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The Bell Witch

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The Bell Witch event

The Bell Witch event

The tormenting spirit of America's best-known poltergeist case

ADAMS, TENNESSEE, in 1817 was the site of one of the most well-known hauntings in American history - so well known that it eventually caught the attention and then the involvement of a future president of the United States.

Known as The Bell Witch, the strange and often violent poltergeist activity that provoked fear and curiosity in the small farming community has remained unexplained for nearly 200 years, and is the inspiration for many fictional ghost stories, including the horror classic, The Blair Witch Project. The facts of The Bell Witch case share little in common with the mythology created for The Blair Witch Project, except they both attracted a great deal of public interest. And because it really happened, The Bell Witch is far scarier.

THE HISTORICAL RECORD

One early account of The Bell Witch haunting was written in 1886 by historian Albert Virgil Goodpasture in his History of Tennessee. He wrote, in part:

A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the "Bell Witch." This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The freaks it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from the beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. A volume might be written concerning the performance of this wonderful being, as they are now described by contemporaries and their descendants. That all this actually occurred will not be disputed, nor will a rational explanation be attempted.

THE VENGEFUL GHOST

What was the Bell Witch? Like most such stories, certain details vary from version to version. But the prevailing account is that it was the spirit of Kate Batts, a mean old neighbor of John Bell who believed she was cheated by him in a land purchase. On her deathbed, she swore that she would haunt John Bell and his descendents. The story is picked up by the Guidebook for Tennessee, published in 1933 by the Federal Government's Works Project Administration:

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.

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