Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Bell Witch--The REAL Legend Part One: How The Most Infamous Haunting in History Began And What Makes It Unique

All right, let's start off with a little information and a few ground rules. 

I grew up on the outskirts of Clarksville, Tennessee, about 15 miles away from the mega-metropolis of Adams. Adams is TINY. It basically consists of an old-school convenience store, a couple of churches, a railroad crossing and a turn of the century schoolhouse that was once an antique mall and now is a center of all trades. Rural does not even begin to describe that part of Robertson County, and it's that part of Tennessee where farms extend as far as the eye can see on either side of the road.

But there's something else in  Adams--a unique industry that cannot be claimed anywhere else in the world. It consists of two graveyards--one public and one hidden--a cave, a room in the schoolhouse-cum-community center, and all that aforementioned farmland. That industry was launched in 1817, on the farm of the community's most prosperous land owner, John Bell, when his family became the victims of what is arguably the best-documented paranormal event in American history. Of course, I'm talking about the Bell Witch. You already knew that because you're smart and read the title. The Bell haunting is historically significant for a couple of reasons. First, it is the only such episode ever investigated by a state government and deemed to be supernatural. And second, the Bell Witch's most famous encounter was with Old Hickory--Andrew Jackson, before he was elected President. 

As of late, though, the Bell Witch is gaining new notoriety. In fact, the reason you're reading this blog is most likely because you googled the new reality show on A&E Cursed: The Bell Witch, or saw the truly excruciatingly bad and non-researched movie An American Haunting or last year's Ghost Adventures episode where they were the first paranormal television show to investigate the Bell Witch Cave. But I have to tell you--anytime you add film cameras or Hollywood to a story, the 'reality' portrayed isn't always the reality. 

Aside from growing up in the area, I have a couple of other legend advantages. First off, I started researching the Bell Witch legend in the 1980s while I was in college. I knew the longtime owner of the farm where the Bell Witch cave is located for years--he was a farmer, my dad owned a farm store--and so I was able to learn a lot of what happened in the decades his family had been on the land. While I was attending Austin Peay State University, the famous playwright Arthur Kopit was brought in as the first artist-in-residence for the Center of the Creative Arts. While he was at APSU. Kopit wrote a play based on the legend that the theater department produced. I contributed research for that project. And finally, I have had my own paranormal experiences in and around Adams, both when I visited the owner of the Bell farm like a proper young adult (which included a couple of all-night investigations in the Bell Witch Cave) and when I visited the Bell farm like a stupid and lawbreaking young adult in the middle of the night (when I could find the hidden Bell cemetery through corn fields, woods, and even in bad weather. What? It's only a mile or so from the road...) 

Sic transit gloria... Yes. I was one of those kind of kids.

At any rate, there are my bona fides. I plan to write a multiple post blog series that will incorporate the historical facts behind the Bell Witch legend, along with anecdotes regarding paranormal activity in and around Adams from people I interviewed as well as my own paranormal experiences on what was the Bell land. So--ready to get started?

There are three primary source materials for the Bell Witch legend. First is the 1934 book "The Bell Witch of Tennessee" written by the physician and direct descendant of the Bells, Charles Bailey Bell. This source is important because it contains the memories of multiple Bell family members who had experienced the haunting. Second, and probably the more expansive source is M.V. Ingram's 1894 book "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (and Other Stories of the World's Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon)". These book also include "Our Family Troubles", a previously unpublished journal written by Richard Williams Bell, who was the next-to-the-youngest son, being around seven when the haunting began.(Richard Bell's account was written from memory some forty years after the haunting ended, and is the only known account produced by any of the Bell family who were present during the haunting.) In my opinion, the Ingram book is the better source. His understanding of the haunting was perfectly summed up on the cover page of his book. Ingram billed the story as being about "the mysterious talking goblin that terrorized the west end of Robertson County, Tennessee, tormenting John Bell to his death."

That right there, folks, is a succinct and horrifically accurate description of what this legend entails. The entity talked--in fact, carried on full conversations with whoever happened to be present--and possessed a distinct personality and agenda. And that agenda was simple: the Bell Witch existed to torture and eventually murder the Bell patriarch, John with a secondary mission of forcing his daughter, Betsy, to not marry Joshua Gardiner, a young man with whom she 'had an understanding'.

And that's exactly what happened.

