Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #11: Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee

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Bell, Richard William. Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. M. Todd Cathey, ed. February 12, 2013.

You may ask why I’m reviewing a book about a haunting in Tennessee. The reason is two-fold. First, prior to its becoming the 16th state in 1796, Tennessee was western North Carolina. North Carolina’s territory originally, if someone fantastically due to the U.S. having no control beyond the Appalachians until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, extended to the west coast. Second, the afflicted Bell family originally came from a part of Edgecombe County that has since become Wilson County. So, the principles (perhaps even the ghost) were originally Carolinians.

The Bell Witch case is exceedingly famous due to being (allegedly) the only “confirmed” case of a person being killed by a ghost. This account purports to be written by Richard Williams Bell, the son of the alleged victim, John Bell. In it, Richard recounts the story of how the family settled in Tennessee sometime before 1810 (before he was born) and then came to be afflicted by a witch in the form of a spirit, from 1817 until John Bell’s death in 1820. Though the “witch” (who claimed to be a woman named “Kate Batts”) visited a time or two more after that, the persecution ended with the demise of John Bell.

This story didn’t really come to public attention until 1894, when a newspaper editor, Martin Van Buren Ingram, wrote a book entitled An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. This book not only incorporated Richard Bell’s diary, but used it as its sole primary source. And if you’re wondering who M. Todd Cathey is, he appears to be this guy.

This is where it gets sketchy. A fair number of modern researchers believe that the entire thing was a hoax and that Ingram made it all up. It seems that no one but Ingram ever saw the original copy of the diary in question.

They are likely not wrong. The diary has some serious issues with voice and tone and context. For a start, it does not read at all like a diary. It reads like an account written long after the fact.

It does not sound like a story written by a man who grew up on the Early American frontier (and boy, do the Bells have a ton of neighbors who have the leisure time to just show up to hang out with ghosts). It sounds like a late-Victorian dime store novel.

One of the really weird things is how the the diary portrays the Bells as living a life of plantation leisure, complete with a rather large group of family slaves. They might have done so back in Edgecombe County, but they wouldn’t have been doing it on the mountainous Tennessee frontier in 1817. The impression is of a fabrication by someone confusing Southern plantation life with Southern frontier life.

Further, the tone does not sound like that of a man who lost his father to an illness that may well have been poisoning. The tone of the hauntings (even though patriarch John is slowly wasting away throughout) is boisterous, with the family taking in visitors from all around and much merriment being made with the witch (who engages in as many pranks as she does actually malicious stuff aimed mostly at John). It’s weird.

There’s also a lot of casual racism in the text. The grossest thing in the book by far is the witch persecuting the family’s slaves while in the house because she complains that black people stink. Yet, no one in the family ever wonders why she is afraid to follow them to their own cabins, or why they act so knowledgeable about her folkloric origins and identity. The slaves are presented in very stereotypical and stupid fashion by the narrator, but hey, they’re not the ones being bothered in their own homes by a poltergeist. The Paranormal Activity movie series made absolute hay out of this kind of White People Are Arrogant and Dumb trope.

Lo and behold – the Ingram-made-it-all-up theory itself got debunked in 2017. Ingram had claimed the case first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1849, but that the article was retracted after John’s daughter Betsy threatened to sue. Yet, no issues of the Saturday Evening Post survived from that period and there was no mention of it elsewhere. Skeptics therefore assumed he had made it all up.

Still, there was a common practice back in the day for smaller newspapers to pick up articles from larger ones and reprint them (giving credit), much the way they do with AP dispatches today. Well, it turns out that on February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman (out of Montpelier, VT) did just that with the legendary Saturday Evening Post article.

