While the facts of the case were certainly elaborated upon and added to over the years, it’s likely that the story is based on actual events. All of the characters are real people whose lives have been meticulously researched and documented.
The story begins with John Bell, a farmer who lived with his wife and six children on a farm in Adams, Tennessee. One cold winter morning in 1817, John was out hunting when something caught his eye. It was an animal, and it was standing in the middle of a corn field about 30 yards away. It was clearly some kind of a large dog, but John had never seen anything like it before. It was huge, and its head was especially tremendous, almost too big for its body which was covered in dark, matted fur.
As John stood staring at this dog-like creature, the beast slowly crouched down low, looking as if it was about to charge at him. John quickly raised his gun and fired at it before it had a chance to move. The shot rang out and echoed through the fields. He was certain that he had struck the animal, but when the smoke cleared and he looked to see where it had fallen, it was gone. John took a few furtive steps forward, then walked over to the spot where he had struck the animal. The field was empty. The creature had simply vanished.
John tried to put the strange dog-like creature out of his mind, but a few days later, a man enslaved by the Bell family told John that he too had seen a strange dog. He said that several times he had been followed by a large black dog while walking in the evening.
Soon, other family members began witnessing unusual things on the property. One day, John's son Drew saw a strange bird perched on a fence. He described it as being of extraordinary size. Being the son of a farmer and a hunter, Drew knew all of the wildlife in the area, but this was unlike any bird he had ever seen before. When he approached it, it flapped its massive wings, took off, and flew into the forest.
One day, Betsy and her sisters saw a young girl as they were walking among the big forest trees near the house. The little girl was wearing a green dress. She was holding onto one of the low hanging branches and swinging back and forth on it. When the girl saw the sisters approaching, she came down from the branch and ran off into the woods. Search as they might, they weren’t able to find the girl.
Soon, the family began hearing strange sounds in and around the house. This included the sound of wings flapping against the ceilings, and the sound of rats gnawing on bedposts. They also heard the sound of someone choking or being strangled, followed by the sound of dragging chains, and the crash of heavy objects hitting the floor.
One night, as the family sat together in the kitchen, they heard the deafening sound of beds being pulled apart and thrown about the room accompanied by the sound of fighting dogs. They investigated, but the source of the noise was never discovered. No rats were found in the home despite thorough searching, and the furniture was always found to be unharmed.
The phenomena began to grow in intensity as the covers were pulled from the children’s beds as they slept. Soon the entity began pulling the children’s hair, and scratching them.
Richard Bell was just a young boy when the strange activity began, but he never forgot the terrifying harassment his family was forced to endure during that time. In 1846 he wrote a memoir about his experience called Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch as Detailed by Richard Williams Bell. In it, he wrote:
I was a boy when the incidents known as the Bell Witch took place. Knocking on the front door, and on the outer walls of the house had been going on for sometime before I knew of it. I was usually asleep when these things happened, and father believed that it was some mischievous person trying to frighten the family. Then, after the unexplainable demonstrations became known to all of us, father enjoined secrecy upon every member of the family, and it was kept a profound secret until it finally became intolerable.
On a Sunday night in 1818, just after the family had retired to bed, a noise commenced in my room like a rat gnawing vigorously on the bed post. John and Drew got up to kill the rat. But the moment they were out of bed the noise ceased. They examined the bed frame, but discovered no marks.
As soon as they returned to bed the noise commenced again, and thus it continued until some time after midnight. During that time, we were all up a half dozen times or more searching the room all over, every nook and corner for the rat, turning over everything. But we could find nothing, not even a crevice by which a rat could possibly enter. This kind of noise continued from night to night, and week after week, but all of our investigations were in vain.
After a few days, the sound began to change location. When we would search for the rat in our room, the same noise would instead appear in sister Elizabeth's chamber, disturbing her, and arousing all the family.
After a while, the noise was accompanied by a scratching sound, like a dog clawing on the floor. This sound increased in force until it became evidently too strong for a rat. After this, we went through every room in the house and carefully examined the furniture, beds and clothing, but nothing irregular could be found.
