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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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