The REAL Bell Witch Legend: Kate Meets General Andrew Jackson
It's difficult to narrow down the field of Kate's best moments--a top ten of terror, as it were. This haunting was so extreme and so beyond just about any other documented paranormal event that even her quieter activities are pretty damn amazing. So,I have to narrow this down a bit. Perhaps the most famous Bell Witch exploit is the story of Kate vs. Old Hickory, and as it's one of the reasons why the Bell case grew to such proportions, it only seems fair to devote a post solely to it.
Andrew Jackson was, at the time of the haunting, a bona fide American hero. It's generally known that at least the two eldest Bell sons and possibly the third (Jesse, John Jr., and Drew) had served under Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. They were part of the original Tennessee Volunteers, which gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling. All that being said, when word of the haunting reached the General's ears, he put together a party of men--including a man who was a 'witch-layer' or 'witch hunter'. Pat Fitzhugh on his Bell Witch website forwards a claim that this individual is Captain James Gordon, a longtime Jackson crony. At any rate, and according to multiple sources including an 1894 letter from Col. Thomas L. Yancey of Clarksville, TN (recollections of his grandfather, Whitmel Fort) to MV Ingram, and Harriet Parks Miller's 1930 account published by the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, General Jackson, American hero, met Kate, the Bell Witch.
For the record, if an account of this encounter exists in Jackson's own writing, I've not heard of it. But Jackson was frequently in and around Robertson County, had an acquaintance with the Bell sons, and the subsequent account is Old Hickory right down to his toenails.
Yancey's account begins with:
Gen. Jackson's party came from Nashville with a wagon loaded with a tent, provisions, etc., bent on a good time and much fun investigating the witch. The men were riding on horseback, and were following along in the rear of the wagon as they approached near the place. Just then, within a short distance of the house, traveling over a smooth level piece of road, the wagon halted and stuck fast (Ingram).
Miller's account differs slightly:
When within a few hundred yards of the Bell home, some member of the Jackson party spoke slightly of the Witch, when the wagon wheels suddenly refused to move. (Miller)
The men whipped the horses and pushed the wagon, but to no avail. It would not move.
Gen. Jackson, after a few moments' thought, threw up his hands exclaiming, "By the Eternal, boys, it is the Witch!" Then came the sound of a sharp metallic voice from the bushes saying, "All right, General, let the wagon move on. I will see you again tonight."
The men in bewildered astonishment looked in every direction to see if they could discover from whence came the strange voice, but could find no explanation to the mystery. Gen. Jackson exclaimed again, "By the eternal, boys, this is worse than fighting the British!" The horses then started unexpectedly of their own accord...(Ingram)
Thus the score so far was Kate 1, Old Hickory 0, 'by the Eternal' 2. So the party settled in at the Bell's, and here again is a difference between the two accounts. Miller wraps the tale up as follows:
...it kept its promise. The Witch was out in full force, singing, swearing, pulling cover from the beds, slapping and pinching pretty Betsey (sic) Bell till she screamed with the pain. The Jackson party did not sleep a wink, and when morning came they were ready to go home... (Miller)
But Yancey's 1894 account, coming as it did from a man who grew up in Adams and whose grandfather witnessed the haunting, seems to me to more likely be an accurate, unedited relation of events--particularly since the Yancey version is the one that has been handed down in local folklore and is the first story I ever heard of the haunting from my own family's stories, which was already in the area when the Bell haunting occurred.
Gen. Jackson was out with the boys for fun--"witch hunting"--and was one of them for the time. They were expecting Kate to put in an appearance according to promise, and they chose to set (sic) in a room by the light of a tallow candle, waiting for the witch. The witch layer had a big flintlock army or horse pistol...He talked much, entertaining the company with details of his adventures, and exhibitions of undaunted courage and success in overcoming witches. He exhibited the tip of a black cat's tail, about two inches--
Superstition break. A black cat was thought to store a witch's magic in its tail--a superstition that went all the way back to France in the Middle Ages and perpetuated by sailors, who thought black cats could start storms at sea with that magic and Appalachian settlers who believed rubbing a black cat's tail on a stye would make it go away. But probably more to the point in this cat, a black cat is the standard witch's familiar--her consciousness in animal form. Okay, Col. Yancey. You can continue.
--telling how he shot the cat with a silver bullet while sitting on a bewitched woman's coffin, and by stroking that cat's tail on his nose it would flash a light on a witch the darkest night that ever come; the light, however, was not visible to anyone but a magician. (Ingram)
Okay, bulls**t break. Seriously, dude? Logic indicates that said light was static electricity, but still--poor marks on the SPCA and funeral etiquette boards. Which is probably why--
Leaning over, he (Jackson) whispered to the man nearest him, "Sam, I'll bet that fellow is an arrant coward. By the eternals, I do wish the thing would come; I want to see him run."
Ole Hickory was a smart man.
The General did not have long to wait...a noise like dainty footsteps prancing over the floor and quickly following, the same metallic voice heard in the bushes rang out from one corner of the room, exclaiming, "All right, General, I am on hand ready for business." And then, addressing the witch layer, "Now Mr. Smarty, here I am. Shoot."
The seer stroked his nose with the cat's tail, leveled his pistol, and pulled the trigger, but it did not fire. "Try again!" exclaimed the Witch, which he did with the same result. "Now it's my turn; look out, you old coward, hypocrite, fraud. I'll teach you a lesson." The next thing a sound was heard like that of boxing with the open hand, whack! whack!, and the oracle tumbled over like lightning had struck him, but he quickly recovered his feet and went capering around the room like a frightened steer, running over everyone in his way, yelling, "Oh my nose, my nose, the devil has got me! Oh lordy, he's got me by the nose!"
