The Mountain Laurel
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The Strange True Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, Part 1 of 5

By Don Wick © 1987

Issue: February, 1987

The Bell Witch House 1909. Photo curtesy of Bell Witch House 1909. Photo curtesy of, Tennessee - Of all the strange stories of the supernatural, there is none stranger than the 170 year old story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, the most documented story of the supernatural in all of American history.

The Bell Witch is unique because of the large number of people who had direct experiences with it. Many of these people, General Andrew Jackson among them, were of unimpeachable reputation and unquestionable reliability.

Much of what follows is taken from the eyewitness accounts and interviews gathered by M.V. Ingram for his book An Authenticated History Of The Famous Bell Witch Of Tennessee published at Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1894. Among them are the eyewitness accounts of Richard Williams Bell and Joel Bell, two who survived the Witch's reign of terror.

Here, then, is the incredible true story of the Bell Witch, a story to which the final chapter has yet to be added.

John Bell, Jr., Born Nov. 17th 1793 - Died April 18th 1862. Photo curtesy of Bell, Jr., Born Nov. 17th 1793 - Died April 18th 1862. Photo curtesy of began in 1804 when John Bell brought his family from North Carolina to settle in Robertson County, Tennessee.

He bought a good 100 acre farm on the banks of the Red River about 50 miles north of Nashville, near what is today the town of Adams, Tennessee.

By 1817 John Bell had become a respected and influential member of the community. He and his wife Lucy, had nine children and the Bell home was one of the finest in Robertson County. It was a big double log house, one and a half stories high with six rooms and a large porch across the entire front of the house.

The trouble began sometime in 1817. The exact time is difficult to fix because at first the Bell family attributed the strange noises they heard in the house to natural causes.

There were bumping and scratching sounds which might have been caused by the wind blowing the branches of the big pear trees in the front yard against the side of the house. The tapping sounds at the front door, John Bell attributed to a prankster.

But in May of 1818, something happened which could not be explained quite so easily.

It was a Sunday night, according to Richard Williams Bell, when the sounds moved inside the house. He and three of his brothers were asleep in one of the upstairs bedrooms when they were awakened by what sounded like a rat gnawing on the bedpost. Two of the brothers got up to investigate, but as soon as they lit a candle, the noise stopped.

They looked around the room, but found no sign of a rat and went back to bed. As soon as the candle went out, the noise started again. This time all four of the brothers got up to investigate. They still found no sign of a rat and no way a rat could have entered or left the room.

The gnawing sound became a nightly occurrence in the Bell house.

It began moving from room to room until everyone in the house was awake, then it would stop, beginning again as soon as the lights went out.

After a while there were new sounds to accompany the gnawing on the bedpost.

There was a scratching sound like a large dog clawing at the door, sounds like heavy stones dropping on the floor, chairs falling over and chains dragging. There was a sound like someone smacking their lips, and gulping sounds as if someone were choking or strangling.

Covers began sliding off the foot of the beds as if being pulled by some unseen hand. And then things took a really ugly turn.

Some invisible thing began pulling at their hair, twisting and jerking it viciously until all of the Bell children were screaming in pain and fright.

At first the Bell family said nothing about the strange happenings in their house, but eventually John Bell told his nearest neighbor and closest friend, James Johnson, what was happening.

Johnson and his wife came to spend the night and see for themselves.

As soon as everyone had retired for the night, the gnawing, scratching, knocking, smacking, gulping sounds began. Chairs began overturning. Bed covers flew off the beds. Invisible hands began slapping Elizabeth Bell across the face until her checks turned red.

After that night the strange happenings in the Bell house became common knowledge in the area and all sorts of people began coming to the Bell farm to investigate and try to help if they could.

They tried to communicate with whatever it was by asking it questions that could be answered with a number. How many people are there in the room? How many horses in the yard? How many miles to a certain point?

The answers came in quick knocks as if someone were rapping on the wall with a fist and the numbers were always correct.

Lights, like candles or lamps, began appearing, flitting through the trees, across the Bell yard and through the fields of the farm.

Some unseen thing began hurling chunks of wood and stone, pieces of tree limbs and even bricks, at family members and visitors. They came from nowhere with unerring accuracy and fear began to grow in Robertson County.

Go to Part 2

Editor's Note... This is the first of a five part series of stories sent to us by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. If you like "haint" stories, you're going to love this one!