Big Development in the “Bell Witch” Case

Author’s note: This was originally posted to the Facebook fan page several months ago; I have recently decided to move forward with publishing it to a wider audience.  — Pat Fitzhugh

One of the more popular “Bell Witch theories” to emerge in recent years centers on the first book ever written about the case, published by Martin Ingram of Clarksville, Tennessee, back in 1894, seventy-five years after the supernatural disturbances allegedly happened.

A “first book” is often the starting point for those researching an old case, and the researcher’s first job is to try and validate the author’s claims. What happens if the author is deceased? What if the author’s sources were destroyed by the proverbial “courthouse fire,” or simply went missing? It comes as no surprise that many first-published accounts of allegedly true events are open to conflicting interpretations and harsh, relentless scrutiny. People read the accounts, draw their own conclusions, void of any proof, and then argue their conclusions as “fact.” Welcome to the Bell Witch case.

Because Martin Ingram is long deceased, and his source document–Richard Bell’s Our Family Trouble manuscript–has yet to be found, his Bell Witch book has become the prime target of inquisitives, conspiracy theorists, and skeptics alike. Many even think he made up the legend. Did he? Welcome to the jungle.

The “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” which has become popular in skeptical circles, suggests there was no Bell Witch prior to 1894, except, perhaps, in the back of Ingram’s mind. In short, he simply (allegedly) “made up” the legend.

The main premise behind the Ingram Fabrication Theory can be summarized, as follows:

If the alleged disturbances were so frightening and extraordinary that people came from all over the country to witness them, as Ingram stated, people would have written volumes about the ordeal, yet the earliest written account came from Ingram in 1894, 75 years later. Since nothing was published about the Bell Witch prior to Ingram’s book (although there should have been), he must have made up the story.

Serious researchers and scholars of the legend have trouble accepting such a convenient and generalized conclusion as fact because the theory’s proponents have yet to prove that Ingram fabricated the story–and likely never will. Rather than solidify their claim, proponents have chosen to stratify their conjecture by presenting a “compelling circumstance” that only adds a false sense of validity to their assumption.

That compelling circumstance—Ingram’s source document, Our Family Trouble, was never found—might sound compelling, but it falls pathetically short of being persuasive. The alleged source manuscript could turn up any day or week now, one-hundred years from now, or never at all. Neither its existence nor its alleged nonexistence has been proven. Rather than embark on a witch hunt, or map out the fundamentals of argument, logic, and persuasion, I will pose and answer a simple question:

Would the existence, or non-existence, of Ingram’s source document be relevant to the Fabrication Theory if the theory’s main premise—that nothing was published about the Bell Witch before Ingram’s 1894 book—is proven false? No. When a theory’s main premise is disproved, the whole theory goes up in smoke.

Before proceeding, let’s stop for a reality check. A pre-1894 account of the Bell Witch—which some Fabrication theorists say would amount to the “HOLY GRAIL”—would not, in and of itself, solve the Bell Witch mystery, nor would it necessarily rule out at least some degree of embellishment on Ingram’s part. However, it would debunk the popular theory that suggests Ingram fabricated the legend, and  amount to a major advance in the case. Ruling things out is very important. Was there indeed an account of the Bell Witch prior to Ingram’s? The elusive answer lies in a now-defunct, early newspaper’s archives that have now been located and digitized.

Many Bell Witch accounts, including Ingram’s, tell of an 1849 Bell Witch article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, which was later retracted when Betsy (Bell) Powell threatened the newspaper with a defamation suit. Such an article would prove the story existed long before Ingram’s book was published, but researchers have been unable to find a copy of it. Its existence, absent any physical evidence, amounts to hearsay.

I searched for the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. about 20 years ago, but found only a later, 1850s-period article (listed in an index document and lacking details) that a librarian had categorized as a “Tennessee Ghoulish Haunt.” With such few details, the wrong publication period, no cross-references to additional information, and no direct mention of the Bell Witch or the John Bell family in the librarian’s category description, I decided to let it go.

In November of 2016, I was advised via E-mail that new information about the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article had recently come to light. Welcome to the holy grail.

An early REPRINT of the Post article has surfaced. Although an archived copy of the original article continues to elude researchers, the reprint, especially because of its early publication date, is sufficient evidence to prove that Ingram did not make up the Bell Witch legend. Although Ingram was 24 years old at the time of the reprint, he lived more than 1,100 miles away–and this was 38 years before he published his book. So, where and when did the Saturday Evening Post article reprint occur?

On February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman, a newspaper based in Montpelier, Vermont, reprinted the Post article, entitled “The Tennessee Ghost.” It was featured on the paper’s front page, in the “Variety” section, which contained reprinted articles from newspapers around the country. The Green-Mountain Freeman’s editor attributed the reprint directly to The Saturday Evening Post. This attribution disproves the Fabrication Theory’s suggestion that Ingram, in his 1894 book, lied about the Saturday Evening Post article’s existence.

Full page of the Green-Mountain Freeman. Bell Witch article begins in the "Variety" section, in the lower right corner of the page.

Full page of the Green-Mountain Freeman. Bell Witch article begins in the “Variety” section, in the lower right corner of the page.

The reprinted Saturday Evening Post article, which briefly describes the disturbances and the many curiosity-seekers who visited the Bell farm, mentions John Bell, Betsy Bell, Joshua Gardner, and Robertson County, Tennessee. It accuses Betsy Bell of using ventriloquism to stage the entire haunting. Her motive, it said, was to ensure that she could marry Joshua Gardner, a young man with whom she had fallen in love. When asked when it would leave, the Bell Witch entity would reply, “not until Joshua Gardner and Betsy Bell get married.” This version of the legend is much different from later accounts, including Ingram’s, which insist that the entity was strongly opposed to Joshua and Betsy marrying.

Part one of the Bell Witch article reprint in the Green-Mountain Freeman.

Part one of the Bell Witch article reprint in the Green-Mountain Freeman.

Part two of the Bell Witch article reprint in the Green-Mountain Freeman.

Part two of the Bell Witch article reprint in the Green-Mountain Freeman.

So, there you have it. Ingram did not make up the Bell Witch. The legend had already been published and was widely known—at least as far away as the New England states—some 45 years before Ingram published his book (38 years, if you count from the Green-Mountain Freeman reprint date). Although it is possible Ingram embellished parts of the story, the theory that accuses him of fabricating the entire thing has now gone up in smoke. Welcome to more researching.