Sunday, November 08, 2015

Part Eight: Kate Meets The Neighbors

Back to the legend we go, before tomorrow's next travesty...erm...episode of Cursed: The Bell Witch.

Some of the best stories in the Bell haunting involve Kate's interactions with the community around the Bell farm. Families back then were, obviously, much larger and therefore the Bells intermarried within the area so the extended family was fairly large. As the oldest Bell children were just starting out when the haunting was going on--oldest son Jesse was born in 1790 making him twenty-seven the haunting commenced. John Bell Jr. was born in 1793, Drewry in 1796, Esther in 1800, Zadok in 1803,Betsy in 1806, Richard in 1811, and Joel was the baby, born in 1813. Only Jesse and Esther were married and therefore out of the house. Jesse had married Martha Gunn, daughter of their neighbor Rev. Gunn, while Esther was the very young (in our eyes) wife of Alex Porter. 

The neighborhood was a fairly large pioneer community of the early nineteenth century, and the Bell family met both support and suspicion from their neighbors. As Richard Williams Bell remembered:

Many of our neighbors were frightened away, fearing they would become involved in a tragical termination. Others, however, drew nearer, and never forsook us in the most trying ordeal. James Johnson and his two sons, John and Calvin, the Gunn families, the Forts, Gooch, William Porter, Frank Miles, Jerry Batts, Major Bartlett, Squire Byrns, and Major Pickering were faithful and unremitting in their sympathy, and attentions, and consolations, making many sacrifices for our comfort, and not a night passed that four or more were not present to engage the witch in conversation, and relieve father of the necessary attention to strangers, giving him much rest. {Bell, Richard Williams Our Family Trouble}

Any of you guys learn how to diagram sentences in middle school? I did and that last sentence is a bear. Darn Victorian writing styles.

At any rate, these families along with Joshua Gardner, Betsy's lovelorn boyfriend, and her two best friends Theny Thorn and Rebecca Porter, were the mainstays of the Bells' existence during those trying four years. Note if you will that one of the people Richard Bell listed is Jerry Batts, who is one of Cate Batts' children. Makes that hypothesis that there was bad blood between the Bells and the Batts kind of a wash, doesn't it?

One of the more famous incidents involved the Johnson sons, John and Calvin, who one night wanted to 'shake the witch's hand'. According to Richard Bell, these two young men interacted with the entity more than anyone outside the family. The entity evidently liked to get into long conversations, and the Johnsons obliged. John was a smart young man, and he used these talks to try and get the witch to slip up and reveal some kind of clue to her existence, while his brother, Calvin, was a more straightforward type of person. 

One night, the conversation turned to the nightly abuse Kate heaped upon the Bell children. Everyone agreed that the sound was like an open hand against the cheek, so Calvin decided to ask the witch to shake hands with him. Richard Bell continued:

After much persuasion, Kate agreed to comply with the request on one condition, that Calvin would first promise not to try and grasp or hold the hand that would be laid in his. This he agreed to, and then holding out his hand, in an instant he felt the pressure of the invisible. Mr. Johnson testified that he felt it very sensibly, and that the touch was soft and delicate like the hand of a lady, and no one ever doubted his statement.  John Johnson begged Kate to shake hands with him, persisting that he was as good a friend as his brother, but the witch refused, saying, "No, you only want a chance to catch me." John vowed that he would not attempt anything of the kind. Kate still refused, replying, "I  know you, Jack Johnson; you are a grand rascal, trying to find me out, and I won't trust you."

This is a great story for a couple of reasons. First off, the entity complied with a request for someone to have a tactile experience, and did so in such a manner that the subject was able to describe vividly what her 'hand' felt like. And second off, that uncanny prescience the witch had shown on numerous occasions proved that she, at least, knew what John Johnson's real intentions were. 

