The Bell Witch story, history of the Bell Family and the ghost haunting Adams, Tennessee to this day.
Our story, “The Bell Witch Cave,” is based on an incident that took place in the 1800s. A group of young boys was exploring this cave, which overlooks the Red River in northern Tennessee. During the wet months, water gushes out of the cave mouth in a spectacular waterfall, making the cave inaccessible. But during the dry months, one can crawl into the muddy cavern, look at the formations and, if one is brave (or foolhardy) enough, squeeze into one of the numerous nooks and crannies.
One boy in the group crawled too far, getting himself stuck in a tiny crawl space. Only using a candle for light, he screamed for help as the wick slowly burned out. Then, in the darkness, he heard a booming female voice say, “I’ll get you out!” He felt his legs being pulled, and he was dragged backwards through the thick mud back to the cave entrance. They never found out who, or what, saved him, but the locals believed it could only be one thing – the Bell Witch!
The boys were friends of Betsy Bell, daughter of John Bell, Sr. and Lucy Williams Bell, who were then owners of the land the cave was located on. The Bells were a happy and industrious farming family who had moved to Robertson County, Tennessee from North Carolina in 1804. The Bells probably used their cave for cold storage, since temperatures in caves generally hover around 56 degrees year round, making them perfect for food preservation.
The Bells were devoutly religious, and were well liked and highly respected in the small, rural community. So no one understood why, in 1816, they became the targets of a vicious poltergeist named “Kate,” a.k.a. the Bell Witch. Their four-year ordeal would become one of the world’s best known hauntings.
Kate could speak to the family, and made no secret of her hatred for John Bell, Sr. No one knew why she hated the man, but according to legend, she eventually played a role in his mysterious death in 1820. She then stayed on the Bell property for another year before announcing to the family that she was leaving, but that she would return in seven years. This she did in 1828, but left again after only two weeks. The remaining members of the Bell family either died or moved away, and Kate was never heard from again.
But many locals claim that the Bell Witch still roams the hills surrounding the tiny, once prosperous railroad town of Adams, Tennessee, one mile south of the old Bell property. Mysterious noises have been heard in the old town buildings, and sudden accidents (fires, malfunctioning automobiles, etc.) have befallen those who claim that the Bell Witch is a “fake.”
Most stories center on the Bell Witch Cave, now privately owned. Nothing remains of the original Bell homestead, but strange noises have still been heard in the cave by later owners of the property, as well as tourists and journalists. Some have heard what sounds like raspy, asthmatic breathing deep within the dark bowels of the cave. Others have heard groaning, or electric “buzzing” sounds. One local reporter even heard a high-pitched scream!
Although the cave is small – the tunnel stretches just 500 feet from the entrance – thousands of tourists still flock to the site to hear the Bell Witch. Some have even claimed to have “seen” the Bell Witch in the photos they’ve taken at the site. After processing, these visitors were surprised to find what appeared to be mysterious shadowy figures and misty faces on their cave photos.
The Bell Witch Cave is open to the public from May 1-November 1, 10:00A.M. until 6:00P.M., seven days a week. The cave is located near Adams, Tennessee, ten miles northwest of Springfield on Highway 41. From Adams, take 41 just past the Bell School, turn onto Bell Chapel Road and follow the signs. For more information, call (615) 696-3055.
Top photograph courtesy of Walter and Chris Kirby, Adams, Tennessee.
Postcard courtesy of Tim Henson, Adams Museum – Adams, Tennessee
THE BELL WITCH STORY
The Bell Witch is one of the most infamous ghosts in American history. She has both terrified and mystified people in the small town of Adams, Tennessee for generations. To this day, some local residents believe that this evil poltergeist roams the surrounding hills, using a small cave overlooking the Red River as her hideout. Many believe that only bad things can come from publicly questioning her existence.
The story begins in the early days of America, when white settlers began moving into this rolling, lush farming region in northern Tennessee. One of these farming families was the Bell family of Halifax County, North Carolina.
John Bell Jr. Said to bear a striking resemblance to his father John Bell, Sr., 54, his wife Lucy Williams Bell, and their six children moved to northern Tennessee in 1804. They settled 1,000 acres of land on the Red River that was then a major waterway to ports on the Mississippi River. He built a double, one and one-half story log cabin for his family, cabins for their slaves, and various outbuildings.
John Bell, Sr. was a strong, stern, hardworking man. After 13 years of backbreaking work, he turned his Tennessee farm into a successful operation. He was highly respected in the surrounding community as an excellent farmer and religious man, and a model husband and father. He also had a reputation for being a hard-nosed businessman who would turn a profit whenever he could. John fathered three more children during his first few years in Tennessee, including four strong sons, who looked after the farm as he grew older and weaker.
It was in 1817 when strange things started happening on the Bell property. While walking through his corn field one day, John spotted a strange, dog-like creature in the distance, which quickly disappeared. Around the same time, Drewry Bell, one of John’s sons, saw a large, ugly bird perched on a fence unlike any he had ever seen before. On another evening, Drewry and his sister Betsy were walking through the orchard when they noticed an old woman walking beside them. When Betsy tried to say something to her, the woman disappeared.
The last remaining cabin from the Bell farm, built between 1810-1820. These sightings eventually led to strange, unexplainable noises in and around the Bell house. They included knocking sounds on doors and windows, wings flapping against the roof and animals fighting and scratching.
As the noises grew in intensity, the family tried desperately to find the source, but found nothing. Then bed coverings began slipping off the beds as if being pulled off by someone. Sometimes there were other noises like lips smacking and gulping. Evenings in the Bell house became a noisy nightmare.
