The following analysis of the Bell Witch Legend is provided by Jack Cook of Nashville, TN in October 2006 and updated in January 2008. You can find his entire report at http://bellwitchlegend.blogspot.com/
"It is not the purpose of this writer to present a romance for the entertainment of lovers of fiction, nor to establish a theory to please the fancy of adherents of so-called theosophy, but simply to record events of historical fact, sustained by a powerful array of incontrovertible evidence, as it comes to hand, testifying to the most wonderful phenomenon the world has any account of: a visitation known as the "Bell Witch" …….
And, thus begins the novel by Martin Van Buren Ingram in the preface of the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch" published in 1894. Yet, in all those years since Mr. Ingram released his publication, the story itself has generated mostly the opposite appeal, namely that of being a "romance for entertainment." Despite serious attempts at explaining the story at hand, most of the published attempts at analyzing the content of the story have ended up without a complete or scholarly basis. My admission is that I also presented some data in my original paper as if it were self-evident fact. Let's face it; historical facts are not self-evident. They have to be backed up.
Before it can be taught as history, there must be some actual historical or documented basis by which an event can be traced to its origins. In the academic world this one rule has given us much of the truth behind history that was either wrongly publicized or reported erroneously by newspapers or magazines. The purpose of popular media is to report, but it is also to sell papers and advertisements and to support the mandates of a community. Unfortunately, the truth is not always forthcoming, but when events happen that sell papers, you can generally find mention of the event during the period in which it occurred.
As of this notation on The Spirit of Red River it has been over twenty-five years since I decided to tackle the formidable job of researching the real and verifiable history of the legend of the "Bell Witch." After collecting thousands of documents and visiting all of the known locations where the family, and supposedly, the story happened, my research slowed significantly.
As of this date I actually have enough data to draw many reasonable conclusions about the reality (or unreality as-it-were) of the Bell Witch story. Generally speaking, people do not want to hear about what issues scholarly research leads to. That's OK. The details are exhausting, and even the most serious researchers on the subject do not seem to have access to the data that would make this legend a reality. At this point, I seriously doubt that they ever will. However, in the spirit of the serious researcher, I continue to keep an open mind. In the face of so many other more important distractions of the world, legends are intellectual entertainment that are fun to play with, but rarely significant in a broader sense. So, every once in awhile I put some time into the Bell Spirit project to see what new information comes up.
At this point in our research the facts have spoken for themselves many times. Several university researchers have contacted me over the years with some very well thought out and professionally researched data. They were especially kind in sharing their insights and tremendously familiar with newspapers and journalism of the 1800's. We traded information that significantly filled in the history of Martin Van Buren Ingram, and thus gave us some very good ideas concerning his reasons for writing the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch."
So, for the information of those folks who remain interested, here are some facts that you may or may not want to hear from me. Due to the nature of distortion on the internet, I will not include a bibliography here.
The information on Andrew Jackson given in the "Authenticated History" is incorrect. Simply put, in 1819 Major General Andrew Jackson accompanied President James Monroe on a tour of the Western Armies of the United States that ended in Lexington Kentucky. This tour occurred during the period in which Ingram tells of Jackson's encounter with the Bell Witch. (Ingram never actually revealed the date, but we must assume by real history that it was in 1819). Despite his public popularity, Major Jackson almost failed to make the tour due to a major illness and declining health. He had recently escaped official censure by the United States Congress for unauthorized actions he had taken on a military campaign, and was advised not to accompany the President through the state of Georgia where he was not welcome. Jackson had also admonished the President to allow him a peaceful retirement. Monroe declined. Upon returning home, he remained bed ridden for some time in recovery. At no other documented time from 1814 to 1820 was Jackson in the Springfield area for any reason (even though records from the clerk reveal that he did indeed own tracts of land in Robertson County as did many absentee speculators of the period). Actual letters and documentation freely available from the Library of Congress and several published histories, especially those of Congressional Historian, Dr. Robert Remini, verify these events. The only major event in Robertson County that happened during Jackson's return to Nashville was the dedication of the new courthouse in Springfield. There were no newspaper accounts that Jackson was present for that event.
Based on all of my research into so many aspects of the story, and based upon who M. V. Ingram represented to the area of Robertson and Montgomery County, I must conclude that there is very strong evidence that Ingram (and possibly other uncredited authors) put together a very believable set of characters, and events that were engineered to attract a specific audience around Middle Tennessee and perhaps beyond. After in-depth discussions with several serious academic historians, it became obvious to me that the burden of proof for the haunting of the family of John Bell, Sr. now resides with any person who is holding actual written proof concerning para-psychological events in Red River legitimately recorded prior to 1886.
As in any story based on ONE inclusive work such as the "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch", I have attempted to discover newspaper stories or written documents which date prior to 1893 (the year of the book's printing) in order to discover an angle of thought beyond that of Ingram, perhaps acting as a possible verification of the incident. Discounting the advertisements announcing the publication of the book just prior to its release, as of this update I have only found one printed reference to the Bell Witch from the year 1886 (and I very strongly suspect that it was written or dictated by Ingram, though the source is not listed in Goodspeed's History).