So, it looks as though Ingram (though he most likely forged the diary) didn’t make up the entire story out of whole cloth. There’s an interesting difference between Ingram’s account and the earlier one, though. The diary is quite sympathetic to Betsy, but not so the Green-Mountain Freeman/Saturday Evening Post. What got Betsy Bell so up in arms and threatening to sue? They never claimed the story didn’t happen. They just accused her of faking the entire haunting to win the affections of a local young man (whom she ended up not marrying in the end). What’s chilling is that John Bell probably died of poisoning. This account just blames it on the witch.

Oh, Betsy, you little parricide, you.

This is not a good book. Most of the time, it’s not very scary, either. But it is very interesting from a folkloric point of view. The “witch” is a classic witch-ghost straight out of North Carolina. “Kate” manifests as a poltergeist, a voice, and various spectral animals (the first form in which she appears). There is no real evidence (assuming she even existed) that she is ever human. The Bell Witch case is probably a hoax, but it’s also a really interesting example of why so many Tennessee ghost stories bear a strong resemblance to North Carolina ghost stories. They come from the same people and the same fokloric source.

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2 thoughts on “Revenge of Halloween in North Carolina, Day #11: Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee”

  1. I picked up some book about the Bell witch something like twenty years ago. About ten years later, I saw a movie that appeared to be drawn from it as well, and recalled the book. I wish I could remember the names of either one. Its interesting that there is a connection to an actual event.

    Why do you think the ghost/witch concepts became conflated?

    1. That’s a good question and I haven’t dug up the definitive answer of why, yet. But it is totally a thing in North Carolina folklore. Tom Peete Cross, in his classic, book-length “article” from 1919 (which I reviewed last year) mentions this trope at length. While they’re named as separate categories, witches and ghosts are talked about interchangeably all the time in NC folklore.

      I think it might have to do with the more shamanistic (spirit travel and control over spirits and demons) aspects of the witchcraft image in Reformation European folklore getting mixed up with other traditions (like African American coastal Gullah, mostly, and some Native American Cherokee and Tuscarora). In the Cherokee and Tuscarora languages, the term for demon is the same as for an evil spirit.

      In European traditions, a witch can turn into/possess any black animal–particularly a dog, cat or sow. She (though she’s not always a she) then uses this form to afflict ordinary humans. She may also engage in spirit travel (called “spectral evidence” – what my great-something grandad Francis Dane got kicked out of court in Massachusetts, thus saving our family and bringing the Salem Witch Trials to a screeching halt). This means that your witch neighbor could physically be hundreds of miles away, but appear to you in witch form to make you or your child or your cattle sick. And we see just that sort of thing in the Bell Witch story.

      But this doesn’t really answer why the witch is also seen as a ghost (albeit there is a claim early on in the Bell Witch account, quickly withdrawn, that a neighbor is a witch visiting them in spirit). In the above stories, the witch is a living human who can spirit travel, basically, but who can still be hurt physically by things done to their spirit forms (oh, the things done to black animals, especially cats, due to this belief…just the thought of the harm this tradition has caused makes me cringe).

      There’s a similar tradition in the Gullah community, but in this one (called a soucouyant), the witch leaves her skin behind, does some spirit travelling, and goes into an animal or feeds vampirically on people (especially children). If you can find her skin and dust it with salt, you vanquish her because she has to return to her skin by daylight or die–and she can’t return to a skin that’s covered in salt.

      Where we get some real enlightenment, though, is with the Cherokee stories of Stonefinger (a female witch) and Stone Man (basically her male equivalent). Though made of stone (and therefore very hard to kill), they are actually evil spirits and they feed on the livers of children. But they’re also witches. So, it could be that tradition we’re seeing here.

      Robertson County, TN (where the Bell Witch hauntings took place) started as a late-18th century illegal white settlement in Cherokee territory–and the Cherokee were still there when the hauntings occurred. Some people who have studied the Bell Witch legend have seen the witch as a manifestation of white guilt about their genocide against the Native Americans. But you could just as easily see “Kate Batts” as a distorted version of Spearfinger cooked up by Betsy Bell–perhaps literally, if she really did poison her father.

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