A New Development in the Bell Witch Case

For those interested in the “Bell Witch” mystery.

The development is not a newly-discovered secret, or missing piece of a puzzle; it is something that was written in 1820, held by the writer’s family until the 1930s, and published to a scholarly audience in the 1950s. We call this a “new development” because its reference to the “Bell Witch,” which is not by name, but through historical context, was noticed in modern times. The actual document and Bell Witch reference have been around for 200 years.

I was not the person who found it, but I have been hearing about it for some time. Recently, I was provided with a link to the actual document for analysis and comment, which you will find, below:

What is the development and why is it important?

The new development is an entry made in a journal kept by Army Captain John R. Bell (no relation to the “Bell Witch” Bells) while working as the official journalist for Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1820. The journal covers from March 13th to November 20th of that year. In addition to writings about the famed expedition, the journal also contains entries from Captain Bell’s return trip from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to Washington, D.C. It was during that last leg of his journey when, on October 19, 1820, he passed through the Red River area of northwestern Middle Tennessee.

While spending the day at a plantation, he was told about a young girl surrounded by voices that relentlessly urged her to marry a neighbor. Although Captain Bell did not call the John Bell family by name, the year and location of this telling, along with the mention of the girl living three miles away, leaves no doubt that Betsy Bell was the centerpiece of the story that had been told to Captain Bell. Also, an account published some 30-35 years later told the same story and referred to Betsy Bell name. In his journal, Captain John R. Bell wrote:

“Rather a single circumstance was here related to me. of a young girl of about 15 years of age, residing but 3 miles from Murphey, a voice accompanies her, which says she should marry a man, a neighbor–thousands of persons have visited her to hear this voice, in many instances, it will reply to questions put to it, the visitors have left as little satisfied in their curiosity as before they heard it, many are under the impression, that it is ventriloquism imposed upon the hearers either by the girl or her brother–who it seems is generally in her company, her family is respectable.”

Researcher’s Analysis

Captain Bell’s use of the phrase, “related to me,” in the introductory sentence, indicates that his account is second-hand (hearsay), meaning he was not an eyewitness. Hearsay accounts indeed make the mystery bigger, and perhaps more entertaining from a storytelling perspective, but they neither solve the mystery nor add substance to the investigation. Every account of the Bell Witch in book, article, documentary, and movie form that discusses the alleged events of 1817-1821 has been second-hand. Every Single One.

I am well-aware of “Our Family Trouble,” the alleged eyewitness account of Richard Williams Bell that is contained in, and serves as the cornerstone of, Martin Ingram’s 1894 work of fiction. No one has come forward with the actual document (although many have claimed to have it), and a professional analysis of the writing style, references to scripture, use of cliche’ words, and Freemasonry references, conducted in 2015, provides strong evidence that Ingram was likely the author of the “eyewitness” account. For those reasons, I do not consider the “Our Family Trouble” eyewitness manuscript as valid evidence in the Bell Witch case (but if you have it, bring it to me and let me have it analyzed–and prove me wrong).

Is there an old, first-person eyewitness account stuffed away in a rotting trunk in someone’s attic or basement that tells the “real truth” of the Bell Witch mystery? Many have claimed to possess such documents, and some have used their alleged existence as the basis for books and movies (perhaps to create an illusion of credibility), but the proverbial bottom line is that those claiming to possess these “holy grail” documents seemingly vanish into thin air when serious researchers ask to examine the documents and have the paper and handwriting professionally analyzed for authenticity. That is a very simple and reasonable request under the circumstances; extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

If most anyone had such an important, game-changing document, they would be eager to have it professionally analyzed so as to garner support among researchers. No theory, Bell Witch or otherwise, will advance very far, much less see the light of day, without acceptance and support from the research community. At the end of the day, they are the people most listened-to, and the ones who will ultimately drive and promote your theory to the masses.

Thankfully, Captain John R. Bell’s journal is accessible, and given its clear, spelled-out chain of transmittal through the years, there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. But, why is this second-hand account so important? Does it add any value? You betcha.

While Captain Bell’s second-hand (hearsay) account does not solve the mystery of the Bell Witch, or propel the investigation along in a more fruitful way, it is significant to Bell Witch researchers because it was written in 1820, 12 years before Martin Ingram was born. It debunks the theory that Ingram made up the entire legend. The old “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” which I feel is no longer viable, stated that Ingram “made up” the legend because nothing had been written about the Bell Witch prior to his 1894 work of fiction–and if anything turns up, it was probably written by Ingram. Captain Bell’s 1820 journal entry occurred before Ingram was born, meaning he [Ingram] could not have written or influenced it.