That's the simple, unvarnished truth of the matter--and that's why I'm writing this blog series. There's absolutely no need to exaggerate what occurred on the Bell farm during those years when the entity was torturing the family. In the end, what's the most important thread of this story is very straightforward--the Bell family was haunted by an entity who said from the very first utterance of words that it was there to torture and kill John Bell, Senior. So let's chuck all the BS and relate the legend, simply, as it was originally recorded by witnesses. I'll throw in anecdotal tales from my research in Adams from the 1980's, 90's, and 2000's and my own paranormal experiences. But all the speculation, the hyperbole, the 'dramatic license' crap? We'll leave that to filmmakers.

There's no witchcraft in this story. The experience of the Bell family was a haunting, plain and simple. But this haunting was so spectacular, so incredible, so infamous that for several years people from all over the world traveled to the Bell farm to witness the antics of this entity. Being simple, God-fearing folk, they didn't call the bizarre things going on a 'haunting', and I doubt they even knew what a 'poltergeist' was. They identified it as a witch, and that led to some serious ramifications for one woman who lived in the neighborhood. You know how in every neighborhood there's one woman who's so mean that no one likes her? In 1817 Adams, that neighbor's name was Cate Batts, and the 'witch' claimed to originate from her. And so the entity came to be called--and answer to--the name Kate. Therefore, I'll refer to her the same way, and use the feminine pronouns when referring to her.

I do have one hypothesis to put out there, however. Looking back 200 years, we do have to consider that Kate was a manifestation of some demonic entity. There's no way to prove that theory, unfortunately. There has not been at any time. as far as I know, any formal investigation or acknowledgement of the Bell Witch by a religious organization or representative. I think the ongoing paranormal events in Adams today really are nothing more than a haunting, and that any diabolical influence left with the original entity's well-documented departure. I have no idea who or what is haunting the cave, farm, the old Bell school, or the structures on the original Bell lands now. But if I had to make a guess, I do think the original witch was either a demon or an entity working on behalf of one. The abilities demonstrated by Kate are unmatched to this day, even by the most famous hauntings in the world like Amityville or the Enfield poltergeist, and are in my personal opinion indicative of something much stronger than a regular run of the mill ghost.

If there is such a thing.

So let's begin.

In 1804, John Bell brought his wife, Lucy, and their growing family to settle in Robertson County, Tennessee on the banks of the appropriately named Red River. The Bell family were well-to-do back in North Carolina, and so John Bell was able to carve out an extensive property in what is now the tiny bump in the road named Adams. The Bells had a large family, with two daughters--Esther and Elizabeth--and a horde of sons--John Jr., Jesse, Drewry, Benjamin, Zadok, Richard Williams, and Joel, and became one of the leading families in the region. {They also owned several slaves--which is a historical fact and an important part of the story so I'm not going to gloss that aspect over, okay? Don't blame me--I'm just the writer.}

The two oldest sons served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812--a fact that will become important later. The older daughter, Esther, was married and in a home of her own when the haunting began. The younger daughter, Betsy, was thirteen--an age that proponents of the poltergeist theory cite as being significant, especially as she was specifically targeted as the secondary victim of the witch's anger. But what makes the poltergeist theory suspect, in my opinion, is the fact that the inciting incident for the haunting didn't happen in the house, in Betsy's range of potential influence. That first encounter happened literally in the middle of one of John Bell's huge cornfields, in the fall of 1817, followed by a series of other outdoor sightings experienced by various other members of the Bell extended family.

John Bell was walking through the field with his gun--as any smart pioneer would do back in the untamed wilderness that made up the majority of Tennessee--when he suddenly came face-to-face with a bizarre black animal. The creature--which he finally identified (dubiously) as some kind of weird feral dog--was just sitting in the middle of a row of corn, staring at him. The silent confrontation went on for a few moments, until John finally shot at the thing and it ran off.

A few days later, his young son Drewry--we'll call him Drew--ran across a huge black bird that he originally thought was a turkey. He ran into the house for a gun to kill it, and when he came back the 'turkey' was still sitting there, watching him. As he got closer, he realized that this bird wasn't a turkey. For one thing, it was too big and for another it was completely black. As he got close enough to raise his gun, the bird flew off.

Not too long after that, Betsy was walking in the woods with the younger children, when she ran into a pretty little girl dressed in green swinging high up in the branches of an old oak tree. The little girl wouldn't acknowledge their calls, and before long she disappeared. Soon after that, Betsy encountered a strange woman near their house. She spoke to her, and the woman disappeared.

One of the Bell slaves, Dean, was married. His wife, Kate, belonged to one of the Bell's neighbors, so every night Dean went to visit his wife. After the above events, a strange black dog began to show up in the middle of the road at the exact same place every single night. It would go the rest of the way with Dean to his wife's cabin and then disappear.

