In the early 1800s, John Bell moved his family from North Carolina to the Red River bottomland in Robertson County, Tennessee, settling in a community that later became known as Adams. Bell purchased some land and a large log home for his family. The Bells quickly made many friends and gained prominence in the community. John Bell acquired additional land and cleared a number of fields over the next several years.
One day in 1817, John Bell was inspecting his corn field when he encountered a strange-looking animal sitting in the middle of a corn row. Shocked by the appearance of this animal, which had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit, Bell shot several times to no avail. The animal vanished. Bell thought nothing more about the incident–at least not until after dinner. That evening, the Bells began hearing “beating” sounds on the outside walls of their house.
These mysterious sounds continued with increased force each night. Bell and his sons often hurried outside to catch the culprit but always returned empty-handed. The noises were soon followed by more problems. The Bell children began waking up frightened and complaining of sounds much like rats gnawing at their bedposts. It wasn’t long until the children began complaining of more terrifying things–having their bed covers pulled and their pillows were tossed onto the floor by a seemingly invisible force.
As time went on, the Bells began to hear more strange noises. Only this time, they sounded like faint, whispering voices–too weak to understand–but sounded like a feeble old woman crying or singing hymns. The encounters escalated, and the Bells youngest daughter, Betsy, began experiencing physically brutal encounters with the entity. It relentlessly pulled her hair and slapped her, often leaving visible prints on her face and body for days at a time. The evil disturbances escalated over the next year to the point it was time for John Bell to share his “family trouble” with his closest friend and neighbor, James Johnston.
Johnston and his wife spent the night at the Bell home, where they were subjected to the same terrifying disturbances that the Bells had been. After having his bedcovers repeatedly removed, and being slapped, Johnston sprang out of bed, asking, “I ask you in the name of the Lord God, who are you and what do you want?” There was no response of any type, but the remainder of the night was peaceful.
As word of the Bell disturbances spread throughout the community, so did the entity’s antics. Over time, the its voice strengthened to the point it was loud and understandable. It sang hymns, quoted scripture, carried on intelligent conversation, and once quoted, word-for-word, two sermons that took place at the same time thirteen miles apart. During none of this time did anyone know who or what the entity was, or its purpose for tormenting the Red River Settlement.
Word eventually spread outside the settlement, even as far as Nashville, where one Andrew Jackson became interested.
John Bell, Jr. and Jesse Bell fought under General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, and had developed a good rapport with him. In 1819, Jackson got word of the disturbances at the Bell home and decided to pay a personal visit. Jackson and his entourage, consisting of several men and a large wagon, journeyed from Nashville to the Bell home. As the entourage approached the Bell property, the wagon suddenly stopped. The horses tried pulling but to no avail–the wagon simply would not move.
After several minutes of cursing and trying to get the wagon to move, Jackson exclaimed that it must have been the “witch.” As soon as Jackson uttered these words, an unidentified female voice spoke, telling Jackson and his men that they could proceed, and that “she” would see them again later that evening. The men were finally allowed to continue.
Jackson and John Bell had a long discussion about the Indians and other topics while Jacksons men patiently waited to see if the “spirit” was going to manifest itself. One of the men in Jacksons entourage claimed to be a “witch tamer.” After several uneventful hours, this man decided to “call” the “spirit.” He pulled out a shiny pistol and made his intent to kill the “spirit” known to all that were present.
Almost immediately, the man began screaming and moving his body in many different directions. He said he was being stuck with pins and being severely beaten. The man quickly ran out the door, and the “spirit” announced that there was yet one more “fraud” in Jacksons party, and that he would be identified on the following evening.
Terrified, Jacksons men begged to leave the Bell farm. Jackson insisted on staying so that he could find out who the other “fraud” was. Jackson and his men eventually went out to the field to sleep in their tents, and the men continued to beg and plead with Jackson to leave.
Jackson maintained the position that he wanted to know whom the other “fraud” in his party was. However, by mid-day the next day, Jackson and his men had already left the Bell farm and were seen going through Springfield. Jackson, a hero in the Battle of New Orleans four years earlier, was quoted as later having said, “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than to deal with the Bell Witch.” Jackson later became the President of the United States.