These demonstrations continued to increase, and soon the bed coverings commenced slipping off at the foot of the beds, as if gradually drawn by someone. Occasionally, this was accompanied by a noise like someone was choking or being strangled. All the while the vicious gnawing at the bedpost continued, and there was no such thing as sleep to be thought of until the noise ceased, which was generally between one and three o'clock in the morning.
One day, the family had all retired early, and I had just fallen into a sweet doze when I felt my hair beginning to twist. Then there was a sudden jerk, which raised me up. The pulling was so sudden and so violent that it felt like the top of my head had been taken off. Immediately, Joel yelled out in great fright, then Elizabeth began screaming in her room. Every night after that, something was continually pulling at her hair after she retired to bed. After this, the main feature of the phenomenon was that of pulling the cover off the beds as fast as we could replace it, as well as other demonstrations.
Although we had kept the secret within our family up to this time, Father finally decided to solicit the advice of his nearest neighbor and most intimate friend, Mr. James Johnson in the hope that he might be able to solve the mystery. So Mr. Johnson and his wife, at father's request, came over to spend a night in the investigation.
Soon after we had all retired, the disturbance commenced as usual – gnawing, scratching, knocking on the walls, overturning chairs, and pulling the cover off of beds. Every act was exhibited as if on purpose to show Mr. Johnson what could be done, appearing in his room, as in other rooms. As soon as someone would light a lamp in one room, the noise would cease and the trouble would begin in another.
Mr. Johnson was determined to try speaking to it, which he did.
"In the name of the Lord,” he said, “what or who are you? What do you want and why are you here?"
This appeared to silence the noise for a considerable time, but it finally commenced again with increased vigor, pulling the cover from the beds in spite of all resistance, repeating other demonstrations, going from one room to another, and becoming increasingly frightful.
Mr. Johnson advised father to invite other friends into the investigation, and to try all means for detecting the mystery. My father consented to this, and from that time on the details of the strange happenings in our home were made public.
The persecutions of Elizabeth were increased to an extent that caused the family serious apprehensions. Her cheeks were frequently crimsoned as by a hard blow from an open hand, and her hair was pulled until she would scream with pain. It was suggested that she should spend the nights with one of the neighbors to get rid of the trouble, and this was acted upon. Betsy went to a number of different neighbor’s houses, but it made no difference. The trouble followed her with the same severity, disturbing the family where she went as it did at home, nor were we in any way relieved.
The phenomena was gradually increasing and developing, and it soon proved itself to be of an intelligent character. For example, when asked a question in a way that it could be answered by numbers, the answers would come in raps that sounded like a man knocking on the wall, the bureau or the bedpost with his fist. The answers were invariably correct.
Another odd thing began to occur frequently. When father, the boys, and field hands were coming in late from work, chunks of wood and stones would fall along the way as if tossed by someone, but we could never discover from whence, or what direction they came.
In addition to the demonstrations already described, it began slapping people on the face. It was especially brutal in this respect to those who resisted the action of pulling the cover from the bed, and to those who came as detectives to expose the trick. The blows were heard distinctly, like the open palm of a heavy hand, and the sting was keenly felt. And it continued to pull my hair, and to make Joel squall much in the same way as it had up to this point.”
The phenomena continued to develop force, and visitors persisted in urging the witch to talk, and tell what was wanted. Finally, it began whistling when spoken to, in a low broken sound, as if trying to speak in a whistling voice. The voice gradually gained strength in articulating, and soon the utterances became distinct in a low whisper that could be understood.
This new development added to the sensation already created. The news spread, and people came in larger numbers. The great anxiety concerning the mystery prompted many questions in the effort to induce the witch to disclose its own identity and purpose. Finally, in answer to the question, Who are you and what do you want? a reply came.
"I am a spirit,” the voice said. “I was once very happy but have been disturbed." This was uttered in a very feeble voice, but sufficiently distinct to be understood by all present, and this was all the information that could be elicited for the time being.”
