Monday, September 12, 2011

A Deadly Haunting- the Bell Witch of the Tennessee frontier

When you first come across references to the Bell Witch it is easy to confuse it with a certain shaky-cam movie from the nineties.  That is, until you look at the details.

Here is a legend from the frontier, back when Tennessee was on the edge of the unsettled territories.  It is a story from the early 19th century, a story which concerns a frontier family and the haunting that resulted in more than just frights and trauma.  No, this story ends in death.

It is the tale of the Bell family.  The story starts with the failure of their crops in North Carolina.  After three years of difficult times, John Bell packed up his wife, Lucy, and their four small sons and moved westward to Tennessee's frontier in 1804.  They had more children and life seemed good in Tennessee.

At least on the surface.  There are rumors that John Bell Sr. might have been overly aggresssive with some of his business dealings, especially those that involved expanding his holdings to an impressive 358 acres.  But despite for those rumors the farm was doing well, John had become an elder in the local Baptist church, and the family seemed to be prospering.

Until one strange day in 1817 when John was surprised by a strange animal in his fields.  What at first seemed to be nothing more than a neighbors dog caused shivers to run down his spine as he realized the head wasn't that of a normal canine.  Whatever this thing was, it had the head of a rabbit where its own head should be.  In shock, John shot it several times.

But the thing didn't die.  It didn't even move.  Instead it simply vanished. 

John, however, was a logical person.  Assuming that he must have been mistaken he brushed off the situation.  He did his best not to think of it and go on with his day as if everything was normal.

And normal it seemed until after dinner when strange beating and gnawing sounds echoed around the outside walls of their log house.  It wasn't just John who heard them either, the entire Bell family noticed the noises.  The sons would run out with their father to see who, or what, was wrecking havoc on their walls but no matter how fast they ran the clearing around their house was always empty by the time they got outside and nothing met their searching eyes but the mocking darkness of the surrounding fields.

Soon the strange gnawing sounds made their way past the barrier of the outer walls and the children starting having trouble sleeping.  They told their parents that the sounds of rats gnawing on their bedposts kept them awake, despite the fact that the family never saw any rats.  Soon their covers were being yanked off them as well in the middle of the night.

The family tried to keep the strange occurrences secret from their neighbors, something that makes sense in a highly religious rural area.  What would keep the community from believing that they somehow caused the occurrences? That they weren't being rightfully punished for something they had done?

But soon the situation spiraled out of control.  Gnawing sounds grew into whispering voices, too weak to be understood.  But the more the family strained to hear what was being said the more they could make out.  Soon the voice revealed itself to be that of a feeble old woman softly singing hymns.  Despite the nature of her songs, however, the entity seemed to become more and more violent.  Betsy, born after the move and their youngest daughter, found her hair pulled and her face slapped again and again by invisible hands.  Soon her body was covered in welts in the shape of hand prints. 

Holding on to what sanity he could, John swallowed his pride and told his neighbors what was happening, asking them to come stay the night to see the situation for themselves.  James Johnston and his wife agreed.

They witnessed much of what the Bells had, and found it hard to sleep in the cursed house.  After spending much of the night having the bed covers ripped from their bodies and feeling invisible hands slap them incessantly James finally jumped from the bed and shouted at the thing, "in the name of the Lord, who are you and what do you want?!"

After that, the night passed peacefully.

But the thing was only warming up.  Soon the voice did more than just sing hymns, it carried on conversations.  It quoted sermons happening in different parts of the county, some that were even given at the same time several miles apart.  But most of all the thing cursed and yelled at "Old Jack Bell," none other than John Bell Sr.

She, for the thing identified itself as Kate Batts, hated John.  She would yell at him in "a nerve-wracking pitch" when displeased and would throw dishes and furniture at him and Betsy.  She poked and prodded them throughout the day and grabbed food from their hands at mealtimes. 

Betsy Bell
As she grew in strength she expanded her territory.  Soon her disembodied voice could be heard at revivals in the area, sometimes even louder than the reverent celebrants themselves.  Strangely enough, for a supposed spiritual entity, it is said that she was indecently fond of corn whiskey and would raid still houses and get crazily, rambunctiously drunk and go home to abuse John and Betsy with more violence. 

And, as Betsy grew older and found herself engaged to neighborhood boy Josiah Gardner, Kate took it upon herself to break up the happy couple no matter where they tried to spend time together.  Soon the two of them couldn't even go for a walk without being harassed and the two of them eventually broke it off.
Word spread throughout the community about the thing over at the Bell's.  Stories about Kate's antics traveled far and wide.  It got to the point where presidential hopeful Andrew Jackson heard of the strange going-ons, and as he knew John and a couple of his sons from serving over them at the Battle of New Orleans, he decided to see what was going on. 

But as he approached the boundary of the farm with a party of men the mules suddenly found themselves unable to move forward.  No matter how hard they pulled, no matter how roughly the drivers urged them forward, the wagons refused to move.  There was nothing wrong with them, they weren't in any sort of mire or mud, but they sat unmoving as if they were buried in concrete.

Jackson said something, either a curse or an exclamation that this must be the work of the witch, and Kate's disembodied voice answered him, "all right General, the wagon can move on."  Sure enough it could, and did.

No one quite agrees on what happened that night at the Bell's home, but most accounts agree that the next morning the entire party, Jackson included, were heading in the opposite direction... almost as if they had been chased off. 

John Bell wouldn't be chased off, although it might have been best if he had decided to follow Jackson's lead.  He came down with an odd neurological sickness which caused his face to twitch and his body to seize unexpectedly.  He had difficulty swallowing, a difficulty which only increased as months stretched into years and he grew more and more ill. 

But the entity only seemed to gain strength from his weakness.  It continued to verbally berate him in a shrill shout no matter where he went on the farm.  She took his shoes when he tried to walk and slapped his face when he had a seizure. 

Finally the old man slipped into a coma and passed away towards the end of 1820, a mere three years after the haunting had begun.  But this wasn't a natural death.  Soon after he died the family found an odd little vial filled with dark liquid near the body.  Suspicious, John Jr. gave a taste of it to the family cat, which died instantly.

All of a sudden the joyful voice of Kate Batts rebounded through the house.  "I gave Ol' Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!" 

John Jr. immediately threw the vial into the fireplace where it burst into a bright bluish flame that shot up the chimney.

It's perhaps not surprising that Kate attended "Old Jack's" funeral, and perhaps even less surprising that she attended in the way that she did.  The funeral was a lavish event, one of the largest that had ever been held in the county.  But as the event wound down and the family and guests started to leave Kate provided them with her own send off.  

A ribald song about a bottle of brandy.  A song which didn't end until the very last person had hurried out of the graveyard.

Wednesday: Part Two of A Deadly Haunting- Is any of this true?

1 comment:

  1. I came across this story while researching my fourth great grandfather Samuel Durham. I found that Samuel lived in the area of the haunting. I noticed your last name is Durham. Did your 4th or 5th great grandfather come from that area? Do you know his name?