MOST DOCUMENTED MANIFESTATION OF ITS KIND
"For nearly two centuries, this authentic haunting has been considered the greatest supernatural phenomenon in the history of mankind. The people, places, and dates are real – and Tennessee farmer John Bell is the only man in history whose death was directly attributed to a Spirit."
. . . Pat Fitzhugh, The Bell Witch. Published in 2000, it was the latest in a dozen such works by various authors.
"According to legend his family was harried during the early 19th century by the famous Bell Witch. She kept the household in turmoil, assaulted Bell, and drove off Betsy Bell’s suitor. Even Andrew Jackson who came to investigate, retreated to Nashville after his coach wheels stopped mysteriously".
. . . The State of Tennessee in a gray metal, roadside plaque on Route 41 in Adams, Tennessee
ONLY WITNESS TO RECORD INCIDENT IS HARDLY CREDIBLE
What we found was quite to the contrary. After searching archives for fundamental records, we located only one report from a person who actually witnessed the incident. It appeared that all of the other so-called evidence had been derived either from this one basic narrative or from questionable and often fictionalized hearsay.
Our only eyewitness to the story was provided by Richard Bell, the second youngest son of John Bell, through his diary, "Our Family Trouble". Born in 1811, he was only six years old when the bizarre events of 1817 to 1820 began. Living in a community in an era steeped in superstition, he had to have found it difficult at this highly suggestive age to differentiate fantasy from reality. Like most youngsters, his mind would have been a willing and non-critical reservoir for fairy tales and monster stories, believing almost everything.In 1846, over a quarter of a century later, he wrote of his experiences in his diary. We imagined him trying to remember that traumatic time so long ago. He would have recalled sleeping with many of his seven siblings in one big bed, while his eleven-year old sister manifested serious behavioral problems, not too dissimilar from psychosis. Painfully, he would have winced, remembering her screams as the covers flew off the bed and then, with all the innocence of a child, accepting her tale that a ghost did it. Isolated on a frontier farm, his perception of what actually happened would have been naïve and fanciful. His interpretation of his youthful memories would have been as clouded as they were when he was a child and attempted to comprehend perceptions beyond his ken.
MYSTERIOUS DIARY OF CHILDHOOD FANTASIES NEVER FOUND AGAIN
In 1857 he gave the diary to his son Allen, who, in turn, entrusted it to his personal friend, Martin Ingram, with the proviso that nothing could be made public until after the deaths of the immediate family. Finally in 1880, nearly two generations after the turmoil, Ingram began to research and document the incident. In the preface of his book he rationalized this interim as concern for the privacy of a deeply religious family that had already been seriously maligned by this unholy occurrence. Although a reasonable and sympathetic consideration, that passage of time also made it nearly impossible for others to formulate and validate any counterpoint.Ingram owned and operated the newspaper, the Clarksville Tobacco Leaf. His bibliography specifically stated that he was not a trained journalist and that his partners had primary responsibility for that function. His job was to print and "sell" newspapers. How much of that mindset influenced his 1894 book, "The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch?" As related issue, how much editing did Bell family members or Ingram do to make the diary suitable for inclusion in his book? We will never know since the original has been lost to time.
LIARS CASH IN ON THE TALE
Ingram wove his tale using strands of oral tradition and excepts from the diary. With supposedly actual con-versations and quotations by witnesses, his rendition read like a first-hand account. In the appendix he contrived to substantiate its authenticity with a list of testimonials from a dozen notable and credible local citizens. It was a valueless gimmick in that they did not and could not testify to the credulity of his anecdotal evidence. They were character witnesses for his interviewees. By 1880 no one was alive who was directly involved. Neverthe-less, because of its seemingly scientific and journalistic presentation, his work was accepted as factual and became the primary reference for every subsequent publication.
At the time Ingram published his account he was a member of a "Liars Club." The goal of each member was to fashion a tale with such design as to convince all readers of its veracity. Was the Bell Witch a product of his attempt to be the best liar? His book seems to have the markings of a great invention.
In 2000 another Bell Witch author, Brent Monahan, used the term "faction" to describe his book as a fic-tional work based on facts. In a manner similar to Ingram, he claimed to base his story on a major diary - that of Richard Powell, the schoolteacher for the Bell children and the husband to Betsy, the psychotic sister. Even though Monahan was more honest than Ingram about the veracity of his tale, he did take his liberties. He fabri-cated the Powell diary. It never existed. The only document in existence with Powell’s handwriting was his Cipher book, which was now in the Tennessee State Archives. In his extensive scribbling in its margins, Powell did comment on the Bells, but he noted nothing unusual.However, in 2008 Monahan's book was released as the movie, "The American Haunting," which continued the standard ploy of claiming the movie was based on a "true" story, which was its ultimate lie. Virtually nothing in this movie tells the little bit of history we do know about John Bell and his family.