Over time, Betsy Bell became interested in Joshua Gardner, a young man who lived not far from her. With the blessings of their parents, they agreed to engagement. Nevertheless, despite their evident happiness, the “spirit” repeatedly told Betsy not to marry Joshua Gardner.
It is interesting to note that their schoolteacher, Richard Powell, was noticeably interested in Betsy and wanted to marry her when she became older. Powell was believed to have been a student of the occult, and had been secretly married to a woman in nearby Nashville for some time. Betsy and Joshua could not go to the river, the field, or the cave to play, without the “spirit” following along and persistently taunting them. Betsy and Joshuas patience finally reached critical mass, and on Easter Monday of 1821, Betsy met Joshua at the river and broke off their engagement.
The encounters decreased after that heartbreaking Easter Monday, although the “spirit” continued to express its dislike for “ol Jack Bell,” and relentlessly vowed to kill him. As Bells health grew worse, the “spirit” would torture him more severely, sometimes removing his shoes from his feet and relentlessly slapping his face while he was experiencing seizures.
On the morning of December 20, 1820, after a long battle with a crippling nervous system disorder, John Bell breathed his last breath. Immediately after Bells death, the family found a small vial of unidentified liquid that Bell had partaken of the evening before his death. John Bell, Jr. gave some of the liquid to the family’s cat, and the cat died almost instantly. The “spirit” suddenly spoke up exclaiming, “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, and that fixed him.” John, Jr. quickly threw the vial into the fireplace, where it shot up the chimney in the form of a bright, blue flame. As family and friends began to leave John Bells burial site, the “spirit” laughed loudly and sang a cheerful song about a bottle of brandy.
In April of 1821, the “spirit” visited Lucy Bell and told her that “it” would return in seven years for a visit. Seven years later, in 1828, the “spirit” returned as promised. Most of this visit centered around John Bell, Jr. The “spirit” discussed with him such things as the origin of life, Christianity, the need for a mass spiritual reawakening, and other in-depth topics. Of particular significance were the “spirits” predictions of the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.
After three weeks, the “spirit” bade farewell, promising to visit John Bells most direct descendant in 107 years. The year would have been 1935, and the closest direct living descendant of John Bell was Charles Bailey Bell, a physician in Nashville. Charles Bailey Bell himself wrote a book about the “Bell Witch,” but it had been published prior 1935. No follow-up was published, and Bell died a few years later in 1945.
Today, the “spirit” which haunted the Bell family nearly 200 years ago is believed by many to be the source of numerous manifestations in the area where the story took place. Some believe that when the “spirit” returned in 1935, it took residence in Adams, Tennessee, once a part of the Bell farm. The faint sounds of people talking and children playing can sometimes be heard in the area. It is also very difficult to take a good picture there..
Several years ago, one of John Bells descendants was rabbit hunting and shot a rabbit, which wandered into some dense brush. While searching, he felt a large rock underneath the brush where the rabbit had entered. The rock turned out to be a part of Joel Egbert Bells tombstone, and the rabbit was never found. In the mid 1990s, a picture was taken of a girl sitting on a rock outside the caves entrance. When the picture was developed, there appeared to be a man standing behind her. Upon expert examination, it was determined that the man-like image was not a double-exposure, but an entirely separate entity. It has been said that if you visit the fields of the old Bell farm on dark, cold and rainy nights, you can sometimes see small lights gliding over the fields and dancing in the dell.
The cause of the Bells torment nearly 200 years ago and today’s horrid manifestations has remained a mystery. Numerous versions and theories that purportedly explain the cause of the disturbances abound, and vary from person to person. The only constant is that there was “something” wrong on the Bell farm in the early 1800s, and there is still “something” wrong at the old Bell farm today, nearly 200 years later. It happened to the John Bell family in 1817. Maybe next time it will happen to your family.
Additional Links: http://www.bellwitch.org/