Historian, descendant recount Bell Witch legend
ADAMS, Tenn. (AP) — The legend of the Bell Witch has been passed down through generations in Tennessee for more than 200 years. Today, the story of one of the state’s most famous hauntings lives on through the work of Bell Witch historian and author Pat Fitzhugh. And, according to one descendant of the Bell family, the witch herself remains a part of the family’s life.
Fitzhugh shared his telling of the Bell Witch legend in Brownsville on Friday, Oct. 26, speaking to a full room of believers, skeptics and one direct descendant of the infamous John Bell — Lucy Bell, now Lucy Butler. Born and raised in Memphis, Butler said she grew up hearing the stories of the Bell Witch and wanted to hear Fitzhugh’s version of the legend that is so ingrained in her family’s history.
The legendary haunting that has since become the basis for multiple television productions and the Hollywood film “The American Haunting” began with John Bell in an area called Red River, Tennessee — now called Adams — in 1817.
While tending his farm, Bell reportedly saw a strange animal — what appeared to be a black dog with the head of a rabbit. In the coming weeks, Bell, his wife Lucy and his children began to hear pounding noises on the outside of their cabin, Fitzhugh, author of “The Bell Witch Haunting” and “The Bell Witch: The Full Account,” told the crowd. These escalated to voices and eventually the entity — which would be called a “spirit” by a local preacher — began to act out physically, throwing pillows across rooms, tugging on the children’s bed sheets and physically assaulting Betsy Bell, John Bell’s daughter.
The family kept the haunting to themselves, perhaps out of fear of retaliation from a staunch Baptist community, Fitzhugh said.
“Would you call for help?” Fitzhugh asked. “Not if you were an elder of the Red River Baptist Church, only 125 years after the Salem Witch Trials, and in the buckle of the Bible Belt.”
Eventually, John Bell shared his experiences with one of his closest friends, and the two went to a local preacher for help. All three men swore to keep the seemingly supernatural experiences a secret, but just weeks later, people from Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky were traveling to the Bell farm to see the house and the family for themselves, Fitzhugh said. And this made the haunting worse.
“The more people who tried to talk to this thing ... the more attention it was paid, the louder it became, as though it was feeding off of people’s fear,” Fitzhugh said.
According to Fitzhugh’s research into the legend, the entity began beating the children and tripping adults with greater intensity. Its voice became more clear, at times low and melodic and at others a shrill screech. And it announced its intention: to kill John Bell.
“Mr. Bell is a bad man,” the entity purportedly said, according to Fitzhugh.
The identity of the entity that reportedly tormented the Bell family is widely disputed. According to legend, the entity itself gave multiple answers about who it was and why it was haunting the Bell family.
In one case, it claimed to be the spirit of a Native American whose grave had been disrupted by one of the Bell boys, Fitzhugh said. At a different time, it claimed it was the doing of the Bell family’s neighbor, Kate Batts. This story stuck, and the Bell Witch is often referred to as “Kate.”
Fitzhugh said Kate Batts was an outcast in the Red River community, having little money and doing the majority of the hard physical labor on her family’s farm for her husband, who was paralyzed in an accident. She had a habit of trying to impress people, making a scene and trying to be the center of attention, Fitzhugh said.
Batts strongly denied any connection to the haunting, but the entity began responding to the name Kate.
The name “Bell Witch” is said to have been coined by President Andrew Jackson after he came to the Bell home for an exploratory visit. Some of the Bell children had fought with Jackson when he was a general, and Jackson owned land not far from the Bell’s homestead, Fitzhugh said. According to legend, when Jackson and his men arrived at the Bell farm, the horses refused to cross the property line until a disembodied voice allowed them passage.
The entity was largely absent from Jackson’s visit, only attacking one of Jackson’s men when he commented that the witch was scared of him because he had a silver bullet called the “witch tamer” in his pistol, Fitzhugh said.
But Fitzhugh himself said he doesn’t believe this story; Jackson had good reason to visit the Bells, he said, but an encounter with the spirit is unlikely. Fitzhugh said he has yet to find any reputable record of Jackson’s alleged visit, except for one contested manuscript titled “Our Family Trouble,” by Richard William Bell.
“That’s the Bell Witch story,” Fitzhugh said. “Controversy after controversy after controversy. There’s never a dull moment.”
Toward the end of the Bell family’s initial four-year ordeal with the Bell Witch, John Bell became seriously ill, Fitzhugh said.