After a year of constant noise, John Bell, Sr. developed a nervous condition affecting his tongue and jaw muscles, making it difficult to chew and swallow. Although he was a fiercely independent man, John believed his affliction was being caused by an otherworldly force, and appealed to his friend James Johnson for help. Johnson, a brave and strong Christian man, agreed to spend the night at the Bell house and confront the spirit. While he was there, the noises became worse than ever, and the covers were repeatedly stripped from Johnson’s bed while he slept. Whenever Johnson tried to pull them back, he found the force on the other side to be unbelievably strong. Johnson prayed and asked the spirit to identify itself, but without success.
The next morning, Johnson told the Bells that an ungodly force was loose in their home, and that they should appeal to the community for help. Such a revelation was no surprise to these fiercely religious, Scotch-Irish people, who believed the Devil and his minions were constantly wrecking havoc on earth. Soon afterwards, a regular circle of townspeople met at the Bell home every night to confront the spirit.
One night, the spirit began to talk. After a moment of hysterical laughter, it repeated a prayer that James Johnson recited during his first night at the Bells’ home – in Johnson’s own voice! When questioned repeatedly what its name was, the spirit answered “Kate.” From then on, Kate rarely kept her mouth shut, arguing theology, teasing and tormenting, spreading gossip and singing loudly. She seemed to know everything about everybody, and became a tremendous pest – but a pest with tremendous strength and power.
Eventually, Kate was asked why she was tormenting the Bell family. She gave several false answers, including stories about Indian burial mounds and buried treasure, that lead community members on wild goose chases. But the one answer she gave that many believe to this day was that she was a witch conjured by Kate Batts, an eccentric woman who lived nearby with her invalid husband. According to historical records, John Bell, Sr. was convicted of usury in a slave deal with Mr. Batts by the State of Tennessee. Kate, the spirit, repeatedly expressed her hatred for John Bell, Sr., physically abused him, and threatened to kill him.
Kate didn’t feel this hatred toward other members of the family, however. She deeply loved the mother, Lucy Williams Bell, and would sing sweet songs to her in the kitchen. She greatly respected one of the sons, John Bell, Jr., mainly because he wasn’t afraid to stand up to her.
But it was Betsy Bell who received most of Kate’s attention. The spirit would constantly follow her around when she visited friends, sometimes terrifying Betsy’s hosts. Kate especially hated one of Betsy’s suitors named Joshua Gardner, warning her repeatedly not to marry him for reasons she never explained. Whenever Betsy and Joshua would meet, the spirit would often torment and embarrass them. Betsy was physically abused by the spirit for her associations with Joshua. Eventually, Betsy was forced to end her relationship with Joshua, and later married her old schoolteacher, Richard Powell.
As news of the Bell Witch spread, crowds traveled to the Bell property from all over to hear the spirit. John Bell Sr. was a very generous man, never turning away anyone and spending his own money to keep people fed. There was little privacy in the Bell home, as the crowds would wait each night by candlelight for the witch to arrive. These crowds eventually tore up the Bell property with their wagons and horses, and drained much of the family’s money.
Among the many visitors to the Bell home was President Andrew Jackson, who was then a general in the Tennessee militia. Jackson had heard about the hauntings from John Bell, Jr., who had served under Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Jackson was fascinated, and took a group of men to the Bell property to see things for himself.
While approaching the home, his wagon was reportedly stopped by an unseen force after one of his men openly questioned Kate’s existence. Later that night in the Bell home, another of Jackson’s men was beaten severely by Kate after demanding she show herself. Jackson quickly left the next morning, and was rumored to have told anyone who asked that he would rather fight the entire British army than the Bell Witch.
By 1820, John Bell Sr. was weak and tired after years of physical abuse at the hands of Kate. One day, he was walking with his son Richard to the pigsty when one of his shoes was jerked off his foot. Richard tied the shoe back on his father’s foot, only to see the other one jerked off in the same way. The air was suddenly filled with horrifying sounds, and,John, totally overcome and praying for deliverance, was quickly led backminside the house. Once inside, John took to his bed and stayed there for several weeks, growing weaker and sicker. One morning, he failed to wake up, and could not be aroused. John Jr. frantically searched the medicine cupboard, but could only find a strange vial inside filled with some sort of brown liquid. When the local doctor arrived, Kate began laughing and taunting the family, claiming she had switched the medicine for a vial of poison. The doctor tested the liquid on a cat, killing it almost instantly.
The next day, John Bell, Sr. was dead. But even in death, he found no peace from Kate. At his funeral, attended by hundreds of friends and curiosity seekers, Kate laughed and mocked the family.
Kate stayed on the Bell property for another year before announcing to the family that she was leaving, but that she would return in seven years. This she did in 1828, but left again after only two weeks. The remaining members of the Bell family either died or moved away.
John Bell, Sr. and his wife Lucy are the only members of the family known to have been buried on the Bell property, although no one is sure where. The old buildings have long since been removed, the family plot is overrun with weeds, and the original tombstones have been stolen by vandals. Only a small monument remains on the property, which reads:
Original tombstone disappeared about 1951.
This marker placed 1957.
His wife, Lucy Williams Bell.
To this day, strange lights and ghostly apparitions have been spotted around the old plot. Some believe that John Bell’s restless ghost still wanders the property he once owned and farmed.
And, in a small cavern nearby, many believe that his tormentor still lives, waiting to put a scare into anyone who crosses her path.
Read more about An American Haunting: The Bell Witch in our Bookshop!
More on the Bell Witch and Adams, TN:
Photographs and drawings courtesy of Tim Henson
Adams Museum – Adams, Tennessee
Andrew Jackson picture courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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