Suddenly, as if by its own accord, the door flew open and the witch layer dashed out and made a bee line for the lane at full speed, yelling every jump...
Okay, let's be honest. Who wouldn't have wanted to be there to see that? Andrew Jackson shared my opinion, for--
Jackson, they say, dropped down on the ground and rolled over and over, laughing. "By the eternal, boys, I never saw so much fun in all my life. This beats fighting the British!" Presently the witch was on hand and joined in the laugh. "Lord Jesus," it exclaimed, "How the old devil did run and beg; I'll bet he won't come here with his old horse pistol to shoot me. I guess that's fun enough for tonight, General, and you can go to bed now. I will come tomorrow night and show you another rascal in this crowd." (Ingram)
Strangely enough, the rest of Jackson's party refused to stay another day, despite the General wanting to hang around for more fun. I get the feeling that Ole Hickory and Kate shared a lot of similar traits, and she obviously had great respect for him. They certainly enjoyed the chastisement of rascals, as the famously vindictive President and the equally malicious entity proved multiple times.
Now, let's stop and take a look at this encounter for a moment, because there are some significant items for us to analyze. First off, I think from my analysis of the sources that the Yancey version of this story is the one that originated in Adams, while the Miller version of the story appears to come from sources involving Andrew Jackson. This would account for the differences in the story, especially if Pat Fitzhugh is correct and John Gordon is the source for the "witch-layer" part of the story. It makes sense that the story from Jackson's camp would gloss over that particular incident, which indicts one of Jackson's close political allies.
Second, one of the things that strikes me is the resemblance in language between this letter from Yancey and the accounts of Richard Williams Bell and John Bell Jr. Remember Mr. Williams, the detective, who also sat around bragging about what he'd do to the witch? The witch made a point of saying I will satisfy him he is not as smart as he thinks in that instance, while here she said Here I am, Mr. Smarty; shoot. Both men received much the same fate as well, for Kate didn't suffer fools lightly and enjoyed beating the crap out of them. In both cases, she let the men boast--basically set them up for punishment by deliberately staying quiet until just the right moment. And she displays that eerie prescience as well, by knowing not only the intentions of both men but their likely response to getting manhandled by an invisible force.
For me, seeing as we're discussing two separate incidents related by two different authors--and with a time difference as well--I have to speculate that these events most probably occurred pretty much as they were related, the only difference being the story of the witch hunted. The parallels are just too close--and there are other incidents in the Bell case that are also remarkably analogous to these. These stories create a definite pattern, as well as insight into the entity's developing personality. That personality developed into something so strong, so individual, that witness stories originating from entirely different sources seem like they were written by the same person. Miller's coup de grace ending of the story kind of reaffirms that:
Nashville friends, knowing the intentions of the General's trip and also his previous skepticism as to the existence of the so-called witch, were surprised to see him back so soon and began plying him with questions as to what he saw and heard, at which the General replied, "By the Eternal, I saw nothing but I heard enough to convince me I'd rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch." (Miller)
Again, the similarity but not quite exact repetition of Jackson comparing the haunting to fighting the British speaks for the authenticity of these accounts as related by the descendants of witnesses decades later.
So how certain can we be that this event really happened? The short answer is--we can't. There is no letter, no paragraph, no sentence in Andrew Jackson's handwriting that establishes this encounter between Ole Hickory and the Bell Witch. I tend to think that involves the eighteenth century bad habit of burning personal correspondence after someone's death. All this having been said, however, I think it is probably the event actually did take place. The two primary accounts--and there are other confirmations from other sources, but these are the primary ones--have distinct similarities without any word for word repetition. The sole real difference in the stories, involving the purported witch-layer, makes sense to me if the Ingram account originated with locals and the Miller account with the circle around Andrew Jackson. And considering the fact that the Bell sons served under Jackson in the army, along with the proven frequency of Jackson's travels in and near Robertson County, there is enough motivation, I think, for him to leave the Hermitage for a week of fun camping out on the Bell farm and hunting the witch.
But I have to admit--if I could go back in time to any moment of the Bell haunting, I'd go back in a flash to watch Andrew Jackson meet the Bell Witch. Not only would it just be simply incredible to witness, but the incident also reveals a side of the entity that, while not benevolent by any stretch, is mischievous and actually pretty darn funny. I have a feeling that these two titans of 1819 Tennessee would have a secret soft spot for each other, creating a moment of accord between them before they moved on to their primary purposes for existence.
And with Kate, that purpose becomes increasingly powerful--and malicious.
Next time, you're going to learn some of my paranormal encounters in Adams, including the Bell cemetery, farm, cave, and school. However, you'll also hear my opinion of why the new A&E show Cursed: The Bell Witch is most likely a trumped up exploitation of the Bell Witch legend than what its viewers might expect.
Why, you ask?
Well for a couple of reasons. First off, considering the number of prosperous and long-lived landowners, lawyers, doctors and politicians among the Bell descendants, it's hard to consider them cursed. And second?
Because Kate said she wouldn't haunt or curse the Bell descendants--and if there's one thing that's for certain, it is that Kate would do exactly what she said she would do. So, we shall see.
Better buckle up.