Ghost stories are inherent with any culture. After all, who doesn’t love a good scare? There is, however, one story that stands out in American folklore. This story is of the spirit that plagued a family, shattering it, driving it across the country to seek refuge, only to dash its hopes yet again and leave the family a tattered ruin. This story is that of the Bell Witch.
As the legend goes, in the early 1800s there lived a man that went by the name of John Bell. He owned a plantation with slaves in old, old, North Carolina. One day, he killed one of his overseers over the his terrible and abusive treatment of Bell’s slaves. Then, that year, and the next, and the next, the crops were complete and horrible failures. His stock and cattle died by the droves to diseases the doctors had never seen and couldn’t begin to cure. Facing catastrophe, he sold all of his land and all of his slaves but one, an old woman, and moved with his family far away to Tennessee, not too far from where the retired Andrew Jackson was living, in fact.
Not long after the move, odd things began to occur, strange things. The children were often thrown from bed during the middle of the night, for no reason. The old woman said that it was the spirit of the overseer that had been killed, superstitiously. Then, supposedly, the old woman was attacked by the spirit in the dead of night, terrifying the family
Word got out, and, according to a site dedicated to the Bell Witch, even Andrew Jackson, a contemporary respected citizen of Tennessee and the eventual 7th president of the Union, heard about it and paid a visit:
After enduring much, the Mr. Bell suggested they move to Mississippi, to escape the witch. But then Mrs. Bell asked “What is to stop the witch just from followin’ us.”
“Nothin’, and if you leave off for Mississippi you would wish you hadn’t!” quipped a suddenly audible corner chair.
According to the Journal of American Folk Lore, these constant interjections into the Bell’s family life never ceased. But, however, when the family decided against moving to Mississippi, the witch became, tolerable, even friendly. It was almost as if it had taken to them since they decided not to move away. Even almost as if it was rewarding them.
However, since Mary, Mr. Bell’s daughter, had adamantly demanded the move to Mississippi, the witch was rough on her, going so far as to torment her in the night and ruining her hair when she was about to go out. The witch even plagued and harassed Mary’s romantic pursuers, driving them away from the Bell house.
With one, however, it was different. His name was Gardner. He and her were mighty set to one another, as the Journal stated it. The witch, in the form of a tree, stopped him, demanding that he leave and never to come back, or die.
“Why?” Gardner asked.
“You might have guessed from all that’s happened round here. I’m in love with her myself. It’s going to be hard to get her consent and it may be harder to get the old man’s. But she’s not going to marry you, I’ll see to that. If you open your mouth about it tonight, you’ll be dead as a door-nail before morning.”
He left, never to return or write. Some think that it was due to the fact he was terrified to wit’s end. That would not be too outlandish, to say the least.
Now, this is where the tale begins to fork. Eventually, the Bell’s, driven by crop failure, did move to Mississippi out of desperation. It did not take long for the witch to find them. It was chasing Mary. In the dead of night, it asked Mr. and Mrs. Bell for Mary’s hand in marriage. John Bell vehemently refused to allow a stack of dust and wind to marry his daughter. The ghost ignored his refusal, outright.
Almost immediately, there was a change for the worse in Mary. She got up later and went to bed earlier every day, increasingly so. She stumbled around, lost and confused looking. She seemed as if she was looking for something far off that she couldn’t quite grasp. Then, one day, she didn’t get up at all, for she had come down with fever. She became raving mad. The witch, in its unending devotion to her, actually got a doctor there, somehow, even though the witch told them, straightforwardly, that it would do no good.
A month went by, and she only got worse, and worse. The family, utterly helpless, merely waited and watched their daughter fade away before them.
In the words of the legend, one day, as Mrs. Bell sat with her, Mary sat up and said, “Mamma, I see him… at last… and I think… I’m going… to love him.”
She immediately expired, with an expression of happiness that they had not seen upon her face in months. Some believe that she went on to live with the witch, becoming a ghost herself. But, regardless, death is death.
This is the legend of the Bell Witch, or rather, the Mississippi legend. The differences between the states are in that one favors the witch being the caring yet obsessive lover of Mary, rather than her tormentor, torturer, and persecutor until her death. The former is the one most would rather believe, if any that is.
Bell Witch Legend’s Sign. Photograph. n.d. http://blaine.org/jules/bw2.jpg. Blaine.org. Web. Oct. 19, 2013.
The Bell Residence. Photograph. n.d. Mentalfloss. Web. Oct. 19, 2013.
Iwanttobelievexfiles. “President Andrew Jackson encounter with the Bell Witch.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, Aug. 4 2006. Web. Oct. 19 2013.
"Bell Witch." Bell Witch. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct ’13.<http://mtskeptics.homestead.com/BellWitch.html>.
Carrington, Hereward, Nandor Fodor, and August Derleth. "Haunted People: Story of the Poltergeist down the Centuries." Western Folklore 11.4 (1952): 296-97. JSTOR. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1496242?uid=3739896&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21102732366441>.
Fitzhugh, Pat. "The Bell Witch Haunting." The Legend of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
Knight, W.F. Jackson. "Origins of Belief." Folklore 74.1 (1963): 289-304. JSTOR. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.
Palmer, Arthur, Pete McCarter. “The Bell Witch of Tennessee and Mississippi: A Folk Legend” The Journal of American Folklore , Vol. 47, No. 183 (Jan. - Mar., 1934), pp. 45-63. Web. 9 Oct. 2013.
LINKS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH:
Attempts to debunk and challenge the folk tale.
An in depth overview of it, via a historical record.
Devoted to the myth of the witch and the cave associated with it.