Friday, October 30, 2015

The REAL Bell Witch Legend: The Witch and Betsy Bell

All right, if you saw the absolutely horrific movie An American Haunting, let me stop you right here. There is absolutely NO evidence of molestation in the Bell haunting. The idea that a 12 or 13 year old pioneer girl with the most rudimentary education would be capable of faking the Bell haunting is ludicrous, and as we discussed with the paranormal hypotheses post, it seems highly unlikely to me that this haunting is an episode of poltergeist activity instigated by any of the young Bells--mostly because the haunting continues well past their puberty and into the modern day. So if you're reading this, thinking that John Bell molested his daughter Betsy sexually and that led to the poltergeist infestation we now call the Bell Witch, well--nope. You're wrong. 

And that movie was just horrible. Worst acting either Donald Sutherland or Sissy Spacek, two great American actors, have ever been forced to produce. 

However, the Bell Witch did exhibit more than a passing interest in young Betsy Bell. Next to her father, Betsy was a primary target of the entity's abuse. Her story is, perhaps, the most pathetic of any of the Bell family's in my opinion, and one I always related to the most when I was a kid growing up in the shadow of the legend. It's also the strangest 'relationship' that Kate had with one of the Bells, a sort of quasi-maternal, semi-abusive love/hate thing that would have child services banging on the door if Kate was a real woman and Betsy her child. You'll see what I mean here in a bit.

Now I'm not headed down the flowery Victorian 'lovely faery queen of the haunted dell" BS that both Ingram and Miller devised to sell copies of their books. There's absolutely nothing to support that whole fairy princess crap. In all likelihood, Betsy was a pretty, practical pioneer girl, trained by her mother in the immense catalog of skills that young wives needed in order to survive in the early eighteenth century frontier. 

From the earliest manifestations of the haunting, Betsy was tormented by the entity, who slapped, pinched, punched, and beat her with startling regularity. Her long hair would be yanked, then tangled into a snarled mess, and after some of these brutal sessions the vivid red marks of a hand print could be seen on her face. As her brother, Richard Williams Bell, said:

The persecutions of Elizabeth were increased to an extent that excited serious apprehensions. Her cheeks were frequently crimsoned as by a hard blow from an open hand, and her hair pulled until she would scream with pain...a close watch (was) kept, in and out, every night, but all of their wits were stifled, the demonstrations all the while increasing in force, and sister was so severely punished that father and mother became alarmed for her safety...(Bell, Richard Williams)

That's kind of hard to hear, when you think about it. As a parent in a modern time, our fears for our children are pretty terrifying. How much more difficult must it have been to watch your young daughter getting abused by something you can't see right in front of you?

The Bells tried to give Betsy some solace by sending her to stay with her friends from school. That didn't work either.

...the neighboring girls came almost every night to keep her company. Especially were Theny Thorn and Rebecca Porter very courageous and kind to her in this trying ordeal. It was suggested that sister should spend the nights with some one of the neighbors to get rid of the trouble, and all very kind to invite her...but it made no difference, the trouble followed her with the same severity, disturbing the family where she went as it did at home, nor were we in anywise relieved. This gave rise to a suspicion in the minds of some persons that the mystery was some device or strategem originated by sister, from the fact that it appeared wherever she went...(Bell, Richard Williams)

(I have to say that as a modern editor of the English language, I have a heck of a time typing out these interminable Victorian sentences. Good grief, these people were verbose--)

Betsy's own recollections of one such early sleepover were recorded by her brother, who told his son about them.

My first night away from home was spent with Theny Thorn, one of my best girl friends. Nothing was heard until after we retired, which we did early. We locked the door to our room securely. Just as soon as we retired there came a loud knocking on our outside door, which seemed to fly open, and a great gust of wind was felt. Then our bed quilts were snatched off. Theny sprang up at once and lit a candle; to our surprise the door was not open. We adjusted the bedclothes and lay down again. 
Then a voice spoke very softly:"Betsy, you should not have come over here; you know I can follow you anywhere. Now get a good night's sleep." A soft hand patted my cheeks, and the voice again assured us that we would not be disturbed any more that night. We were both very much excited, but we lay quite still and after so long a time fell asleep. Next day, Theny went home with me; my mother related that the Spirit had told her all about our experience and for her not to be alarmed, that we would rest well and be home next day. (Bell, Charles Bailey)

There are dozens of incidents that center around Betsy Bell--so many that my normally long blog post could easily be five or six times its normal extreme length if I tried to relate them all. So permit me to summarize briefly some of these. Aside from the occasions where the entity abused Betsy, many of their encounters were actually more pleasant in nature. The spirit often accompanied Betsy and the other adolescents of the community on their outings, and several stories involve Kate's interference in their fishing or hunting. One winter, as the boys prepared to pull the girls on a wood-sleigh, the entity apparently grabbed it and gave the girls a swift spin around the neighborhood. One such encounter I have to mention though, because what happened is so incredible:

Betsy told of a birthday party that she gave. She had invited a number of young people and all came. Of course the Spirit was there, and it took great interest in all their games and their refreshments. When the dinner was placed on the table, the Spirit called out, "I have a surprise for you; come and see it." 
Suddenly there was placed on the table by unseen hands a large basket of fruits--oranges, bananas, grapes and nuts. The Spirit called out, "Those came from the West Indies. I brought them myself." We were all breathless with astonishment. It bade us eat and be merry, and said that it would have brought a few bottles of rare wine but it did not think the preachers would like for us to drink it. It said that it had acted as though it was drunk a few times and blown whiskey about just to see what people would say when they smelled it. It also said that those who had the most to say against whiskey liked best to drink it. We all ate the fruit and nuts, though at first some of the young people hesitated, thinking perhaps there was a trick of some kind to it.(Bell, Charles Bailey)

Here again, we see that strange dichotomy in the entity's behavior. Kate could punish Betsy mercilessly one night, and bring her a basket of fruit the next. And before you think to yourself "A basket of fruit--big deal!" stop and reflect for a moment. This was 1818 or 1819. There was no refrigeration. Fruits like these in Middle Tennessee were rare in the summer, when transporting such goods on the river was possible. Not for decades yet were the trains--or refrigerated cars--making super fast deliveries of luxury goods like fruit possible in the big cities.But Betsy's birthday was in January. Bananas, oranges, and grapes couldn't be found anywhere near Adams at that time of year. Plus she lived on the frontier, so by the time any such fruit got to the Bell's homestead, it would have been long spoiled and rotten.

