The strange tale of the Bell Witch is one of America’s most famous ghost stories. The spooky legend has terrified thousands and even helped inspire The Blair Witch Project. But is it true?
Legend has it that between 1817 and 1821 a malevolent spirit terrorized the prosperous Bell family in Adams, Tennessee. The incidents reportedly started when family members noticed unnatural animals on their property. In one version, a creature with the head of a rabbit and the body of a dog scratched at the Bells’ door. When someone went to investigate, the creature scurried off into the night.
Not long after the sighting, the Bells began hearing eerie sounds in their cabin, sounds that resembled choking, gasping, chains dragging across the floor, and rats gnawing on the bedpost. The sounds quickly escalated to physical violence, with John Bell, Sr. and daughter Betsy suffering most of the abuse. Betsy claimed she was slapped by an unseen entity, while John felt something poking the side of his throat. The witch also yelled, cursed, and threatened the family.
After enduring a year of horror, John confessed his troubles to church members who came to witness the strange events for themselves. Spectators soon flocked from miles around to see the Bell witch in action. The spirit reportedly belonged to a neighbor named Kate Batts and spoke of its desire to kill John Bell and stop Betsy from getting married. The witch eventually got her wish. Betsy and her suitor broke off their engagement, and John Bell died of mysterious circumstances in 1820, or so the stories go.
While the Bells were undoubtedly real, some say the Bell Witch story is nothing more than Southern folklore. Critics point out that details of the alleged haunting stem from a handful of sources, all written decades after the alleged events, and that none provide evidence of the Bell family’s struggles. The first source, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by Martin Van Buren Ingram, was published in 1894 and contains the full text of Our Family Troubles, the alleged diary of Richard Williams Bell (John’s son). No one but Ingram saw the diary, or even mentioned it, leading some to doubt its existence. None of Ingram’s claims can be verified (not even Andrew Jackson’s alleged visit to the Bell house), leading skeptics to believe the Bell Witch tale is nothing more than folklore gone wild.
“I chalk up the Bell Witch as nothing more than one of many unsubstantiated folk legends, vastly embellished and popularized by an opportunistic author of historical fiction,” writes Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning.
Whether or not the Bell Witch legend is true, it’s safe to say the story will continue to capture the imagination of generations to come. What do you believe?
To learn more about the Bell Witch haunting, check out the following books.