Bell, who was approaching his seventies, began struggling to eat, claiming that it was difficult for him to swallow. He suffered frequent episodes that would likely be classified as seizures today, Fitzhugh said. He believes that Bell actually suffered from a disorder of the central nervous system. According to legend, the witch laughed at Bell’s misfortunes.
“The entity, nicknamed Kate, had quite the personality,” Fitzhugh said. “Even though most of the time it was talking ugly and cursing, there were times she would laugh, and it was usually at someone’s misery.”
John Bell died in 1820 at the age of 70. Legend says John Bell’s son, John Bell Jr., found poison next to his bed. The Bell Witch is believed to have poisoned Bell and reportedly laughed and sang at his deathbed and during his funeral, Fitzhugh said.
The haunting died down after John Bell’s death, until the entity turned its attention to Betsy, who was newly engaged to a man named Joshua Gardener. The witch’s antics eventually convinced Betsy to break off her engagement to Gardener, who later moved to West Tennessee.
He became a county sheriff and justice of the peace in the Henry County area and ended up in Weakley County, where he and his brother started a railroad, Fitzhugh said. He died wealthy at the age of 84.
The Bell Witch disappeared for a time before coming back to say that she would return in seven years, Fitzhugh said. When she returned to John Bell Jr. in 1828, she is said to have spoken to him for three nights about the past, present and future. She then said she would return to John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years, in 1935. But no tales from 1935 forward exist as part of the original legend.
“Some say she did return, but most people say she never left the place,” Fitzhugh said. “She’s always been there and always will be, and there’s always something going on there.”
Lucy (Bell) Butler is a direct descendant of John Bell Jr., named after John Bell’s wife, Lucy. Lucy Bell was allegedly one of only three people the witch actually liked. Butler said that stories of the witch were part of her childhood.
“It was pretty interesting because things did happen, and we would just naturally turn and say, oh, the Bell Witch did that,” Butler said.
Butler said she believes that the witch is not confined within the limits of the Bell family’s farm in Adams, but follows her family wherever they go.
She said she and her daughter Jennifer have seen the black dog in the original legend, and when Jennifer was growing up, they often saw a giggling girl running around their house at night.
“I was thinking that might have been the Bell Witch ... that would have been the sweet side of her,” Butler said. The little girl would play with Jennifer’s toys, and the family dog was not afraid of her, Butler said. “She stayed, she would come out at night, and she was sweet and giggled. (She) would watch over Jennifer,” she said.
Not everyone in Butler’s family believed in the witch or wanted to talk about the legend. Butler said her grandfather, a Methodist preacher, refused to allow one word about Kate to be spoken in his presence. But Butler said she thinks this could be because of a negative experience he might have had with the entity.
“I can go through the bad people in my family and see things that have happened and why, and then I see the good things,” Butler said. “Because the Bell Witch, Kate, whoever you want to call her, she did have a good side ... to the people she liked.”
Butler said the entity did not like her father, a smooth-talking, good-looking actor in Memphis who happened to have some alleged involvement with the Florida mafia. Butler recalls one incident that happened when she was a child just before her father was about to host a gathering at their home. Butler’s father had purchased a stereo system, a considerable luxury in the 1960s. Butler said she walked downstairs to find her living room filled with thousands of crickets marching toward the music room, where they climbed into the stereo system and ruined it.
“I think she punished the people that needed to be punished,” Butler said. “But I think she also took care of the ones that she liked.”
Butler’s husband, Larry Butler, was skeptical of the story at first. In fact, he even drove out to the Bell farm with a Bible in hand to confront the supposed witch in a cave on the property. The cave was closed.
“I’m glad it was,” Larry said.
He recalls one strange incident he witnessed while he was alone in Lucy’s apartment. He said the jewelry Lucy had hanging up in her bedroom started shaking, so he investigated to see if an air vent could be causing movement. Finding nothing, he retreated to the living room. A tassel hanging from a lamp started spinning rapidly in circles, Larry said.
“I said, that’s it,” he recalled. “Saturday morning, daylight, I walked out. (Lucy) had the whole month’s rent paid, (but) I moved them out of there. It freaked me out.”
Neither Larry nor Lucy has experienced anything since, they said. Lucy considers herself to be a devout believer in God and prays every morning, but she said that doesn’t mean she can’t also believe that the Bell Witch still exists.
“There’s probably a lot of people that don’t believe in her, and that’s fine,” Lucy said. “Everybody’s got their personal opinion. I just believe it ... I’m sure the stories I heard growing up helped, but I saw a lot of things. Things happened. I was there.”
Information from: The Jackson Sun, http://www.jacksonsun.com