So I have to wonder--what was the entity's real purpose regarding Betsy? Famously, Kate was violently opposed to the idea that Betsy would marry Joshua Gardner, her childhood sweetheart. Almost from the get go, the entity would follow her around saying, "Please, Betsy, don't marry Josh Gardner." After the death of John Sr., the spirit was reportedly kind to Betsy, and the torment stopped for several months. But as soon as it looked like she and Josh were about to announce their engagement, the spirit's voice would start up again. "Please, Betsy, don't marry Josh Gardner."

Betsy naturally felt obliged to obey. If she had married Gardner, it was a day and age in which divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. She would have been stuck with him, and it's reasonably certain that Kate would have stuck with them to the bitter end, torturing them mercilessly. That's what Betsy thought, at any rate, and Josh Gardner left the are soon after she gave him a firm and final "No."

Betsy's older brother, John Bell Jr. gave an interesting recollection about this particular situation to his son.

On one occasion, after Betsy had gone to a neighbor's, the Spirit reappeared and said, "John, Betsy must not marry Joshua; see to it that she does not."
John asked the Spirit why it acted so vile. He said he would not do as it asked, and wanted to know just why Betsy should not marry Joshua when she became old enough. The Spirit replied, "If she marries Joshua, she can never have a day of happiness or peace; that is certain. That is the only reason I will give you, and if you cannot see that it is a good one, it is because of your stubbornness and not lack of sense. Betsy will take your advice; she knows that you idolize her and that your advice would be the best for her."
John replied, "I noticed the seemingly invisible threat 'that she will never have a happy day if she marries Joshua Gardner.' Do you want me to know that  you would be the factor causing her unhappiness, as you have done so long?" 
The Spirit said, "You may form your own conclusions, for I shall not answer that question, but once for all, Betsy would do better not to marry him, regardless of anything I may do. Future generations will prove it to be so."(Bell, Charles Bailey)

I find it fascinating that the entity would do such a thing honestly. On the one hand, this was just another example of the acute physical and emotional torment that Kate inflicted on Betsy Bell. But on the other, was it possible that the entity was trying to save Betsy from some other harsh fate, one that couldn't be forgotten as easily as a slap or tangled hair? Could this be an example of a parental "this is for your own good" intervention?

It's hard to say. But Kate's opposition to the proposed match was immediate and unrelenting throughout the four year period of the intense haunting on the Bell farm. And while Joshua Gardner moved to West Tennessee, where he did very well for himself, Betsy eventually married their old schoolteacher, Richard Rowell Ptolemy Powell, who became a Tennessee state legislator and served as a captain in the state militia, in 1824. Their marriage lasted until Powell's death in 1848, and Betsy moved to one of her daughter's homes in Mississippi, where she remained until she followed him forty years later.

But there is one fascinating footnote to Betsy Bell Powell's story. According to Ingram, in 1849, the Saturday Evening Post published a story about the Bell haunting in which the reporter tried to establish the claim that Betsy Bell had basically staged the whole thing and that it was a fake. Betsy was so livid about that article that she sued them for libel. The case was soon settled out of court, with the Saturday Evening Post retracting the story and publishing a statement that, and I quote--

...explaining how this version of the story had gained credence, and the fact that at the time the demonstrations commenced, Betsy Bell had scarcely advanced from the stage of childhood and was too young to have been capable of originating and practicing so great a deception. The fact also that after this report had gained circulation, she had submitted to any and every test that the wits of detectives could invent to prove the theory, and all the strategems employed, served only to demonstrate her innocence and utter ignorance of the agency of the so-called witchery, and was herself the greatest sufferer from the affliction. (Ingram)

There has been doubt cast upon Ingram's claim, and to be honest I'm not entirely certain how to go about getting my hands on a SEP from 150 years ago. I know others have tried and failed. It's entirely possible that such a story was published, but by another periodical or newspaper, and would therefore have to be tracked down through any surviving legal records of the time if Betsy Bell Powell did, in fact, sue for libel. But from what I've read of Betsy and her personality, it wouldn't surprise me one darn bit if she did sue someone for libel. Because there's no doubt that she did suffer severely at the (invisible) hands of the Bell Witch, and only her father suffered more.

Next time, we're going to recount some of Kate's adventures with the neighbors--including some young men who found out much to their chagrin that messin' with a witch wasn't really a good idea.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this article about the Bell Witch haunting. I too, looked for any proof that this man molested his Betty or anyone for that matter and found nothing except some rumors written many years after all of them were dead.
I tHoughton the movie was actually good had it not been for the bogus ending. I read many accounts of we'll known people including a famous General and President of the U.S having to flee from the area because of violent paranormal activity.
Granted, all of this happened a long time ago, but even without the paranormal, to play up a story a ruin someone's reputation without any solid account is hidious.
Typical of Hollywood.
Thank you again for the article
Dave Osterberg