“For Whom the Bell Toils” (Tennessee witch)


According to legend, a farm family near Adams, Tenn., was tormented in the 1810s by a ghost or similar spirit that came to be known as the Bell Witch. She assaulted familial patriarch John Bell and caused the dissolution of the engagement of his daughter, Betsy. Among the curious visitors who came to investigate was Andrew Jackson, who like most everyone else got spook and high-tailed it out of there. During the multi-year ordeal, furniture slammed into walls and other objects, while shrieking, staccato laughs and demented songs were heard. The apparition entered bedrooms and pulled both hair and sheets during the terrifying nights.

The spirts was not just spooky, but deadly, as the demise of John Bell is attributed directly to the Witch. Family member discovered him deceased one early morning in 1820 with a vial of undetermined liquid next to him in bed. The witch taunted the grieving family members with an admission that she had done it.

The nightmare Started when John saw a hideous dog-rabbit hybrid one night. This odd encounter was followed in the next few days by scratches at the doors and windows, sounds that next moved inside. What began as whispers grew louder and became a disembodied female voice that sang hymns, quoted scriptures, and proved capable of carrying on a conversation, unlike most ghosts, who can only moan or utter disjointed communication via a medium.

However, these tales are almost exclusively from one source, which itself has little in the way of substantiation, documentation, or backup, That work is the Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, written by Martin Ingram in 1894, 75 years after the eerie events. The terrifying tome is based entirely upon the supposed diary of John Bell’s son, Richard. Richard was 6 when the trials started but wrote nothing down for 30 years, and died soon after doing so. However, Ingram never produced the diary, which seems to have disappeared like Mormonism’s golden plates. The alleged Bell manuscript had never been referenced until Ingram mentioned it in 1891, more than 30 years after the putative author’s death.

In his book, Ingram claims the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. But investigators searching for the article never found it. Researcher Jack Cook poured over microfilm of the periodical for several years on either side of 1849 and found no such article. Like the diary, this alleged source has yet to be verified.

Other than Ingraham’s writings, the story of John Bell’s murder at the hands of the Bell Witch was never described in any published account, nor was a future president identified as leaving the Battle of New Orleans to go ghost hunting.

Another issue with the disappearing diary is that its vernacular parallels Ingram’s’ writing. In the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell noted several consistencies that seem too voluminous and exact to be coincidental.

Bell and Ingram both made reference to the witching events as “high carnivals” and “the greatest of all secrets.” Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize John Bell as “always forehanded, paid as he went.”

Additionally, both authors use multi-page paragraphs consisting of sentences that ramble for more than 100 words. And both use distinctive words (or possibly non-words), such as declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity, lodgement, unregenerated, and mordacity. Both also reference the same Biblical stories. Nickell wrote, “Applying to samples of both texts a standard readability formula based on the average length of independent clauses together with the number of words of three or more syllables shows that ‘Bell’ and Ingram had reading levels….at the sophomore level of college.”

So the Bell Witch might make for a good story, but not good history. Ingram would have been better off using it as inspiration to pen an admitted work of fiction rather than trying to pass it off as the documenting of an actual occurrence.

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