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The ‘Bell Witch’ Poltergeist

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 38.1, January/February 2014

Called “America’s best-known poltergeist case,” Tennessee’s sensational “Bell Witch” affair of ca. 1817–1821 has gone unexplained, it is said, for two centuries (“The Bell Witch” 2006). Its most vocal proponent has called it “the greatest mystery and wonder that the world has any account of,” claiming it even surpasses the disturbances of the Epworth rectory poltergeist (Ingram 1894, 75–77, 315). (That was an early eighteenth-century case involving the Wesley family, among the children of which was the future founder of Methodism, John Wesley [Guiley 2000, 122–124].)

Dismissers and debunkers on the other hand (e.g., Hendrix 2006)—some of whom do not even list the story’s most essential text in their references—insist that most or all of the events never happened. What does an extensive investigation show?

The Witch Appears

Figure 1Figure 1. Joe Nickell explores a “haunted” cave on the historic Bell Witch property in northern Tennessee. (Author’s photo by Vaughn Rees.)

The primary narrative of the Bell Witch is “Our Family Trouble,” reportedly compiled by Richard Williams Bell (1811–1857) in 1846. It tells how Bell’s father, John Bell (1750–1820), having settled his family on a farm in Robertson County, Tennessee (Figure 1), was plagued by what would today be called poltergeist phenomena, beginning in about 1817. The Bell account was later greatly supplemented by a Clarksville newspaperman, M.V. Ingram (1832–1909), in 1894.

Briefly, the events began with mysterious knocks at the door and other rapping sounds, and soon included sleeping children having their hair pulled and bedcovers thrown off. Indeed, “Some new performance was added nearly every night, and it troubled Elizabeth more than any one else” (Bell 1846, 106). Elizabeth, or “Betsy” (who was twelve when the antics began), was sent to stay with various neighbors, “but,” says Bell (110), “it made no difference, the trouble followed her with the same severity.” The apparent spirit began to answer questions, first by means of the rapping sounds; then it began to speak—first in whispers, then in a feeble voice. As the voice gained strength, those who suspected Betsy of trickery accused her of ventriloquism (much as in the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, in which such deception was effectively discovered [Nickell 2012a]).

The Lost Treasure

Nevertheless, the Bell Witch went on to speak quite distinctly. As the story continues, after a skull and other bones were found to have been taken from an old grave nearby, the witch avowed herself the spirit of an early immigrant who had hidden his “treasure” for safekeeping. After certain pledges were made and urgency implored, “lest the secret should get out,” the location was specified as under a “great stone” near a spring at “the southwest corner” of the farm. Soon a group of men set to work at the site and eventually raised the stone. Finding no treasure, however, they continued digging until they had opened a hole about “six feet square and nearly as many feet deep.” Still they found nothing and were later mocked by the witch for being so easily fooled. Bell’s narrative continues through other adventures of the witch, including attacks on old John Bell himself. In one curious incident he had first one shoe jerked off, then, when it was replaced, the other flew off. The narrative culminates in his death—with suggestions that he was poisoned.

Secrets Revealed

Now, this rather implausible, seemingly pointless account takes on real significance if it is seen as representing—with a knowing wink from those in on the meaning—important tenets of Freemasonry. Mystic Arthur Edward Waite in his authoritative A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1970, 1:366), defines Masonry as “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” (An allegory is an extended metaphor in which its components carry one or more meanings in addition to the seemingly literal one; a symbol is something that stands for something else.) Waite (1970, 1:367) stresses that in Masonic stories and rituals, “the significance is in the allegory which may lie behind it.”

Among its deepest spiritual concerns, Masonry focuses on the Mystery of Death, whereby “the Mason is taught how to die” (Waite 1970, 1:174), utilizing symbols such as the skull and the grave. Masonry’s Secret Vault symbolism pertains to the grave, buried treasure, and lost secrets—secrets that in the end remain lost (see Lester 1977, 181; Nickell 2001, 219–234). Much of Masonic symbolism is based on the stonemason’s trade, and the Rough Ashlar—a stone in its original form—symbolizes man’s natural state of ignorance (Mackey 1975, 320). Masonic rituals focus on the death of Hiram, master mason and architect of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:13, 40), whose allegorical grave measured 6'x6'x6'—the cube in Masonry being a symbol of truth. (Significantly, in Bell’s account of the treasure search, the cube is not quite completed [120].) In Masonry, Hiram’s name is Hiram Abif, whose legend—including his murder—represents “the dogma of the immortality of the soul” (Mackey 1975, 339).

