The Bell Witch Cave is perhaps the most famous and well documented paranormal encounter of the 19th century. How on earth did the future president Andrew Jackson get into a supernatural confrontation with a ghost witch?
The Bell Witch
The Bell Witch was a poltergeist phenomenon in the early 1800s that plagued a family living northwest of Nasvhille, Tennessee. The encounters centered around the Bell family which consisted of John Bell and Lucy Bell who were the parents of Betsey and Drew Bell.
One night in 1817, John Bell noticed what seemed like a spectral dog near their home. When he pulled out his gun and fired at the creature, it immediately disappeared. A slave of the Bell family, named Dean, would also see the same dog following him on walks to see his wife.
A few days later, young Drew Bell saw a huge bird sitting on a fence post that flew away. Drew described the bird as being of an “extraordinary size”.
Shortly after this, Betsey Bell saw a young girl in a green dress swinging from a rope attached to a large oak tree.
Around this time, the Bell family started to notice that the poltergeist was starting to disturb the house. They would hear dogs fighting inside the home but no dogs were inside or outside. They also began to hear scratching sounds, as if something was clawing the beds. Shortly afterward, John Bell’s mouth became paralyzed and he could not speak.
This is when the encounters began to physically affect the family. The entity started pulling the sheets off the bed, scratching their skin, pinching and slapping them. Betsey began to attract most of the attention of the evil spirit.
As things began to spiral increasingly out of control, the Bell family turned to their neighbors for help. Over time, the spirit began to speak to everyone who was near the house. It referred to itself as Old Kate Batts’ witch and when asked what she was, the spirit responded:
I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.The Bell Witch
As the story began to spread, more and more people came to test the witch in various ways. The witch reportedly would leave while people were speaking to it and travel to other homes, return and repeat conversations heard in private. An English born man stopped by at one time who was skeptical of the entire thing. During the night, when his parents in England would be awake, the witch woke him and began speaking to him in his parents voices. They were worried about him because the witch had projected his voice to them in England and the witch was channeling their conversation in real time. He fled the house and apologized for his skepticism.
Andrew Jackson vs. the Bell Witch
Most of what we know about this story comes from a book published by a descendant of the Bell family in 1894 called An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch which used letters, witness testimony and other evidence to construct a detailed account of the circumstances. This would be enough to question the Andrew Jackson story had it not been mentioned repeatedly by people who knew him, well before the book was published.
History has not been kind to Andrew Jackson and rightfully so. He was responsible for horrific treatment of local indigenous populations and, in many ways, represented the Old South in the worst ways. However, he was by all accounts, not afraid of much.
Jackson grew up nearby, on the other side of Nashville. Having heard about the situation the Bell family was in, he ventured with some of his men to visit them and remedy the problem and brought with him a wagon full of supplies.
As they approached the family’s property, their wagon became stuck. Thinking there was a rock holding the wheel, the men jumped down to find that nothing at all was holding the wheel but the wagon was completely stuck. At this point, Jackson exclaimed:
By the eternal, boys, it is the witch.Andrew Jackson when Encountering the Bell Witch
The witch replied to Jackson:
All right General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again tonight.Bell Witch to Andrew Jackson
According to witnesses who heard the voice, it had a metallic quality and seemed to come from the bushes. Among Jackson’s men was a braggart who said that he was not afraid of the witch because he had experiences with witches before. The man was subsequently beaten by the witch and pulled out of the Bell house by the nose which amused Jackson greatly.
By the eternal, boys, I never saw so much fun in all my life. This beats fighting the British.Andrew Jackson regarding the Bell Witch
Presumably, at this point, Jackson and his men gave up on defeating the supernatural entity.
As the family became weary of attention and constant torment from the witch, they became increasingly desperate for it to stop. At some point, the witch indicated she would leave when Betsey Bell marries Joshua Gardner, who were engaged at the time. However, the engagement was broke off due to the constant interference of the witch.
The story seems to have ended with the death of John Bell. In an account from 1880, before the famous book was written, the Tennessee Historical Society published an account of how it played out.
At one time a vial of poison was found in the flue of the chimney, and being taken down, Dr. George B. Hopson gave one drop to a cat, causing its death in seven seconds. The witch claimed to have put the poison there for the purpose of killing Mr. Bell. Being asked how it was going to administer the poison, it said by pouring it into the dinner pot. It is remarkable that, although he enjoyed good health up to the time of this event, Mr. Bell died within days after the vial was found, being in a stupor at the time of his death. From this time the people visited the house less frequently, although the witch would now and then be heard.Sketch of Robertson County by the Tennessee Historical Society
According to one report, the witch laughed and sang drinking songs during John’s funeral.
The Bell Witch encounters reportedly continued into the 20th century, with several additional events reported in the early 1900s. As the cold fluorescent light of modernity sank in, however, and the darkness of uncertainty was pushed further and further from our minds and the encounters waned. The exact details of the events are well beyond our reach now, having occurred in a sparsely populated area on the frontier of the expansion westward. However, the story had untold witnesses and evidence survives in scores of letters and books regarding the testimony.
It is sometimes said that poltergeists are a product of our fear and subsist from it. More than figments of our imagination, they squeeze their way into our world, feeding off our fears to become increasingly material. John Bell saw a large spectral dog, the boy saw a giant threatening bird and Betsey saw a ghost girl swinging from a tree. As that fear snowballed and involved dozens of other people, the poltergeist would have gained increasing power. All we have to fear is fear itself, we are told. The Bell family saw that play out in a supernatural fashion for years.