Researchers call it America’s greatest ghost story, and you can still visit where it all happened.
Who tortured the Bell family 200 years ago, and why? It’s a question posed by historians across Tennessee and asked by tourists who still flock to the scene. But to unravel the mystery, you have to go back to the summer of 1817, where something was very, very wrong.
John Bell was walking his 360-acre farmland when he saw what he described as a rabbit-headed dog in the middle of his cornfield. He shot the strange creature several times and went in for dinner.
That night, Bell and his family heard chains rattling and phantom knocking. And the sounds got stronger each night — the children were awakened by the sound of rats gnawing on their bedposts and a voice singing hymns.
Scared of ridicule, John told his family to keep these happenings a secret for over a year. But when John’s youngest daughter Betsy woke up with welts and handprints on her face, he confided in his closest friend, James Johnston.
Johnston spent a night in Bell’s home, and sure enough, heard the same disturbing noises. People traveled far and wide to investigate for themselves. Word spread to Nashville, where Andrew Jackson (yes, that Andrew Jackson) wanted to witness the hoopla firsthand — but left when his carriage wheels mysteriously locked as soon as he got to the Bell’s farm.
As the story goes, the spirit eventually announced itself as Kate Batts, an eccentric woman who once lived near the property and blamed John for cheating her in a land deal. Whomever it was, it was there to kill him and stop Betsy from marrying a local boy named Joshua Gardner.
“Kate” became known as The Bell Witch, and over the next few years, John suffered choking attacks he described as a sharp stick wedged crossways in his mouth. He slipped into a coma and died Dec. 20, 1820. The family found a vial of poison in the room, which The Bell Witch proudly said she forced John to drink. Just three months later, Betsy broke off her engagement with Joshua.
Having completed her mission, The Bell Witch said goodbye but promised to return. And sure enough, in 1828, she paid a visit to John Bell Jr., and told him secrets about the past and future. Written accounts say she even predicted the Civil War with eerie accuracy.
The strange activity never left the Bell farm — and it spread to a cave just behind their property, where some people say the witch’s spirit still lives.
But was it really a spirit who tortured the Bell family all those years, or something far more sinister? According to manuscripts, some believe the manifestations were an elaborate ruse to break up Betsy and her fiancé Joshua.
Betsy ended up marrying her old schoolteacher Richard Powell, who developed a fondness for Betsy when she first entered his classroom years before. Soon after Richard befriended the Bell family, the hauntings began.
Rumor has it, he was a student of the occult, though this has never been confirmed. Plus, Powell’s first wife died in 1821, the same year Betsy ended her engagement.
Today, The Bell Witch is still blamed for unexplainable sights and sounds near the old Bell farm.
While the original farmhouse has long been gone, you can explore a recreation of the family’s cabin and take tours of The Bell Witch Cave, where historians and ghost-chasers alike have captured creepy recordings and photographs.
Go ahead, visit and see for yourself…we dare you.
All photos courtesy of The Official Home of the Historic Bell Witch Cave