The Bell Witch treasure tale seems rife with Masonic symbolism. The location of the treasure at “the southwest corner” of the farm corresponds to “the South-West corner” of the Masonic Lodge. This is one of the four stations that the “hoodwinked” (blindfolded) initiate is ritualistically conducted to in the second, or Fellow Craft degree (in a search for light), being opposite to the starting and ending point (Lester 1977, 91). Near the end of “Our Family Troubles,” the most peculiar incident in which old John Bell has first one then the other of his shoes pulled off, presumably by the witch (176), surely invokes the Masonic Rite of Discalceation—from the Latin discalceare, to pluck off one’s shoes. One does this when approaching a consecrated place (Mackey 1975, 125–129; Lester 1977, 40–41). In the Bell narrative, the pledges the men make and their agreement to maintain secrecy evoke the Masonic society’s penchant for secrecy. So does the section “The Mysterious Hand Shaking” (in which people purport to shake hands with the witch), suggesting the Masons’ secret handshake (Morgan 1827, 105–110). At one point “Bell” (107) speaks of receiving “a sudden jerk, which raised me,” indicating the Masonic ceremony of being raised (to Master Mason status) in which, at one point, the candidate is “suddenly jerked backward” (Lester 1977, 163). And so on. References in the Bell narrative to “signs” (170), knocks at the door (104), “mauls” (159), and many more, also have their counterparts in the secret symbols, rituals, and language of Freemasonry (Lester 1977, 22, 47, 143).

Questioned Authorship

I find the parallels (e.g., the size and cubical shape of the vault) to be too many and too specific for coincidence. Moreover, there are additional apparent Masonic allusions in the portions of the story later penned by Ingram, into which Bell’s “Our Family Trouble” is sandwiched. Ingram was a longstanding Freemason who was buried in 1909 “under Masonic auspices” (“Obituary” 1909). Indeed, the evidence indicates Ingram actually wrote the narrative attributed to Bell!

The alleged Bell manuscript has no proven existence before about 1891, and, so far as we know, is today nowhere available to be examined as to its paper, ink, and handwriting. It appears to exist only as a text—and that written by Ingram.

First of all, the “Bell” narrative—which was purportedly expanded from a “diary” as well as supplemented “from memory” in 1846, but pretends to describe events decades earlier—contains apparent anachronisms. For example, it seems written in the context of modern spiritualism—which did not flourish until the decades after 1848 when the Fox Sisters sparked new interest in supposed spirit communication (Nickell 2001, 194).

Also the frequent references to private detectives—as in “a professional detective” and “the detective business” (Bell 1846, 143, 144)—are anachronistic for 1817–1821 given that the word detective did not originate until about 1840 and then in England as an adjective, and the earliest known use of the noun in America appears to be 1853. About that time Allan Pinkerton created the country’s first agency of private detectives (Nickell 2013). Of course these indications are highly suggestive that the “Bell” narrative is of much later vintage, consistent with authorship by Ingram.

Ingram as ‘Bell’

Moreover, “Bell” and Ingram often use the same distinctive expressions—both, for example, referring to the events as “high carnivals” (Bell 1846, 132; Ingram 1894, 34). “Bell” refers to the occurrences as representing “the greatest of all secrets” and “the great mystery” (1846, 130–131, 185), and Ingram calls it “this greatest of all mysteries” and “the greatest mystery and wonder that the world has any account of” (1894, 6, 315). Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize old John Bell in the same words—the “Bell” text saying he “was always forehanded, paid as he went” (1846, 102), and Ingram writing, “He paid as he went. . . . He was always forehanded” (1894, 37). It could be argued that Ingram was simply influenced by Bell, but Ingram uses “forehanded” elsewhere (1894, 62), and there are many more stylistic similarities, as we shall see.

