I pride myself on not being a stupidly superstitious person. I can walk under a ladder or cross paths with a black cat no problem. But don’t ever ask me to speak ill of the Bell Witch. The Southeastern equivalent of the Bloody Mary legend, kids still dare each other to stand in front of the mirror and say three times “I hate the Bell Witch.” But the legend goes well beyond kids taunting devils in the dark. It’s a story of violent paranormal activity, prophecy, and maybe more than a little hyperbole but you didn’t hear that from me. This is the story of how a little place in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Tennessee became the home of the most powerful supernatural force in U.S. history.
From 1817 to 1821, the Bell family was plagued by a supernatural entity that had a deep and abiding hatred of the clan, especially patriarch John and youngest daughter Betsy. Strange animals would stalk the grounds of the Bell family farm. Impervious to traps and gunfire, this animal would take on various forms, most often that of a large dog or a bird of “extraordinary size” as it harassed the livestock and human residents alike but this was only the beginning. Paranormal activity akin to what we all know and recognize as a poltergeist haunting began to assail the family. John’s health gradually deteriorated over the course of time while Betsy was mentally and physically tormented. Hair pulling, scratching, beating, and even poisoning happened at the whim of the force now latched on to the family. But it still gets stranger.
The entity identified itself as Kate Batts’ Witch, implying that it had been conjured and begun to assault the Bells at the behest of a very real person living in town. Kate Batts, depending on what person retold the story during the years that followed, had been robbed blind by a crooked land deal between herself and John Bell. From this point on, the entity would answer to Kate. Some claimed that the being lived within a cave on the Bell’s property, a cave that very clearly had been used in ages past by native peoples as a burial space. The witch would often speak, her voice echoing through the home as it taunted and abused young Betsy while, in a bizarre twist, heaping praise upon Bell’s wife Lucy and oldest son John Jr.
During her tenure as chief tormentor of the Bell family, the witch also managed to terrify countless thrill seekers and skeptics who came to the home outside of what is today the town of Adams including former president Andrew Jackson. The witch also made a series of prophetic statements about not only the family’s future but the nation’s including predictions about the First World War and, allegedly, the end of the world. She even claimed that, on the hundredth anniversary of the Bell family’s move from North Carolina to Tennessee she would return. But with two centuries of study, conversation, and retelling the story of the Bell Witch, the question is, did she ever actually leave?
A play performed every year in Adams retells the facts of the Bell Witch haunting and explores different iterations of the story told by each successive generation to live in the small, rural community along the Red River. There are dozens of books, televisions specials, and even movies based on the incident including An American Haunting as well as many aspects of The Blair Witch Project. Anyone who has spent any time in the area has felt the eyes upon them, the burning tingle along their spine as if someone is watching them. Even sitting at my computer, back to the wall typing this article, I feel as if I’m being watched. Is it paranoia? An overactive imagination? Or is it Kate making sure that the tone of this article remains respectful and on a par with the sort of legend she’s created?
My former father-in-law was an avid hunter in his youth and used to go racoon hunting in the woods near Adams. Crossing once into property that had belonged to the bells in the late 60’s, his quarry disappeared and the dog he’d taken with him on the hunt became so scared that it wouldn’t budge as they came close to the cliff overlooking the fabled cave. It could have been any number of things but, until his death, he insisted that it was the Bell Witch that scared his dog and gave his prey a chance to vanish. On a photo safari of the abandoned buildings in the heart of the old town, you could feel it. The area was largely abandoned, kudzu crawling up the sides of old brick structures boarded up and forgotten. Have you ever set foot into a place that felt, well, cursed?
There are loads of theories as to what happened two hundred years ago in the old Federal style house in the woods outside of Adams. Was John Bell a crook and conman who created the myth with the help of his family to garner attention and, perhaps, money? Was Betsy mentally ill and exploited with tales of her behavior hyperbolized in order to create an explanation for the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father? Has it all been exaggerated to turn a small community into a tourist trap?
Study the facts. Learn the folklore and the history.
Whatever you decide, just don’t play games with Kate Batts’ Witch because you will not win.
*The stupidest thing you could say in Tennessee