The Bell Witch legend of Adams, Tennessee is one of America’s most haunting ghost stories. Well-known horror films like The Blair Witch Project, The Bell Witch Haunting, and An American Haunting are all based on her story—and the family she haunted.
As the events took place nearly 200 years ago, every account tells the tale a bit differently. What is known, though, is that in 1804, John Bell and his wife bought over 300 acres of land in northern Tennessee, settling down to what they thought would be an idyllic farming life. This region eventually grew into the town of Adams. Yet at the time of the Bell family’s arrival, it was a remote rural area in the northwest corner of Robertson County, due north of Nashville.
For 13 years the family lived peacefully, adding a few children to the household. Then, in 1817, eerie things began happening. First, strange animals showed up—like a half-dog, half-rabbit creature. Then, there were unexplainable sounds: pounding upon the doors and walls, heavy stones thumping upon the floors, chains rattling throughout the home. The eerie episodes soon turned sinister—hair was pulled, noses were pinched, and arms and legs were bruised from ghostly kicks and slaps. An angry voice echoed, one that seemed to hate John Bell and, oddly, his little daughter, Betsy.
The Bells were terrified. After a year of enduring the paranormal activity, they finally broke their silence to a neighbor couple, Mr. and Mrs. James Johnson. The Johnsons agreed to spend the night at the Bell household, where they experienced the same eerie events. It was agreed that more people should be told, and an investigation commenced.
Word spread of the Bell family ghost. People came from all around to see the site for themselves—no small feat in the mid-1800s. One such visitor was future American president Andrew Jackson, who traveled from his home of Nashville with a group of men to witness this “Bell Witch.” On their way to the property, their carriage unexpectedly stopped—the horses could no longer pull it. Perplexed but not deterred, the men reportedly walked the rest of the way (though other versions have them fleeing in fear after the carriage incident). Upon arrival, Jackson and company experienced the same physical and verbal abuse that the Bell Witch had been doling out.
The Bell Witch haunting continued for four more years. Many believe the ghost was that of Kate Batts, a disgruntled former neighbor of the Bell family who was certain John had cheated her in his land purchase. Some even say that on her deathbed, she swore to haunt the family from beyond the grave.
In 1821, after John Bell’s passing, the haunting calmed. Then, after scaring off young Betsy Bell’s suitor, the presence of the Bell Witch dissipated completely—though the spirit announced she would return in seven years. Sure enough, in 1828, John Bell Jr. claimed that the Bell Witch materialized in his home, revealing his past and future. He said that she promised to return once more, and this time it would not be for 107 years.
Whether the ghost made good on her promise in 1935 is hard to say. No record of an encounter exists from Bell family descendants.
In either case, the Bell Witch continues to haunt the town of Adams, Tennessee. Ghost hunters who visit today can peer into a life-size replica of the Bell Family homestead, take a tour of the Bell Witch Cave, or snap a photo of a memorial plaque honoring the spooky all-American legend.
Illustrated images from the Tennessee State Library and Archives and M.V. Ingram’s “An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era” (1894); Photo: Michael / Flickr
by Brent Monahan [St. Martin's Griffin]
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