By Kathy Hughes
Doing family history research has its pitfalls, and I often warn prospective genealogists to be prepared for anything, especially those proverbial skeletons in the closet.
So it was when I was researching one of my many Tennessee family relatives that I unearthed the “Bell Witch” story, termed as one of America’s most famous episodes of haunting. If, like I was, you are unaware of this legend, you may have heard of “The Blair Witch Project,” one of several movies based, at least in part, on the Bell Witch haunting.
To recount the original story, it took place in Adams, Tenn., during the early 1800s. At that time, Adams was a newly settled farming community located north of Nashville. Such was the Bell family, who emigrated there from North Carolina. There was John Bell, Sr. and his 10 children, among the youngest was a daughter, Betsy Bell. Young Betsy turned sweet on a local boy, Joshua Gardner, with whom she attended the small schoolhouse. Unknown to them, their teacher, Richard Powell, observed the young couple with jealousy and lust, and, when the two became engaged, it is said he became determined to break them up.
Coincidentally, or not, this is the precise time when the hauntings at the Bell farm began. Among various apparitions and strange occurrences was the voice of a woman, who identified herself as “Kate.” When asked what it was she wanted, the answer, couched in a warning, was that Betsy not marry Joshua Gardner. The constant pranks and attempts to scare the couple whenever they were together, or, Betsy, when she was alone, resulted in causing Betsy to have doubts. In the end, Betsy did break her engagement to Joshua.
Word of the hauntings and strange goings on at the Bell farm spread throughout the small community, and, strangely, the freak accidents and ghostly occurrences continued for years. The focus of the pranks turned from Betsy to her father, when at the same time community members accused him of cheating and fraud in his business dealings with them. One neighbor in particular, Kate Betts, seemed to have it in for the Bell Family.
Farmer Bell’s health began to decline, as he experienced twitching, palsy and seizures, until he “mysteriously “ (as it is told) died in 1820 — three years after the haunting began. His funeral, which attracted onlookers from near and afar, turned into a circus with strange singing and mischief.
Of course, the haunting continues until this day, and the farm and nearby landmarks, such as Bell’s Cave, have become profitable tourist attractions. No one expects the ghost to give up her weird misdeeds and appearances any time soon, and the Bell Witch legend continues to grow.
As an aside to this story, I think it is misleading to call the entity in this story a “witch,” when ghost or poltergeist would be more accurate. Just another case of discrimination against witches, is what I say. As for having a haunting in the family, it could have been much worse — at least it isn’t a murder mystery, or is it?