NO INDEPENDENT RECORD FOR THE BELL WITCH
Prior to the Ingram book there were only two known written reports of the occult activities in Adams: a brief paragraph in 1886 by historian Albert Goodpasture in "Goodspeed History of Tennessee" and an article in 1849 by the "Saturday Evening Post".
Goodpasture said nothing more definitive than, "A remarkable occurrence, which attracted widespread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled in what is now known as Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifesta-tions of what was popularly known as the ‘Bell Witch’."
In the case of the "Post" article, no modern researcher has found anything associated it. Ingram claimed that the magazine blamed the entire phenomenon on Betsy, she threatened to sue, and they issued a public retraction. Certainly, if true, that interaction would have created at least one record for posterity.
Writing paper was scarce in frontier Tennessee. The absence of written records may not have unequivocally discredited the legend, but it did make me wonder, if Goodpasture didn’t exaggerate, there should be researchable documents. No matter how primitive Adams was, there were newspapers in an area that includes Nashville. Nothing exists.
There were written records about John Bell: notes in the minutes of the Red River Baptist Church, at which he was an elder; and, records in court trial in nearby Springfield, at which he was successfully sued for usury. These events led to Bell’s excommunication from the Baptist Church in January of 1818. Neither record hinted of the Bell Witch affair.Lastly, we doubted the comment on the Tennessee road plaque about the involvement of the 7’th President of the United States. Because of his spectacular victory in the battle of New Orleans in 1815, Andrew Jackson was a household name. Why would the newspapers ignore his visit to Adams with a large entourage to challenge the Witch? Why was there no record in Jackson’s personal journals? Similarly, we can’t imagine how there would not have been derisive comments about his reported retreat from the Witch in his 1824 and 1828 presidential campaigns that were so viscous that Jackson believed scandalous accusations made during them led to the death of his beloved wife, Rachel.
INGRAM'S STORY NEVER VERIFIED
Until recently, most of the books on the Bell Witch were motivated in some manner by a member of the Bell family. The 1894 Ingram book was solicited by Joel, the son of Richard Bell, and contained mostly hearsay of the descendents of Bell’s closest friends. The 1934 book, "The Bell Witch: A Mysterious Spirit" was written by great-grandson son Dr Charles Bell, who obtained notes of private conversations John Bell, Jr claimed to have had with the Witch in 1828. He had dictated them to his son Dr. Joel Thomas Bell. There has been no other first-hand records to substantiate or refute any of the legend. It seemed just too self-serving not to be questioned.All of the half-dozen other major books or articles on the Bell Witch have added no significant information. Everything in this so-called "most documented" case had the one fundamental reference exploited over and over again - the book of Ingram. Was it based of three generations of campfire stories and the fantasies of a child, or was it the ultimate liar's club con? Our guess is Ingram deserves the Liar's Club prize. He continues to this day to deceive and has a whole cadre of disciples anxious to cash in on his tale.
Ingram's book includes a long list of credible witnesses who seemt o attest to occurrence of many of the reported events. Ingram appears to present an overwhelming case. However, not one person on his list personally observed any aspect of the legend itself. They are only character witnesses for the people who Ingram claims saw the haunting. We already know President Jackson was a no show.
Ingram's witnesses, in order of significance, are:
- General Andrew Jackson, 7'th President of the US
- Joel Thomas Bell, son of an John Bell, Jr., primary source of the Ingram account
- Rev. Joshua Featheton, personal friend of Baptist Ministers mentioned in legend
- Dr. J.T. Mathews, personal friend of Miles & Porter, intimately involved in the story
- Mr. E. Newton, personal friend of Baptist Ministers mentions in legend
- R.H. Pickering, son of Major G. Perkering who personally kicked witch out of bed
- J. Gunn,son of Rev. Alex Gunn who was prominent in the legend
- D. T. Porter, son of Porter who was prominent in the story
- J.I Holman, friend of Polk who was a neighbor to the Bells
- Wm Wall, attests to Uncle Billy Wall's experience with the witch
- W.H. Gardner, verifies Uncles Joshua Gardner's experience