Friday, September 25, 2015

The Bell Witch--The REAL Legend, Part Two--TheExplosion of a Phenomenon--The Birth of "Kate", The Bells and How They Coped

In my last post, we talked about some general information surrounding the Bell Witch haunting--the area, the Bell family, the community, and how the paranormal events began. Now we're going to extend that a little further, and take a look at how the Bells began to cope with the notoriety once they revealed their secret first to their community, and then the world. 

But first, let's talk about Kate.

By the time Rev. Johnson encouraged the Bells to share their family secret and to invite others to witness the phenomena, the entity had already begun to torment them. As Richard Bell said in his journal, written some forty years later:

Mr. Johnson listened attentively to all of the sounds and capers, and that which appeared like someone sucking air through the teeth, and smacking of lips, indicated to him that some intelligent agency gave force to the movements, and he determined to try speaking to it, which he did, inquiring, "In the name of the Lord, what or who are you? What do you want and why are you here?" This appeared to silence the noise for considerable time, but it finally commenced again with increased vigor, pulling the cover from the beds in spite of all resistance, repeating other demonstrations, going from one room to another, [it was]becoming fearful.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. Mr. Johnson said the phenomena was beyond his comprehension; it was evidently preternatural or supernatural, of an intelligent character. He arrived at this conclusion from the fact that it ceased action when spoken to, and certainly understood language...{Our Family Trouble, Bell}

From the beginning, therefore, it was obvious that whatever this spirit was, the potential for communication was there. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, spiritualism as we know it didn't become widespread or popular for another twenty plus years. Kids weren't sneaking off to have seances, and the concept of spirit communication was neither commonplace or familiar. There weren't mediums who claimed to speak with the dead--that didn't become the norm until after the Fox sisters grew famous for spirit communication starting around 1848, and wasn't popular in the US until the Civil War resulted in so many deaths. The pioneers in northern Tennessee were much closer to the Salem witch trials than they were to the Ghost Adventures or  TAPS paranormal investigation groups of today. But second off, and I think this is more important to this particular story, what followed this initial assessment of Rev. Johnson and the Bells was evidently a period where the entity learned to speak. 

If you think about it, that's almost more creepy than the paranormal stories we hear today. Because the Bells, with the assistance of Rev. Johnson and their neighbors, began to encourage the entity to communicate, in a remarkably short time that spirit had figured out how to channel its energy into the creation of speech. Richard Bell continues:

By this time, the mystery had gained wide notoriety, and people came from every direction, the house being crowded every night with visitors...and neighbors persevered in their efforts to induce the witch to talk, calling on it to rap on the wall, smack its mouth, etc., and in this way the phenomena was gradually developed, proving to be an intelligent character. When asked a question in a way that it could be answered by numbers, for instance, "how many persons present? how many horses in the barn? or how many miles to a certain place?" the answers would come in raps, like a man knocking on the wall, the bureau, or the bed post with his fist, or by so many scratches on the wall like the noise of a nail or claws, and the answers were invariably correct.

Using knocks to answer questions is a technique still used by paranormal investigators today. But back then, there were no paranormal investigators. As we've already seen, the Spiritualist movement and medium-conducted seances were still several decades in the future. But even two hundred years later, there is still a cause and effect that we can identify.

As more people came and interacted with the entity more frequently, it gained more power. There's a fairly standard theory within the paranormal research community that spirits have to draw energy from somewhere in order to affect the real world--people, appliances, even the warmth of the air. That's the accepted explanation of why batteries so frequently drain at haunted locations.

But then, and most probably as the result of the increased energy from which the spirit could feed, the spirit began to talk. The first words of the entity are not recorded, but before long it was able to answer the question Who are you and what do you want?" At first, the voice which  had begun as a whisper but had now strengthened until everyone in the house could hear it easily, said,"I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed." {Bell} But before long, the spirit had a second, more inflammatory response. When another local minister, Reverend James Gunn engaged it in a conversation and demanded to know its origins, the spirit replied:

I cannot trifle with a preacher or tell you a lie, and if you must know the truth I am nothing more nor less than old Cate Batts' witch, and am determined to haunt and torment old Jack Bell as long as he lives.

Here is where the real difference between the early 19th century and the modern day comes into play. Cate Batts was a neighbor of the Bells, and unfortunately was one of those types of people of whom nothing bad can be said but that no one really likes despite that. Married to a disabled man, Mrs. Batts had taken over the management of their farm and was extremely good at it. The Batts were well-to-do as a result of her skill, and that's the kind of success that would definitely put the backs up of the men in the area. This era was closer to the Salem witch trials than it was to today, and for the superstituous, the stupid, and the supremely sexist members of the community, hearing that 'old Cate Batts' had a witch made a lot of sense. How else to explain how a woman was able to thrive in a man's world? No doubt if the Batts were genteelly starving in their cabin, the whole populace would have appreciated Mrs. Batts for being a helpless female saddled with a worthless husband and a passel of no-good kids.

