Ghosts, haunts, spirits and apparitions have always played a rich role in the folklore of America. Tales of the supernatural abound, some of then documented by unimpeachable sources. At the head of that list stands the strange story of the Bell Witch of Adams, Tennessee, a continuing saga now nearly two centuries old.
It all began in the early 1800s when John Bell and his family moved from North Carolina to a 1,000-acre farm in middle Tennessee north of Nashville. The Bell family prospered in the rich Tennessee farmland and John Bell became one of the leading citizens of the area.
The first hint of trouble came in 1817 when John Bell reported seeing a strange black animal similar to a dog in his cornfield. Shortly thereafter unexplained knocking sounds began to be heard throughout the Bell home. It wasn’t long before a taunting, disembodied voice began speaking to the family members. Furniture began crashing around the house and covers were stripped from the beds.
John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, were the principal targets of the Witch’s pranks. Betsy frequently reported pricking sensations as if pins were being stuck into her flesh. Witnesses watched in horror as Betsy’s head jerked in response to a resounding, but unseen, slap and red welts appeared on her face.
As tales of the strange occurrences in Adams spread, General Andrew Jackson himself traveled from Nashville to the Bell farm to investigate. As Jackson approached the farm the wheels of his wagon locked and no amount of effort by his horses and men could move the vehicle in spite of the fact that the ground was dry and level. A sharp, mocking voice was heard laughing at their struggle. “All right, General,” the disembodied voice said, “Let the wagon move on. I will see you again tonight.”
The Witch was in rare form that night, pinching and slapping Betsy Bell, pulling the covers off Jackson’s men and tearing down their tents. Returning to Nashville in unaccustomed disarray Jackson said, “By the Eternal, I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!”
Who was the Bell Witch? Legend points to an eccentric neighbor named Kate Batts. “Pretty as sin, kindly as the Devil,” was the way one neighbor described her. Her hatred for John Bell is still the subject of speculation but the Witch swore to kill him, and kill him she apparently did.
Late in the year 1820, John Bell became seriously ill. On the night of December 20, a mysterious, half-empty vial was found beside the bed where he lay unconscious. Family members and attendants denied any knowledge of the vial. Its contents were tested on a cat which promptly went into convulsions and died. John Bell followed soon after.
But the legend does not stop there. Even in an age where superstition is met with skepticism the folks around Adams can weave some mighty convincing tales of more recent encounters with the Bell Witch. Many of the later incidents focus on a cave located beside the Red River on the original Bell estate. Photographs of the cave have a disconcerting tendency to turn out blank. Sometimes they appear to show things that are not there.
Many people have had strange encounters inside the cave with a spirit popularly known as “Kate.” Several people have actually seen the spirit clearly. They describe her as a beautiful young woman with long black hair. Others have been touched, pinched, slapped and hugged by something unseen within the cave. One boy had his cap snatched from his head and deposited on a projecting rock 20 feet above the cave floor.