Robertson County Tennessee
Part of the American History and Genealogy Project

The Bell Witch

 

This mysterious, invisible, loquacious something is said to have manifested itself at the house of John Bell and vicinity, on Red River, in the north-western part of this County, in the year 1818, and to have continued its marvelous and unwelcome visitations until the death of Mr. Bell and his wife, the former occurring in 1823, and the latter in 1825. The story of the witch of Endor, as related in the Scriptures, did not create much more excitement than did the "witch" at Bell's. So great was the excitement, that people came from at least a half dozen States to see, or rather to hear, the sayings of this mysterious being. It would be impossible to relate a moiety of what it is reported to have said. Indeed, some of its language was so profane and vulgar, as to preclude its recital here.

Its first manifestations were made by pulling off the bed clothes and scratching on the bed tick; to pull the daubing out of the cracks of the house and sprinkling it in the middle of the floor. Then it told in a low tone that it was a deceased spirit, and that it had come to have some skull bones which had been taken from a mound nearby on the river bluff, and that it would not cease its visits until the skulls were returned to their resting places. Although the skulls had been carefully deposited in their original graves, yet the witch came again. When asked why it had come again, it said: To let the family know where it had, when in the flesh, deposited a quantity of gold. Search was made for the gold at the place designated, but was not found, though diligent search was made. It would slap and spank a twelve year old girl, a daughter of Mr. Bell, so much so that the signs of the fingers were made on the flesh of the girl. The girl being sent off to avoid the chastising, the witch followed her and took her from between a man and his wife, rolling them off. It not only spoke audibly several different languages but would touch hands with those of the neighborhood whom it deemed honorable. It would tell what had transpired in the vicinity for a distance of seven or more miles round, narrating the intimacies of men and their wives, as well as disclosing the intrigues of men and women who deemed their liaisons unknown to any but themselves. It would unlock the door of the dwelling, although the key was in the lock, and held by a stout man, without turning the key. In making its approach it would first be heard striking the roof of the house with a brush or limb of a tree; then it would be heard to drop as it were from the rafters to the second floor, and then on the first, making as loud a noise as would any large man. It would talk and laugh, making ludicrous remarks about the "damned fools who had come to see the witch.'' It would call the dogs and set them upon passers-by, to the great annoyance of the family as well as the neighbors. It would even take the tobacco out of the mouth of Mr. Bell, and put therein an old, much used pipe stem; at least, he thought it was there, though his friends could see nothing of the kind. It would call Mrs. Bell by her given name; would drop grapes and hazelnuts into her hand; would crack the nuts, place the kernel in her hand, and drop the wet hulls upon the floor, looking as if they had been moistened by being cracked in the mouth. And all the time the witch was invisible. It has been known to take a cup of coffee out of Mrs. Bell's hand, turn it up as if drinking from it, when the coffee would disappear, the cup be replaced, without any having fallen upon the floor. At times, when the family and friends would be sitting round the fire, nuts and acorns would fall on the hearth, coming apparently from the flue of the chimney, but when any one would endeavor to pick them up, they could not be found. On one occasion a large dinner pot rolled down and out into the floor, and then disappeared, leaving not a greasy spot. At one time a vial of poison was found in the flue of the chimney, and being taken down. Dr. George B. Hopson gave one drop to a cat, causing its death in seven seconds. The witch claimed to have put the poison there for the purpose of killing Mr. Bell. Being asked how it was going to administer the poison, it said by pouring it into the dinner pot. It is remarkable that, although he enjoyed good health up to the time of this event, Mr. Bell died within days after the vial was found, being in a stupor at the time of his death. From this time the people visited the house less frequently, although the witch would now and then be heard. After Mrs. Bell's death, the house was unoccupied, no one being willing to live in it. It was not long afterward pulled down and the logs and other material removed. The barns, stables, and all other buildings were likewise removed, and the well filled up, leaving the apple orchard and a sycamore tree, which stood in the yard, to mark the spot where the Bell family once lived.

William Hawkins, who came to see it, entered the house when it was literally full of people. As he came, the witch said: "There comes Bill Hawkins, who killed a horse today!" It was true that he had that evening shot an old horse that had annoyed him for a long time by jumping into his fields, as Mr. Hawkins acknowledged at the time.

The foregoing is related by F. E. Miles, "William Pride, W. J. Gooch, Ben. B. Batts, and many others.

The witch could bark and lap like a dog, buzz like a swarm of bees, cackle like chickens, crow like a rooster, gobble and yelp like a turkey, quack like a duck, and imitate other animals. It could sing, preach and pray, and do many things to astonish the bystanders. One might rest an open penknife on his knee, point up, and the witch would slap down on the knee making a noise audible anywhere in the room. A neighbor woman, known to a number of living witnesses, having spoken in a crabbed, disrespectful manner of the said witch, it became indignant toward her, and proceeded to punish her by simply turning her dress over her head, twisting the same about as one would twist a meal or com sack, and apparently holding it with one hand, while it administered a severe chastisement by slapping her with the other open hand. The black marks were visible upon her arms and shoulders several days afterward. This was told me by a gentleman of well-known veracity, who saw the marks himself.

Another remarkable attribute of the witch was that it could be at three or more places, distant from each other two miles or more, at the same time, as evidenced by talking and otherwise making a noise by scratching on the beds or pulling off the coverlets or quilts. It shook hands with several men, upon one occasion, when one of the men made an effort to hold the hand of the witch and called for a light. Before the light could be brought the witch wrenched its hand from the man. The witch was angry at this act of impertinence and cursed and abused the man severely, and never afterwards had and confidence in him. The man, said he could feel the hand of the witch in his, but could neither see nor feel any arm round or about it. It has been known to throw rocks at people, to appear as a bear, rabbit and black dog, and in sundry other forms and characters.

"It called itself by three different names; to wit, "Three Waters," "Tynaperty," and "Black Dog" It also claimed that it was one of seven spirits, only three of whose names were given, as above.

Whatever may be thought of this remarkable nondescript, spirit, apparition, or whatever people may choose to call it, it certainly created no little excitement, not only in the County of Robertson, but in at least a half dozen States. We give the statements as we received them for what they are worth, but have no comments to make. The half has not been told; indeed, a volume might be written concerning this remarkable "Bell witch.*"

* (See 1 Sam. 28: 15-19.)

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Source: American Historical Magazine, Volume V, No. 1, editor W. R. Garrett, Peabody Normal College, Nashville, Tennessee, 1900.

 

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