And now, diehard proponents of the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory will likely argue that Ingram “wrote it from the womb,” but that’s neither my monkey nor my circus.

It is also noteworthy that Captain Bell’s account is, essentially, the same story–a young girl surrounded by voices saying to marry Joshua Gardner–that was published by the Saturday Evening Post 30 to 35 years later, and reprinted by the Green Mountain Freeman (in Vermont) on February 7, 1856. Captain Bell’s journal did not mention the Bell family by name, but the Saturday Evening Post article did, which suggests the two early accounts, written 30 to 35 years apart, came from different sources.

I will also note that the two early accounts make no mention of Betsy going into trances, having her hair pulled, being beaten, or suffering any other misfortunes except, maybe, not getting to marry the love of her life. The early accounts also make no mention of an invisible entity predicting the future, speaking in preachers’ own voices, gnawing on bedposts, or turning farm workers into giant rabbits and mules, and “riding them to hell for breakfast.” More on that in future posts.

To summarize, Captain Bell’s journal debunks the Ingram Fabrication Theory and, when viewed along with the Saturday Evening Post article reprint in the Green Mountain Freeman, shows that the Bell disturbances–how ever benign or severe they might have been–had become known to people outside of the Middle Tennessee region.

Here is Captain Bell’s journal entry as published in the 1950s (copyright 1957, the Arthur H. Clark Company) and used here for the purpose of education under the Fair-Use law:

JohnRBell

Captain John R. Bell’s full journal, including catalog and citation information, is available online, here.

The other referenced account, the Green Mountain Freeman’s reprint of the Saturday Evening Post’s “Bell Witch” article, known as “The Tennessee Ghost,” is shown below:

Freeman

The February 7, 1856 edition of the Green Mountain Freeman can be read online, here. My 2017 write-up about the Green Mountain Freeman article and the now-defunct Ingram Fabrication Theory can be found here.

Thanks for reading. So long for now.

2 comments

  1. As you note, any contemporary reference like this is of immense value. I had tracked down John Bell’s will/probate document and the detailed minutes of the Baptist church he belonged to, which help too verify certain aspects of him and his family, but nothing directly related to the poltergeist/haunting per se.

    I wouldn’t exactly characterize Ingram’s book as fiction, but it does need to be used as a source with caution. Fundamentally we’re dealing with events remembered by folk more than a half century before and of course he, like many journalists, probably exaggerated many details for dramatic effect. That is why having earlier sources, even second hand, are of such value.

    I have had a similar problem trying to track the David Lang legend of Gallatin to ground; a lot of misinformation has been presented as fact and while it may be mostly folklore, that doesn’t mean it isn’t at least partly based in fact. In that case, the missing piece of the puzzle is a letter published by a famous teller of tall tales called Mulhattan, aka “Orange Blossom.” His account was published in the Cincinnati Inquirer in the 1880’s, but I have yet locate it; some issues on microfilm have clippings missing and the microfilm itself is hard to borrow..

    As you also note, the professional debunkers have been hard at work trying to cancel the Bell Witch case as “fabricated” and have presented their opinions as established fact on Wikipedia, doing everyone a disservice. That is why anything earlier than Ingram is so important The truth remains elusive, but congratulations on publishing what you have unearthed. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Thanks. I was not the person who unearthed it–I’ve known and heard about it for some time now–and I don’t know who first found it.To me, the finding seems relevant to the case, so I am doing my best to circulate and explain it as best I can. The testimonials contained in Ingram’s book are not first-hand; they are recollections of people whose deceased relatives had mentioned the events, years earlier. There is, of course, the alleged eyewitness account of Richard Williams Bell, but there are legitimate questions as to whether such a document exists, or ever existed. Some of the skeptical crew have taken over several paranormal-related pages on Wikipedia, falsely called themselves “paranormal investigators” (believers), and gone on to state that the case is a “hoax.” As I see it, going into a research project from either angle–believer or skeptic–automatically creates a bias, and therefore less-than-credible research. This latest finding, along with the Green Mountain Freeman article, suggest that something did, in fact, cause the legend to come about. I do not feel than Ingram made up the “entire” legend. Thanks again for your comments, and good luck with the Lang case.

      Liked by 1 person

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