The Legend of the Bell Witch

1894 drawing of Betsy Bell
During the first half of the 19th century, the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee was reportedly haunted by an evil entity. It became known as the Bell Witch, though descriptions make it sound more like a poltergeist. As is typical, the entire story is steeped in legend and conflicting accounts. Whether or not you believe in such things as poltergeists or witches, it is hard to ignore the number of people who are said to have witnessed the “Bell Witch” in action.

John Bell and his wife Lucy moved from Kentucky to Tennessee during the early 1800s. The couple had two children that had already married and lived away from them by then. After moving to Red River, they had three more children together. Elizabeth, known as Betsy, was born in 1806, Richard was born in 1811 and Joel was born in 1813. The family did well in their new home and eventually amassed a landholding of 328 acres. They also had a sizeable log home.

In 1817 John Bell was working in his fields when he saw a strange animal with the body of a dog. He shot at the beast, but it disappeared. Later on that night and for many nights after, the family heard loud banging noises on the outside of their house. John tried to discover the source of the noises, but came up with nothing. Not long after, the children began complaining about the sound of rats chewing on their bedposts and that something was ripping off their covers as they slept. Soon, the entire family was hearing whispers around the house.

The Bell Witch began to focus on Betsy. It would supposedly attack her physically and so brutally that it left visible marks and even handprints on her skin. After a time, John Bell turned to his friend James Johnston for help. James and his wife decided to stay at the Bell home for a few nights. Apparently they suffered the same indignities as the Bells. The voice was gaining power as well and had begun conversing with people who spoke to it. It also sang and said things that were religious in nature.

General Andrew Jackson himself became interested in the story and decided to come to the home in 1819. Apparently one of his men had a run in with the witch and the story goes that Jackson spoke to it himself. The very morning after Jackson arrived at the Bell home, he was seen in Springfield, so he must not have stayed long. Jackson’s visit lends some credibility to the story. He did, after all, become President of the United States later. However, the story is still wildly incredible.

When Betsy became engaged to a local boy named Joshua Gardner, the Bell Witch wasn’t happy and decided to torment the young couple. Betsy eventually broke off the engagement. However, the only person that the witch truly seemed to hate was John Bell.

Some stories say that the witch claimed to be the spirit of a neighbor who felt cheated in a land transaction and recently died. Whoever or whatever it was, it supposedly tortured John during a prolonged illness he was having that involved seizures and difficulty controlling his throat. There are even claims that when John Bell died on December 20, 1820, the entity said that it had poisoned him. Stories say the family found a vial of poison in a cupboard that backed up the witch’s claim.

The witch became less active after John Bell’s death, but promised to return to his wife in seven years. It is said that it came back and spent a lot of time talking to John Bell Jr. about theology, history and life. It then left saying that it would return to his descendants in 107 years. There have been no claims from John’s descendants that this has happened. Of course, we can’t be sure that any of this happened.