To this day, there are sightings of strange animals in and around the Adams area--something I experienced for myself during the most significant paranormal encounter I ever had there.

More on that in a later post.

In the winter of 1818, the manifestations moved into the Bell house. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this was some grand Southern plantation, by the way. I've been to the sinkhole where the remnants of the Bell homestead collapsed and we are not talking about some pioneer mansion here. In fact, it was used as a corn crib not too long after the haunting ended, which should give you a pretty good idea of its size. The house was big for its time, most likely, and because the Bells were prosperous may have possessed some finishing work their neighbors couldn't afford--like glass windows, perhaps siding over the original logs or plaster on the inside walls. But that was probably it. The upstairs was divided into at least two rooms--one for the boys and one for the girls that Betsy occupied alone since the marriage of her sister--and perhaps a third bedroom space, which would have been used by guests or if it was the Bells' turn to board the schoolteacher. John and Lucy Bell slept in a room downstairs. Within a few weeks from the commencement of the haunting, every single room in the house experienced some sort of phenomena.

The haunting progressed slowly into a kind of daily torture. At first, the Bells heard scratching and rustling-- Richard Williams Bell described it as a sound like "a rat gnawing on the bedpost". The boys would light a candle so they could kill the rat, but when the candle flared to life the scratching stopped and there was no rat--or gnaw marks--to be found. The scratching noise moved to the walls, and was quickly followed by knocking then beating on the outer walls of the house. The knocking moved to the front door, as if someone was banging loudly to wake the household. But when someone went to the door, there was no one there.  As soon as whoever'd investigated went back to bed, the noise would start right back up and frequently last through most of the night.

The Bells were keeping these disturbing events quiet. At first, they thought they were being tormented by some mischief-maker in the neighborhood, but it soon became clear that no one else in the community was having these types of troubles and that the disturbances were increasing in frequency and severity. The entity was now making sounds like a person about to speak--sounds like the smacking of someone's lips, gulps, choking sounds, or someone clearing their throat. Richard reported that now blankets were being pulled from the beds, that sounds like big stones rolling down the roof overhead, chains dragging on the floor or chairs being knocked over were now keeping the family awake night after night.

And then, finally, the entity began to physically abuse people in the family. Richard wrote that he 'felt my hair beginning to twist, and then a sudden jerk, which raised me. It felt like the top of my head had been taken off.' (Our Family Trouble, Richard Williams Bell) The entity began to systematically terrorize Betsy, who as the only girl at home had the dubious distinction of a room to herself, pulling her hair, slapping her face, and pinching her. Then John Bell Sr. started to display the first symptoms of the spirit's enmity and the strange physical ailment that would eventually lead to his final illness, His tongue would abruptly stiffen--which he described as feeling like a piece of wood was stuck sideways in his mouth--and while it was like that he couldn't eat or talk.

The worsening situation in the Bell home had reached the breaking point. For around a year, the family had kept the phenomena secret, but now the nightly torture had escalated to such a level that they no longer could. They needed answers, but had no idea where to go for them. But being a pioneer family with strong roots within their church, they had an idea who might be able to help.

So, John Bell told the family minister, James Johnson, what was going on, and invited him to spend the night at he Bell farm to witness these goings-on for himself. Rev. Johnson and his wife came, and that night before everyone went to bed he held a service for the Bell family. Through dinner and the rest of the evening, the entity had been quiet--which, if you think about it, is an even more cruelly refined torture than what they'd been experiencing. 1818 is not that far removed from the witch trials in the grand scheme of things. Can you imagine what the Bells were thinking? Here they've finally confessed to their minister what they've been suffering through, and when he gets there the damn ghost doesn't do a damn thing! Imagine them sitting through an early 19th century prayer service, desperately afraid of what's tormenting them but even more afraid that it'll leave them alone that night and not do anything. I mean seriously--which option would you pray for?

But the quiet didn't last any longer than it took for the family and their guests to snuff out the lights and go to bed. The spirit began its nightly rampage, going from room to room and finally landing into the guest bedroom where Rev. and Mrs. Johnson lay, listening to all the noises. The entity jerked the blankets from the bed, shocking the good Reverend, who sat straight up in bed and demanded that the spirit "reveal itself and tell for what purpose it was there". (Ingram, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch) Subsequently, Rev. Johnson, in talking the matter over with the Bell family, became convinced that whatever was lurking in the shadows was some kind of intelligent being. After all, he pointed out, the spirit certainly understood language and when it was spoken to all other activity ceased for a moment, as if it was listening. He thought that the entity could probably talk. He encouraged the Bells to let the news of what was happening to them spread, and bring other people into their home to witness and therefore document their experiences. The Bells took his advice, and they surely didn't have a clue of what would happen to them as a result. The next few years saw the Bell household packed to the rafters, as first their neighbors and then hordes of people--wholly uninvited, unannounced, and unknown--descended upon their farm to see this spectacle for themselves. The Bells housed and fed every single guest, and it must have cost them so much, especially back in those days when every morsel of food on their table was produced through months of back-breaking labor from the entire family. They were basically running a B&B for nonpaying guests.