Most of the later related newspaper articles I have seen between 1886 and shortly after the publication of the "Authenticated History" were composed to incite interest in Ingram's novel.
Searching microfilmed newspapers is very, very time consuming. One generally has to know the year in which an article appeared to prevent an endless search. Pages or even whole issues may be missing or unrecoverable from the file. Sections may also be in such poor condition as to be unreadable. One instance of this difficulty was a reference made twice in the "Authenticated History" to an article written in the Saturday Evening Post during the year 1849. This particular article supposedly made certain accusations of such a nature that Elizabeth Bell threatened to sue the publication. There is no evidence available in the official record because Ingram states that the Post was never brought to court. Despite a very thorough search of rare microfilmed copies of the Post for that and many years on both sides of 1849, I have so far not been able to find that article. The search is made particularly difficult due to the destruction by an accidental fire of all known archival copies of the Saturday Evening Post for all of the years in question. The only remaining microfilmed copies were made from poor and sometimes almost unreadable copies of the publication. Despite claims about a published date from some researchers, no one has yet come forward with its actual location. I am almost certain the Post article does not exist.
The other researchers with whom I spoke also verified that they had discovered no articles on the Bell Witch prior to 1886 in any of the newspapers they had studied. And, this despite Ingram's assurance in his novel that short newspaper articles had been written and published in past years. I have personally never come across those articles either.
Another example of Ingram's literary stealth is his mention in the "Authenticated History" of a court case involving Thomas Clinard and Richard Burgess in the alleged murder of a Mr. Smith near Cedar Hill (just down the road from Adams). Smith, a strange and bothersome person, was supposed to have claimed some rapport with the Bell Witch that gave him power over other people (ie. mesmerism) that he used without permission on Clinard and Burgess. Playing for sympathy with the jury, the defense attorney managed to get the case dismissed against both men.
Although it was supposed to have been such a highly publicized case, there are no mentions of the case at all in local newspapers, and court records in the Robertson County Archives shed no light on the case except for the presence of sketchy notes left there concerning the defendants and their attorney.
I must also point out that much of the information about individuals who are considered central to the story have erroneous or incorrect information attributed to them throughout Ingram's book.
And, finally, one must consider the inaccuracies of the description of John Bell in the so-called "diary" of Richard Williams Bell. Some of Richard Bell's authoritative comments about his father can be reasonably refuted by checking official records along with the detailed accounts included in the Minutes of the Red River Baptist Church. Did John Bell's son intentionally lie or color the truth about his father? Did Ingram pen the diary? Did someone other than a Bell family relative submit the diary? The obvious and truthful answer is that Ingram was responsible for the diary whether it is authentic or not.
So, we are left with this thought: when one approaches such a challenge with the intent of proof, there are a specific set of rules that historians must abide by in order to verify the details of our past.We must, for the present, conclude that there is very strong evidence to indicate that the Legend of the Bell Witch is just that .... a legend. And, a very strong legend at that! Like the best of writers, the story fashioned by Ingram contains most of the elements of life that tug at the emotional heartstrings of the masses. Ingram and his collaborators have played our tune for more than one hundred years, and a book that could have easily been forgotten after its introduction has spawned a modern haunting that continues to intrigue and mystify us to this very day. And, in like manner, the broadcast media will continue to mold the legend to fit the evening news. Though it makes poor journalism, a legend makes wonderful entertainment. Even one that has so few visible remnants
Items on this page are excerpted from Jack Cook's web page (see the link above) and contain of materials Mr. Cook has provided. Please consider them copyrighted materials which you should not reproduce without written authorization from Jack Cook.
... Thank you, MT Skeptics.
Subject: Change of address , Date: 1 October 2008
As you know, I have published my paper concerning the Bell Witch Legend, "The Spirit of Red River" on the AOL Hometown network system for many years. Yesterday I received notification that the AOL Hometown network will be deleted and discontinued as of the end of October.
Since my paper will be deleted along with the network, I have moved the paper to "e blog" and changed the appearance a bit. I believe it looks better than the AOL version. I'll be tweaking the appearance and adding photos or graphics as I get the time.
Therefore, I am requesting that you change my link on your web pages to this new link address:
Sorry for the inconvenience. However, I'm certain I can make the reader's experience a bit more pleasurable with the formating tools on "e blog," and it's unlikely that e blog will be dropping its service for many years to come.
Many of you have written telling me that you found the information on my web page both interesting and useful. I have also received many e-mails from folks who found my web page through your sites. Thank you so much for continuing to carry my link. If you discover any problems, or if you have any suggestions, please do not hesitate to let me know.
Best regards and Happy Halloween,Jack Cook, Nashville, TN.