But perhaps my favorite story is also one of the most famous--the night the Bell Witch got into bed with William Porter. William Porter was a frequent guest, and claimed to enjoy talking with Kate. As a result, the entity said she liked him too, and so they got along very well--which can only have been a good thing for the Bells. If talking with Porter distracted her from tormenting the family, then he was probably one of their favorite people. Porter was unmarried, living alone in a log house that Richard Bell describes as follows:

The building was a large hewn log house, with a partition dividing it into two rooms. There was one chimney having a very large fireplace, and the other end was used for a bedroom--entered by a door in the partition....Said he: "It was a cold night and I made a big log fire before retiring to keep the house warm. As soon as I got into bed I heard scratching and thumping about the bed, just like Kate's tricks, as I thought, but was not long in doubt as to the fact. Presently I felt the cover drawing to the back side, and immediately the witch spoke when I recognized the unmistakable voice of Kate. 'Billy, I have come to sleep with you and keep you warm.' I replied, 'Well, Kate, if you are going to sleep with me, you must behave yourself.' 
Are you kidding me? This man had some serious stones, telling the devil to behave herself! Richard Bell continues, as William Porter had told the story to him:

"I clung to the cover, feeling that it was drawing from me, as it appeared to be raised from the bed on the other side, and something snake-like crawling under. I was never afraid of the witch, or apprehended that it would do me any harm, but somehow this produced a kind of chilly sensation, a freak of all overishness that was simply awful.

Pause. How many times have you heard an investigator talk about this exact same feeling, and showed the hairs standing up on end on his arm? 'A freak of all overishness' is probably the best description I've ever heard for that sensation, which I experienced myself on several occasions in the Bell Witch Cave. It really is simply awful. Back to the text--

"The cover continued to slip in spite of my tenacious grasp, and was twisted into a roll on the back side of the bed, just like a boy would roll himself in a quilt, and not a strip was left on me. I jumped out of bed in a second, and observing that Kate had tolled up in the cover the thought struck me, 'I have got you now, you rascal, and will burn you up.'

Pause. Here's a moment where the differences in our society come full force to smack us in the face. If this happened today, our first reflex would be to what? Right--grab the cell phone and hit record. We are a social media driven culture, and our first instinct wouldn't be to destroy the entity, but to document it. But William Porter was a pioneer in 19th century backwoods Tennessee. His first instinct was to try to rid his friends and neighbors of this entity that was torturing them. To resume:

"In an instant, I grabbed the roll of cover in my arms and started to the fire, intending to throw the cover, witch and all, in the blaze. I discovered that it was very weighty and smelt awful. I had not gone halfway across the room before the luggage got so heavy and became so offensive that I was compelled to drop it on the floor and rush out of doors for a breath of fresh air. The odor emitted from the roll was the most offensive stench I ever smelt. It was absolutely stifling and I could not have endured it another second. After being refreshed I returned to the room, and gathered up the roll of bed clothing,shook them out (sic) but Kate had departed and there was no unusual weight or offensive odor remaining, and this is just how near I came catching the witch." (Bell/Ingram)

I find this story fascinating for a few reasons. First off, it's damn funny. If you're burdened with an imagination like mine, it's easy to visualize a big guy in his long johns, fighting to throw a struggling force wrapped up in quilts into his fire and instead having to bolt out into the cold because of the smell. Second off, this seems to be one of the rare instances where Kate was taken off guard. That's interesting to me because it strikes a blow at that strange knowledge the entity had displayed so often and that we've already discussed. In the earlier story, the entity knew better than to trust John Johnson to shake her hand. "No, you only want a chance to catch me."

And yet, it never seemed to occur to the entity that wrapping herself up in William Porter's blankets like a burrito might not be a good idea. It's a very human mistake--she and William Porter were 'friends' and enjoying talking to each other. So Kate never imagined her 'friend' was hiding ulterior motives, and all their conversations together might have blinded her to the real thoughts Porter had. It's possible to enjoy talking with someone even though you know they're just a terrible person. I don't know if William Porter was deliberately buttering Kate up with an eye to finding a way to rid the Bells of their terrifying tormentor; I suspect he wasn't. I think that we can take his relation of events pretty much as they were told to Richard Bell and later committed to paper in his journal. But to survive on the frontier, even in the midst of a small community like the one in Robertson County, a man would have had to be both opportunistic and bold--traits that would have carried him through dangerous situations both in the forest and when an entity stole his blankets.

So to me, both these stories set up the dichotomy in Kate's character--the supernatural, powerful side as well as the more human, fallible side. There are loads more stories of Kate and the neighbors--I'll probably do another post with more accounts soon. But these two stories I specifically wanted to get out there now--because Kate does have that more human side to her nature, and I think it's important to understand that facet of the haunting. So after tomorrow's post about the the next episode of Cursed: The Bell Witch, we'll explore the relationship between Kate and Lucy Williams Bell, John Bell's wife.

Why? Because believe it or not, there is no doubt that the entity that killed John Bell, Sr., was otherwise nothing but kind and considerate to his wife.