Richard’s narrative went on to tell about the various explanations the spirit gave of why it had appeared. At last Reverend James Gunn asked that it tell him who it really was. The spirit said that it was Old Kate Batts’ witch, and that its purpose was to torment John, who she referred to as "Old Jack'', and to kill him.
Mrs. Kate Batts was a member of the community who was known to be kind hearted, and a good neighbor toward those she liked, but she was a very eccentric woman with a difficult personality. Whether or not the spirit was telling the truth about its origins, it was thereafter known as Kate, and it answered readily when addressed by that name.
Betsy Bell was engaged to a local man named Joshua Gardner, and the witch made it clear that she was not to marry this man. Kate’s voice was heard by many people saying that it forbade the girl to marry Joshua. At times the witch made cutting remarks about the couple as they walked about the property together. Other times, Kate spoke to Betsy in a soft melancholy voice that would start out as a distant sighing that gradually got nearer and nearer. Then, with gentle pleadings in loud whispers Kate would say, "Please Betsy Bell, don't have Joshua Gardner. Please Betsy Bell, don't marry Joshua Gardner."
Whatever the reason for Kate’s absolute opposition to the couple starting a life together, the witch tormented the poor girl in every way imaginable – pulling the covers from her bed as fast as they could be replaced, knocking over chairs in her room, and keeping up a continual gabbing of nonsensical talk and laughter. It pinched the girl so hard that she screamed, and it slapped her cheeks with such force that red marks appeared on her skin. At all hours of the day it pulled the girl’s hair, and stuck pins in her body.
One day, Betsy’s friend Partheny Thorn watched in horror as the hair combs were pulled violently from Betsy’s hair. Then the witch broke out with hilarious laughter, “Ha! Ha! Betsy. If Josh could see you now he would envy me.”
Another favorite trick of the witch was that of tampering with Betsy's shoes. One minute the laces would be tied so tight that the girl couldn’t loosen them, the next, the shoes would be unlaced and jerked from her feet. Sometimes when Elizabeth was getting ready for bed, the witch would say, “Betsy, let me unlace your shoes.” A split second later, the girl’s shoes would be pulled off of her feet and thrown across the room.
The Bell family’s harrowing ordeal continued unabated for the next four years, and in 1821 Kate finally fulfilled her deadly promise. A strange vial of medicine was found in the cupboard. No one knew where it came from, nor what it contained. As they were asking one another about the vial, Kate said, “I put the vial there for Old Jack, and had given him a dose to kill him.” When asked how she administered the poison, she said “By pouring it into the dinner pot.”
Several men who had called in to see Mr. Bell that day heard what the witch said. Someone advised John Jr. to test the contents of the vial on a cat. He gave the cat a very small portion of the liquid and it instantly went into convulsions. The cat squalled, whirled around, then died a few minutes later.
A few days after the vial was found, John Bell fell into a coma and died. The family was inconsolable, but Kate hadn’t still hadn't finished tormenting the family. It’s said that she interrupted the mourners by laughing and singing drinking songs.
After all that her family had endured over the years, Betsy was unwilling to risk subjecting them to further harassment from the spirit, so after her father’s death she called off her engagement to Joshua Gardner. The witch rejoiced at her victory, and she finally stopped harassing Betsy.
Soon after, the entity told the family it was going away, but that it would return in seven years. In 1828 the witch did indeed return as promised, this time to Lucy and her sons Richard and Joel. It commenced with similar antics as it had before, but the family chose not to encourage it. After a few months, Kate, the Bell Witch finally left and was never heard from again.
The Bell Witch remains the most famous, beguiling and enduring American paranormal tale ever told. Today, more than two hundred years later, we’re left with many unanswered questions. Was Kate a witch, a demon, a ghost, a poltergeist? Was she the result of some form of mass hysteria, or was she simply a legend – a tall tale based on actual events that grew up over time? The truth is, we may never know. And that’s OK, because life without a little mystery just isn’t very much fun, now is it?