But there was a bigger consequence of Rev. Johnson's first visit. His belief that the spirit could communicate with them led to what is probably the most fascinating aspect of the haunting. For within a short while, the witch learned how to talk. Not whispers in a sound range above or below the auditory range that is a human's ability to hear. Not EVPs or moving a planchette or knocking once for yes, twice for no. The single-most unique element of the Bell Witch haunting is that Kate learned how to talk, to shout, to sing. She carried on long conversations with guests, she repeated two religious sermons taking place at the same time but seven miles apart word for word, she sang songs to soothe Mrs. Bell when she was ill, and sang bawdy songs at John Bell's funeral.

Let's put that into perspective. There are a lot of paranormal research groups out there, and information is more readily available on the subject now than ever before. I've spent the last couple of days chasing leads, trying to find any haunting that parallels the Bell case solely on the basis of an entity being able to converse with any and all people it chose to, in front of witnesses. I can't find a single one. Oh, sure, there's lots of documented cases where a person hears a disembodied voice once or twice. But Kate, once she began to talk, never shut up. She talked off and on, all day, every day--through Betsy's breaking of her engagement, through John Sr's death in 1820, until she departed over three YEARS after her first words. And when she returned as promised seven years later, she was talking like she'd never left at all--leaving a series of remarkable prophecies in her conversations with John Jr in 1928 that were documented by his son.

And when Kate talked, everyone could hear her. Her conversation with General Jackson occurred in the middle of the forest with scores of witnesses--and they were miles from the Bell farm when it happened. She showed up at other people's houses, at church, during community events--in short, wherever or whenever she pleased. There was no equivocation in any witness testimony either. They all, universally, corroborate the fact that Kate had vocal interactions on a daily basis as if she were, in fact, another person sitting in the room. That fact alone elevates this haunting to a level that is unmatched historically.

But all the source materials agree on one thing. After Rev. Johnson declared that the entity was some kind of intelligent supernatural being, the Bells and visitors began to encourage it to speak. Richard Bell described the process that led finally to a conversant entity:

"...visitors  persisted in urging the Witch to talk and tell what was wanted, and finally it commenced whistling when spoken to, in a low broken sound, as if trying to speak in a whistling voice, and in this way it progressed, developing until the whistling sound was changed to a weak, faltering whisper, uttering indistinct words. The voice, however, gradually gained strength in articulating, and soon the utterances became distinct in a low whisper, so as to be understood in the absence of any other noises. I do not remember the first intelligent utterance, which, however, was of no significance, but the voice soon developed sufficient strength to be distinctly heard by everyone in the room. This new development added to the sensation already created. The news spread, and people came in larger numbers, and the great anxiety concerning the mystery prompted many questions in the effort to induce the Witch to disclose its own identity and purpose..." (Our Family Trouble, Bell)

 This description is, in my opinion, overlooked by paranormal investigators. Ever since Harry Houdini was busting fraudulent mediums who hid their creative husbands behind secret panels in the wall to whisper grieving widows out of their pensions, the paranormal field hasn't given much credence to the concept of spirits verbalizing. The Bell Witch case is unique, and to my mind it begs the question--if simple American pioneers in early 19th century Tennessee can encourage an entity to learn to talk, how hard would it be for paranormal researchers to do the same now, with the advantages technologically that we have--as well as not having to worry about the neighbors using you for firewood if you succeed?

So now, the Bell Witch was talking, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Seems like a good place to end this first installment. So think about it, really consider how this supernatural event began to take shape for John Bell and his family--and next time we'll dive into some ridiculously detailed information of how the Bell household rather quickly turned into the pioneer version of a three ring circus--complete with chaos, tragedy, and the heartbreak of young love denied.

 Gentle Readers--I've linked to source materials that I encourage you to check out. If you have any questions or comments to add, please do so and I'll be happy to answer them as best I can--or point you in the right direction if I don't know the answer. The Bell Witch haunting is a huge case history, coming up on its 200 year anniversary and as long as Adams remains haunted that file will just continue to grow.