You have probably heard the Legend of the Bell Witch, which the Tennessee State Library and Archives calls “America’s greatest ghost story,” but is the story real?

A little over 200 years ago, an entity known as the Bell Witch tormented a family in rural Adams, Tennessee. And, according to the legend, she ultimately killed the family’s father, John Bell. Plus, she may haunt there, still.

Who is the Bell Witch?

The Bell Witch is a supernatural entity that tormented the Bell family from 1817 until John Bell’s death in 1820. The Bells, originally a North Carolina family, had moved to the Red River area in Tennessee in 1804. According to the Bell Witch Legend, the Bells’ lives were uneventful at first. Then, for unexplained reasons, a strange entity began tormenting the family, focusing her efforts on John and his daughter Betsy.

Is the Bell Witch real? Old log cabin photo
To this day, Adams, Tennessee (near the Kentucky border) is a rural and heavily wooded area. Photo by Michael Chambers on Unsplash

Legend tells us that the Bell Witch’s real name is Kate Batts, a disgruntled neighbor who decided she needed to bother the Bells. The Bells figured out the witch’s identity through a series of conversations they had with the entity. Reports say the Bell Witch made quite a ruckus of sounds, from gulping noises to rattling chains. She also scratched, beat, pricked, and pinched poor Betsy, and physically tormented other members of the family as well.

But what was “Kate” trying to accomplish by haunting the family? And was she really a witch?

The Kate Batts legends

A woman named Catherine Batts actually existed, though there’s little evidence to suggest she had anything against the Bells personally, and may have been Lucy Bell’s niece, according to research conducted by Pat Fitzhugh. Lucy Bell was John’s wife and mother to the Bell children.

One popular explanation for the Bell Witch’s actions? Apparently, Kate Batts did not approve of Betsy’s engagement to neighbor Joshua Gardner. The folklore gives no reason as to why the witch would have a problem with this union, however.

Another story that you might hear is that Kate Batts and John Bell had an affair when the family still lived in North Carolina. After Batts threatened to expose the affair to the community, Bell murdered her by leaving her in the smokehouse to die. He then fled North Carolina with his family and settled in Tennessee. However, also according to Fitzhugh, the real Catherine Batts outlived John Bell by at least 23 years—and there’s no evidence of an affair.

What is interesting, however, is that Kate Batt’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Batts, brought a dispute against John Bell to the local Red River Baptist Church. A dispute that ultimately led to Bell’s excommunication from the church. Now that’s a tasty nugget of history isn’t it?

Why is the Bell Witch called a witch?

When you hear of the Bell Witch’s actions, she seems to act more like a ghost or spirit than a witch, especially when you learn that her presence is still felt from time to time on the old Bell farm. In order to understand why, it’s important to remember that words like “ghost,” “spirit,” “witch,” and “haint” are often used interchangeably in these parts. Any supernatural entity, living or dead, could receive the witch moniker.

So, is the Bell Witch real?

As confusing as the Bell Witch legend can be, one interesting fact remains: John Bell died under mysterious circumstances.

While folklore tells us the witch poisoned him, a professor at Austin Peay State University has another theory. Dr. Meagan Mann, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, believes Bell may have ingested something quite natural, causing his death. Dr. Mann read the (few) contemporary accounts of what happened to John Bell and analyzed the poisons available in early 19th-century Tennessee. She believes it’s possible someone poisoned Bell with arsenic.

And that “someone” need not be a supernatural entity. In fact, arsenic poisoning at the time was a pretty big problem in the U.S. And, administering arsenic in small doses could account for some of the other things Bell experienced (such as his face twitching or his tongue feeling weird).

You can check out the full interview with Dr. Mann here.

What do you think?

Did a supernatural entity torment the Bell farm in the early 1800s? Is she still hanging around the property? Or is this a legend brought about by chemically-induced hallucinations and the ability for tales to stretch and grow over time? If not the alleged witch, who might’ve been slowly poisoning Bell? We’d love to know your thoughts! Drop us a message and let us know if you believe the Bell Witch is real.