Both “Bell” and Ingram use multi-page paragraphs (e.g., Bell 1846, 104–112; Ingram 1894, 38–43). Also, both texts contain sentences of over a hundred words (Bell 1846, 143–144; Ingram 1894, 206). Although Bell was a farmer, the text attributed to him is rife with learned words (like personation, declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity [Bell 1846, 122, 126, 127]), just like writer Ingram’s (e.g., lodgement, unregenerated, indomitable, mordacity, and alacrity [Ingram 1894, 10, 4, 35, 189, 213]).

The “Bell” text frequently promotes the Bible and Christianity (1846, e.g., 121–123, 126, 173, 178), as does Ingram’s writing (1894, 19, 33–34, 36, 43, 86–87). Both use literary allusions, with “Bell” (1846, 171) citing evil spirits driven “out of the man into the swine” (See Mark: 5–13), and Ingram (1894, 67) referring to a spirit “from the vasty deep” (an allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I [III. i. 52]). “Bell,” in wondering at length, regarding old John Bell, “if there was any hidden or unknown cause why he should have thus suffered” (1846, 173), evokes the Book of Job (e.g., Job 10:2–18), and Ingram’s imperative to “observe the warning on the wall, whether it be written by the hand of the spectre, or indicted by the finger of conscience” (1894, 101), clearly alludes to Belshazzar’s feast and the famous story of the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5). And there are additional literary elements.

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 [Bovée and Thill 1989, 126]) shows that “Bell” and Ingram had comparable reading levels. These were respectively 14.3 and 14.4, indicating the number of years’ education required to read the passage easily—and presumably to write it. The levels, which are close, are high, placing each at the sophomore level of college. This is not surprising for writer Ingram, but for rural farmer Bell it would seem unlikely (although Ingram says he was “cultured” [1894, 43]), adding to the inference that Ingram could have written “Bell.”

Some shared writing features are also consistent with single authorship of both texts. For instance both occasionally use myself for I (Bell 1846, 149, 150; Ingram 1894, 14), and that for who (Bell 1846, 117; Ingram 1894, 82). Also, both are sometimes guilty of comma-splicing (Bell 1846, 139, 145; Ingram 1894, 193, 196), and incorrect use of the question mark (Bell 1846, 126; Ingram 1894, 32) as well as the semicolon (Bell 1846, 144, 171; Ingram 1894, 37, 187). And both sometimes commit subject-verb agreement errors (Bell 1846, 156; Ingram 1894, 189, 190).

Given all of these similarities be­tween the texts, in addition to the other evidence, I have little hesitation in concluding that Ingram was the author of “Bell.”

Folklore vs. Fakelore

This does not mean that the entire Bell Witch story is bogus, but it does warn that its central source may be largely fiction. Unfortunately, some other sources given by Ingram are also doubtful. For example, he claims that The Saturday Evening Post published a lengthy account of the case “about 1849” (Ingram 1894, 218), but an online search by CFI Director of Libraries Tim Binga failed to turn up any such article in 1849 (issues for which are complete) or indeed the 1840–1860 period (although there are some missing issues). A colorful account of General Andrew Jackson having paid a visit to the Bell farm at the time of the alleged incidents, told by a Tennessee lawyer (Ingram 1894, 229–238), lacks support from any known historical source. (Jackson was a prominent Freemason [“Masonic” 2013].)

Although some have claimed the story to be at once a “legend” (folklore) and a work of complete “fiction” (fakelore) by Ingram (a contradiction in terms1), the basic story does actually predate Ingram’s 1894 book by several years. Its outlines are given in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee (1886):

A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The freaks it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. . . .

In two chapters of his book titled “Recollections and Testimonials,” Ingram presents the statements of numerous “Citizens Whose Statements Authenticate the History of the Bell Witch.” Unfortunately, many of those attesting—including forty-three signers from Cedar Hill—are only stating that several men mentioned by Ingram were early settlers and “trustworthy”; their collective statement makes no mention of the Bell Witch claims (1894, 292–293).