At any rate, after this pronouncement by the spirit, it became commonly referred to as Kate. And so, from this point on, so will I.

By this point, word of the witch was spreading like wildfire through the scattered communities of the region. Kate began to develop a distinct personality. One of the strangest foibles Kate had was a strong knowledge of and apparent devotion to Christianity. She enjoyed getting into scriptural debate with the ministers of the neighborhood, and could easily quote chapter and verse to back up her arguments. She also loved singing hymns, which she did to soothe Mrs. Bell when she was ill, and also at Sunday services which she attended along with the family. If the minister delivered a sermon she approved of, Kate could be heard thumping invisible hands on the wall and shouting, "Amen!"--no doubt to the serious disturbance of the entire congregation.

But Kate soon developed into one of those church ladies--the self-proclaimed moral arbiter of the community who relished tattling on wrongdoers.Ingram explains:

Kate the witch never slept, was never idle or confined to any place, but was here and there and everywhere, like the mist of night or the morning sunbeams, was everything and nothing, invisible yet present, spreading all over the neighborhood, prying into everybody's business and domestic affairs; caught on to every ludicrous thing that happened, and all of the sordid, avaricious meanness that transpired; diving t he inmost (sic) secrets of the human heart and, withal, was a great blab-mouth (sic); getting neighbors by the ears, taunting people with their sins and shortcomings, and laughing at their folly in trying to discover the identity of the mystery...

All I can really say about that is--damn. That must have really sucked. Ingram continued:

The avaricious were careful not to covet or lay hands on that which belonged to their neighbors, lest Kate might tell on them. No man allowed his right hand to do anything that the left might be ashamed of--

Yes, I laughed at that too. If Kate were here, she'd be telling on me for having a dirty mind.

--No citizen thought of locking his smokehouse or crib door, nor of staying up through the night to guard his hen roost or watermelon patch...No incident out of the regular routine of everyday transactions occurred that the witch did not know all about the affair, and would tell the circumstance to someone in less than an hour.  

Richard Bell corroborates this with specifics:

A man, whose name I will call John, put in, remarking that he did not believe there was any sin in stealing something to eat when one was reduced to hunger and could not obtain food for his labor. Instantly, the Witch perniciously inquired of John "if he ate that sheepskin." This settled John. He was dumb as an oyster, and as soon as the subject was changed he left the company and was conspicuously absent after that. The result was the revival of an old scandal, so long past that it had been forgotten, in which John was accused of stealing a sheep-skin.

This warlock was indeed a great tattler and made mischief in the community. Some people very much feared the garrulity of its loquacious meddling, and were extremely cautious, and it was this class whom the invisible delighted in torturing most.

 So at first, Kate was almost a kind of...well, a catalyst for good in the community. People were afraid to misbehave because it was quickly apparent that there was NO chance they'd get away with anything. As a result, I'd be willing to bet a lot of pettiness and even violence was averted, especially since if a person didn't really care that everyone knew his 'sins' Kate was likely to start beating the crap out of him just to make a point.

Which she did on several occasions. More on that later in this post.

At any rate, words of Kate and the goings-on at the Bell farm spread like wildfire. People started to travel hundreds of miles to try and see this phenomenon for themselves. That's no small feat. Think about it. Even now, if you want to visit the Bell farm, you have to drive to the middle of nowhere. There are no hotels in Adams, no campgrounds, no bed and breakfasts--nowadays, you'd have to stay in Nashville, Springfield, or Clarksville, which are all 15-50 miles away. Back then, of course, even a trip from Clarksville would have been a full day's journey. People just started showing up at the Bell's front doorstep, wanting to see the witch.

If that happened today, the homeowner would probably call the cops. But back then, the world was different. When these total strangers barged in on the Bell's privacy,  the Bells housed them, stabled and fed their horses, and fed the people too. He never charged anyone a dime. Apparently those "guests" rarely went away disappointed. Kate never had much of a problem showing off to the crowds.

But those strangers weren't familiar with Kate's ability to ferret things out about people that they might not want known. Richard Bell tells one story that speaks strongly about the consequences of poor behavior.

A stranger showed up at the Bell farm one night who introduced himself as Detective Williams. He told John Sr. that he'd come a long way to investigate the haunting, and because he had experience in spotting sleight of hand or other tricks thought he'd be able to expose the truth of the "witch" if they gave him the chance to try.

Father bid the gentleman a hearty welcome, telling him that he was just the man that was wanted. "Make my house your home, and make free with everything here as if your own, as long as you think proper to stay," said Father, and Mr. Williams politely accepted the invitation and hung up his hat.

For that night, and the following day, however, Kate was unusually quiet. Mr. Williams, on the other hand, was not. His favorite topic was himself, and all the amazing adventures he'd had exposing frauds and criminals. By the second night, Mr. Williams was talking even more freely, and he began to insult his hosts.

