A Spooky Tale from the Archives

Written by Casey Gymrek, graduate assistant

Halloween is finally here!

After a month of corn mazes, haunted houses, and pumpkin spiced lattes, we can finally finish our fall festivities by gorging out on all of the delicious candy. While we’re breaking into the stash for the trick-or-treaters, let’s try to get into the true spirit of Halloween—the frightening, creepy, and down-right spooky spirit.

nullAt the Albert Gore Research Center, we have a diverse archival collection.  From MTSU yearbooks to oral histories of veterans, we have an extensive amount of materials highlighting Middle Tennessee history.  Thus, I hunted through our collections in search for the region’s own spooky legends and lore.  Thankfully, I was not disappointed.

Within the Tennessee Folklore Society Records, there is a folder dedicated to “Bell Witch Articles and Documents.” As an avid lover of all things supernatural, the story of the Bell Witch crossed my path before on various television programs and books of haunted locations, so I buried myself in documents and research to get to the bottom of this infamous tale.

According to family lore passed down by John Bell Jr. , the Bell Witch story began in the early nineteenth century in what is now Adams, Tennessee.  In 1817, John Bell Sr. and his family started to experience what they believed was a supernatural presence in their home in the form of a witch.  The witch, known to some as “Kate,” made eerie noises, turned over furniture, and manipulated sounds in order to imitate the voices of different members of the family.  Betsy, Bell’s youngest daughter, seemed to be a favorite of the poltergeist.  Betsy described seeing apparitions of a woman frequently, and experienced physical pain from an unseen force.  These ghostly rumors quickly attracted attention from the surrounding areas, and skeptics visited the farm often.  There is even another, albeit unsubstantiated, part of the legend that claims Andrew Jackson was one of these visitors. The tale became even more ominous after the death of John Bell Sr. in 1820, when rumors speculated that the witch poisoned the farmer.  Legend has it that Kate would return once more, but has she ever really left us?

An illustration of Betsy Bell from M.V Ingram's 1894 novel, "The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch," found in a "Sidelines" article from October 1992.

An illustration of Betsy Bell from M.V Ingram’s 1894 novel, “The Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,” found in a “Sidelines” article from October 1992.

Today, the Bell Witch is an integral part of Middle Tennessee history, and her supposed cave dwelling continues to be a popular tourist attraction.  Since 2008, the cave has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As long as people visit the site, the story of the Bell Witch will live on, spread, and collect a number of other added myths.

One such myth happens to take place at Middle Tennessee State University.  Allegedly, in 1968, a female student was writing a term paper on the witch.  After a night of researching, the girl returned to her room in Lyon Hall to find her drawers ransacked and a fresh rose placed on her pillow. These events happened repeatedly.  The rose was thought to be a symbol of the witch.  A female MTSU student researching the Bell Witch…now why does that seem familiar? Oh, that’s right. Your resident Bell Witch blogger is also a Lady Raider…will there be a rose waiting for me on my pillow tonight?

By now, you’re probably stuffed from all the candy, but just in case you’re hungry for more Bell Witch stories, there is a plethora of spooky tales in the collection at the AGRC. If you haven’t quite yet gotten into the spirit of Halloween, visits to the Bell Witch cave are always an option.  Tour guides with The Historic Bell Witch Cave Inc. provide tours during the month of October, including one from 12-9PM today.  Don’t feel like leaving the couch? Then you can partake in a time-honored Halloween tradition—scary movies.  An American Haunting, a film from 2005, is based on the story of the Bell Witch, and is recommended by fellow AGRC blogger and scary film extraordinaire, Sarah Calise.

Lastly, from all of us at the AGRC, have a fun and safe Halloween!

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