However, several other persons, writing in 1891–1894—including Charles W. Tyler, Mahala Darden, Rev. James G. Byrns, Nancy Ayers, Joshua W. Featherston, R.H. Pickering, John A. Gunn, Zopher Smith, James I. Holman, W.H. Gardner, and A.E. Gardner—all claim to have heard stories about the Bell Witch directly from reliable persons since deceased (Ingram 1894, 251–308). At least one, John A. Gunn, makes clear that he has recently seen the alleged Richard Williams Bell manuscript, “Our Family Trouble,” and that he had heard his father, both grandfathers, and others relate incidents that confirm the general accuracy of the manuscript. (This rather suggests that newspaperman Ingram sent advance printed copies to persons from whom he was soliciting testimonials, and thus no doubt influenced their memories.) It does seem unlikely that Ingram would have fabricated the testimonials of so many persons still living, or that they would have knowingly endorsed a deception.

Conclusions

If, therefore, as some evidence indicates, there were indeed some poltergeist-like incidents at the Bell farm—beginning about 1817 and mostly ending soon after the death of Betsy’s father, John Bell, in 1820—it is still difficult to say exactly what occurred and therefore how to explain the events.2

Fortunately, skeptics do not have the burden to disprove that for which there is uncertain evidence. As best we can tell from the secondhand accounts of those still alive when Ingram composed his fictionalized, allegorical text in 1894, the events centered around Betsy Bell. Indeed, Ingram (1894, 247) admits that many of Betsy’s contemporaries suspected her at the time, “charging her with the authorship of the mystery.” This is also stated by others who provided alleged information to him, including Lucinda E. Rawls and Mahala Darden (Ingram 1894, 238–240, 261).

As with other “poltergeist” cases, the Bell Witch story sounds suspiciously like an example of “the poltergeist-faking syndrome” in which someone, typically a child, causes the mischief (Nickell 2012b, 331). As the term suggests, while science has never confirmed a single poltergeist, again and again cases occur in which such phenomena are faked by the disturbed or immature. n


Acknowledgments

CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan helped considerably with this research, as did CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga.

Notes

1. A legend is “a traditional tale believed to have a historical basis” (Axelrod and Oster 2000, 303).

2. For a critical analysis of the case at face value, see Fodor 1951.

References

Axelrod, Alan, and Harry Oster. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. New York: Penguin Reference.

Bell, Richard Williams. 1846? “Our Family Trouble”: The Story of the Bell Witch as Detailed by Richard Williams Bell. Alleged authorship and date; given in Ingram 1894, 101–186.

The Bell Witch. 2006. Online at http://paranormal.about.com/od/trueghoststories/a/aa041706.htm; accessed May 9, 2006.

Bovée, Courtland L., and John V. Thill. 1989. Business Communication Today, 2nd ed. New York: Random House.

Fodor, Nandor. 1951. The Bell Witch, in Hereward Carrington and Nandor Fodor, Haunted People, New York: Dutton, 142–72.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 2nd ed. New York: Checkmark Books.

Hendrix, Grady. 2006. Little Ghost on the Prairie, Slate Magazine, May 4. Online at http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2006/05/Little_ghost_on_the_prairie.html.

Ingram, M.V. 1894. Authenticated History of the Bell Witch and Other Stories of the World’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon. Reprinted, Adams, Tennessee: Historic Bell Witch Cave, Inc., 2005.

Lester, Ralph P. 1977. Look to the East! A Ritual of the First Three Degrees of Masonry. Chicago: Ezra A. Cook Publications.

Mackey, Albert G. 1975. The Symbolism of Freemasonry. Chicago: Charles T. Posner Co.

Masonic Presidents Tour. 2013. Online at http://www.pagrandlodge.org/mlam/presidents/jackson.html; accessed Oct. 21, 2013.

Morgan, Capt. William. 1827. Illustrations of Masonry; reprinted Chicago: Ezra A. Cook Publications, n.d.

Nickell, Joe. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

———. 2012a. Enfield Poltergeist. Skeptical Inquirer 36:4 (July/August), 12–14.

———. 2012b. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2013. “Detective: Uncovering the Mysteries of a Word.” Skeptical Inquirer 37:6 (November/December), 14–17.

Obituary of M.V. Ingram. 1909. Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, October 5; reproduced at http://bellwitch02.tripod.com/martin_van_buren_ingram.htm; accessed October 31, 2012.

Waite, Arthur Edward. 1970. A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, in two vols. New York: Weathervane Books.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.