He said to a coterie of gentlemen who were discussing the witch that he was convinced that the whole thing was a family affair, an invention gotten up for a sensation to draw people and make money, and the actors were afraid to make any demonstrations while he was present, knowing his profession and business, and that he would most assuredly expose the trick. One of the gentlemen told Father what Williams had said, and it made him very indignant. He felt outraged that such a charge should be made without the evidence, by a man professing to be a gentleman, to whom he had extended every courtesy and hospitality...and in a rage he threatened to order Williams from the place immediately.

Just at this juncture, Kate spoke, "No you don't, old Jack; let him stay. I will attend to the gentleman and satisfy him that he is not so smart as he thinks."

That night, the house was packed with people. Everyone sat around the fire, waiting for the witch to speak, but she didn't say a word and there wasn't a single bit of spiritual activity anywhere in the house. Mr. Williams began to boast again that the witch wouldn't appear again as long as he stayed. Mrs. Bell brought out several straw mattresses for her guests to sleep on. So the lights were blown out, and everyone settled down to go to sleep.

But as soon as the house was quiet, Kate decided the time had come to teach the arrogant detective the lesson he so richly deserved.

Mr. Williams found himself pinioned, as it were, to the floor by some irresistible force from which he was utterly powerless to extricate himself, stout as he was, and the witch started scratching and pounding him with vengeance. He yelled out to the top of his voice calling for help and mercy. Kate held up long enough to inquire of the detective which one of the family he though had him, and then let (sic) in again, giving him an unmerciful beating while the man pleaded for (his) life. All of this occurred in less than two minutes, and before a candle could be lighted--and as soon as the light appeared, the pounding ceased but Kate did a good deal of talking--more than Mr. Williams cared to hear. The detective was badly used up and the worst scared man that ever came to our house. He sat up on a chair the balance of the night, with a burning candle by his side, subjected to the witch's tantalizing sarcasm, ridicule, and derision, questioning him as to which of the family was carrying on the devilment, how he liked the result of his investigations, how long he intended to stay, etc. As soon as day dawned, Mr. Williams ordered his horse, and could not be prevailed upon to remain until after breakfast.

And that, my friends, is why I tell you that there was absolutely no need for any Hollywood production company to add to the Bell Witch story. If a movie was ever made just about what really happened, it would be the scariest darn movie imaginable. Aside from the physical abuse Richard Bell describes, stop to consider the emotional and psychological trauma Kate inflicted on that admittedly scummy dude who imposed upon the Bells and then was slimy enough to insinuate that they were not only faking the whole thing for profit--which, considering the fact that they were housing and feeding him for free was a remarkably stupid thing to say--but also that these money-grubbing schemers were too chicken to try their fake ghost tricks while he was in the house! She beat him, yes, but two minutes of invisible ass-kicking couldn't possibly have been as traumatic as the whole, long night he spent, shaking in a circle of dim candlelight, while a disembodied voice verbally destroyed him in front of the family he'd so grossly insulted as well as the captive audience he'd spent all evening bragging about himself to.

The diabolical cleverness of all this is amplified even more by the fact that this was a plan. Remember, Kate let him stew for a day and two nights--probably affording the family the first night of good sleep they'd had in months--without doing anything to betray there was a real entity in the house. And then, when John Bell was going to throw the ingrate out, she told him not to and that she'd take care of him herself.

So when you put all this together--the spirit's ability to learn to speak, its seeming omniscience involving the community, its familiarity with Christianity, its frequent tattletelling on people, knowing if not the thoughts then the general faults of anyone in its sphere, and finally the skill with which it planned and executed punishments upon those who tried to abuse or cheat the Bell family--you come up with something so bone-chilling that it cannot be ignored. This wasn't some residual haunt, endlessly replaying an event from its life on some perpetual loop. Kate was a sentient, maturing, and intelligent being, with likes and dislikes just like us. But Kate was also a supernatural  being, possessed of some inexplicable power that even with all our technology we are completely incapable of explaining.

And any being, alive or otherwise, who could set up and execute the plan with which Kate ensnared and then punished Williams for is, in a word, dangerous. As the Bells and their neighbors were to discover, Kate was both single-minded and complex--and she always devised a way through which she would achieve her ultimate goal.

Tragically, Kate almost always got her way.

Author's note: When I quote directly from a source, I try to turn off my inner editor and leave the peculiarities of the nineteenth century grammar and spelling intact. Believe me, while I can write very long sentences, my editorial eye cringes at sentences with 200 words and 60 semicolons. It hurts. But, if I directly quote a source, I think it's important to leave the wording and even the terrifying punctuation exactly as the original writer first put it down. Also, I'm going to use the correct spelling of Cate Batts's name with a C, and the entity will be Kate. Cate Batts was as much a victim of the haunting as the Bells, and I think the differentiation needs to be made between the woman and the witch.