I try to avoid highly specific ghosts and focus on types, but here’s the story of a uniquely American ghost.
There are at least three different versions of the Bell Witch story. The most prominent is the one from the journal of Richard Bell, grandson of John Bell, and this is the one we’ll explore.
The story of the Bell Witch begins in 1817 on the farm of John William Bell, a prominent farmer who lived just north of Adams, TN. Bell saw a strange dog-like creature, described as being a large dog with the head of a rabbit, stalking his land. He tried to shoot at the beast, but it disappeared. Later he encountered a large turkey-like bird creature which also vanished. Following these apparitions, the Bell family, which consisted of John, his wife Lucy, and their eight children, began hearing unexplained sounds. These would sometimes manifest as the scratching and gnawing of giant rats or the sounds of dogs scratching at doors.
The strange noises continued and eventually physical manifestations began to occur. Members of the family were slapped or pinched and bed sheets were torn off in the middle of the night. The Bells’ twelve year old daughter, Betsy, seemed to get the worst treatment. She was slapped, poked, and prodded enough to bruise, and even had pins stuck into her. At first the family thought the girl was making up the stories of otherworldly torture, but eventually they had to agree that Betsy was under some sort of supernatural assault.
John Bell then confided in his neighbor, James Johnston, who came to the house to see for himself the ghostly haunting. Johnston discovered that the spirit could be commanded, in the name of the Lord, and was therefore intelligent in some manner, not simply a random force. He convinced Bell to seek help from investigators in the paranormal.
Bell reluctantly sent word of his predicament to various scholars. After much study, it was concluded that the spirit, which became much more communicative, was the “witch of Kate Batts”, a neighbor of Bell’s who had a falling out with the man. The real Batts was very much alive and well, and seemingly had no idea why the spirit identified itself as her. It was from this identification that the spirit became known as the Bell Witch.
In 1819, General Andrew Jackson decided to visit the Bell house to see what was going on. According to legend, Jackson’s buggy wheels locked tight as he approached, and a female voice told him that he could proceed and she would see him that evening. One of the men Jackson brought with him was a “ghost tamer”, a man who claimed to be able to put ghosts to rest. That evening the Bell Witch was silent, causing the “ghost tamer” to claim that his pistol, loaded with a silver bullet, was keeping the ghost at bay. He taunted the Bell Witch, proclaiming his prowess over the supernatural.
The Witch did not take kindly to this. The man was suddenly yanked in multiple directions, shoved about and finally kicked out the front door by the spirit. He fired his silver bullet in vain, and the ghost announced that she would reveal another “fraud” in the Jackson retinue on the next evening. Jackson’s men, terrified, begged him to leave and, though the general was determined to stay, he eventually relented and he and the men left before dawn the next morning.
Eventually Betsy Bell, older and having lived through many torments by the witch, became interested in Joshua Gardner, a boy her age who lived nearby. Her former teacher, Richard Powell, also vied for Betsy’s attention, but ultimately lost out to Gardner. Powell was a bit of a rake himself, having a secret wife in Nashville. However, while Joshua won Betsy’s heart, the two of them could not be together without the Bell Witch interfering, taunting the young couple mercilessly. Eventually the taunts were too much and Betsy broke off the engagement. Betsy went on to marry Powell, and the witch was silent about her choice in suitors.
John Bell, however, was one of the witch’s greatest enemies. She would often prophecize his death, and swore to someday kill him. Eventually John began to have facial seizures and, on December 20, 1820, he passed away. After his death, a vial of poison was discovered by the family and the witch took full credit for killing Bell. At Bell’s funeral, the spirit again appeared, laughing and singing until everyone left. The spirit then seemed to be at rest and did not reappear for several months.
In April 1821, the ghost appeared and told Lucy Bell, John’s widow, that it would return in seven years. In 1828, the spirit did indeed return, visiting John Bell, Jr. and offering visions of the future, including the Civil War and both World Wars. After about three weeks of haunting Bell Jr., it vanished again, promising to return in 107 years. The spirit, however, is not known to have appeared in 1935.
The ghost or witch or haunting spirit seemed to be unusual in that it was not tied to the Bell home. After the public became aware of the spirit, it appeared around Adams, almost always saying negative things about John Bell. Of note is a cave on the Bell property, known today as the Bell Witch Cave, it sits near a ruined native american burial mound. The witch was said to haunt those who went to the cave, especially Betsy and Joshua who tried to hide from the spirit in the cave.
No one is sure where the spirit came from or why it identified itself as Kate Batts, who was still alive and well at the time. Perhaps it simply impressed upon Kate and her frustration with John Bell. Others believe Betsy may have been the cause for the witch, manifesting latent psychokinetics. There is no definitive answer for what occurred or what spurred the witch into being, but even to this day sightings of strange things seem to surround the land that was once the Bell farm.