report and continuously moved forward hearing until after the Bell’s death.
In spite of all the information contained in the records of the church about Bell, there is no mention of any unusual events happening. Even in the month of Bell’s death, the only entry in the church’s diary was “No Conference in December.” Ironically, Benjamin batts was also excommunicated from Red River Baptist on 19 March 1825 for failing to attend a church request.
It was because of the family’s excommunication that they could not be buried on holy ground and were therefore buried on the Bell farm.
In May of 1820, John Bell was also involved in a lawsuit involving another local farmer named John H. Arnold. According to the lawsuit, Arnold had rented a slave from Bell named Aberdean. While renting the slave, Arnold severely beat Aberdean almost to the point of death. This event caused the scar on Aberdean’s head that is later attributed to the Witch.
Ingram’s Katy Bates
Ingram as well as the diary, makes several claims about Batts. Seventy years after the facts, many of the details about the life of Caty Batts have proven untrue.
First, Ingram claims that the Batts sold land to the Bells and that was the genesis of the argument. The deed records of the Bell land purchase on file in North Carolina show this to be untrue. As discussed earlier, in August 1807, Bell purchased 220 acres along the Red River from William Crawford of Louisiana. This was the same amount liquidated in his estate.
Ingram claims that in addition to farming, Caty used one of her slaves to produce a number of woven goods such as jeans, linens and stockings. Ingram also claims that routinely Caty would pass through the community and encourage her neighbors to buy the products. According to the census records as well as the Batts estate records, they were too poor to afford slaves.
In contrast to the Ingram claim that Cate Batts cursed John Bell on her death bed, Cate Batts did not die until 1843.
There is a slave linkage between the Batts and the Bells however. As mentioned earlier, the dispute between Benjamin Batts and John Bell had concerned a female slave.
More Errors in Fact
John Bell was not rich as described by Ingram. While Bell did own a number of slaves, most of the slaves were children of the female slave he had in North Carolina. In contrast to the 1,000 acres of farm land attributed to Bell, as mentioned above, Bell only owned between 220 and 320 acres.
It should be noted that in several versions of the story there are mentions of the involvement of Andrew Jackson. From the late 1810s until the 1830s, Jackson’s every move is fairly well documented.
In 1819, Andrew Jackson, as a Major General traveled with President James Monroe on an inspection of the Western Armies. Also during that time Jackson was extremely ill and tried to resign his commission. After Jackson departed the tour, he remained bedridden for months. At no other time was Jackson new Springfield between 1814 and 1820. This is verified from a wide assortments of documents in the Library of Congress.
Ingram had stated that after the brief engagement between Joshau Gardner and Betsy ended on 23 April 1821, that Gardner had left Red River. In contrast to Ingram, Gardner continued living in Red River for years. Eventually, Gardner moved to Henry County, Tennessee and finally settled in Gardner Station, Weakly County.
When looking at an event like the Bell Witch which seems to change over time, it is important to compare generations of the story. Presently, Goodspeed’s 1886 History of Tennessee is the first verifiable source. It should be mentioned that the owners of the Bell Witch Cave are in possession of a copy of a 6 June 1819 letter from the collection of Dan Willaby that seems to mention the event but since this document is not an original, its authenticity is not verifiable.
So from a scholastic perspective, Goodspeed is the original source.
Before discussing the differences between Goodspeed history and Ingram’s book, it has been discovered that there is a direct linkage between the two.
As was discussed earlier, Ingram owned and operated the Tobacco Leaf in Clarksville, Tennessee. He began researching his Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, in 1880.
Goodspeed’s 1886 History of Tennessee was written in part by Albert Virgil Goodpasture. In particular, the Bell Witch entry in the history is credited to Goodpasture. In 1877, Goodpasture began practicing law in Clarksville, Tennessee. He lived in Clarkesville until 1884.
With a population of 3,880 in 1880, it is certain that Goodpasture and Ingram knew each other. So while there is no proof Ingram contributed to the earlier story, there is certainly a window of opportunity.
The Goodspeed version of the story also lacks many of the sensational elements present in the Ingram story. For example, there is no mention of the murder of John Bell. There is also no mention of the alleged visit of Andrew Jackson.
What is contained in the Goodspeed is a fairly standard description of a poltergeist event with the exception of the inclusion of voice. Since the 1840s, wave after wave of poltergeist stories swept through America as a result of the rise of Spiritualism movement thanks to the Fox Sisters. In reviewing literature of the 1880s, dozens of poltergeist stories can be found.
So, while at first pass, Goodspeed’s 1886 History of Tennessee treats the events as a matter of history with no commercial benefit for including this entry among the hundreds of other history events, Ingram’s influence and the benefit of including supernatural elements may have hidden commercial benefits.
So did the Bell Witch event happen?
While it is impossible to say with complete certainty, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the events never occurred and are a fictional work created by Ingram.
Bell Witch cover
Strange rabbit dog
Albert Virgil Goodpasture
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