The President & the Witch
He wasn’t the president when the letter came.
Things were pretty quiet — quiet for the general anyway — when that letter arrived at his plantation.
The rowdiest of his old rough-and-tumble days were behind him. But his biggest fights still lay ahead. He couldn’t have known either at the time.
Now, political affairs were simmering. But the pot wasn’t boiling yet.
I’m not saying the general was bored (now, nor am I saying he was a really great guy). He was a land speculator, and he was good at it. But a lot of the claims he sold were in territory he’d stolen from Native Americans. As an example of some of his honest land work you may know, the year the letter came, him and his rich buddies founded the city of Memphis, Tennessee.
Rich, Southern guy back in the day, of course he had a huge cotton plantation, and of course, — lord have mercy y’all and I’m sorry — he bought human beings, stolen from their homelands and he forced them to work his plot against their will.
His biggest battle — the one remembered in history books and songs — was only two years behind him.
When the letter came, he’d just returned home from a different series of skirmishes that were — uh, goodness gracious they were just awful, too. They tainted his name then and now.
He still commanded U.S. Troops. But he worked, largely, from home. With no major conflicts afoot, the work was regular, routine.
But as he said once, “I was born for the storm, and calm does not suit me.”
So, maybe he was feeling cooped up. Maybe that’s why the letter got him out of the house and on the road.
Y’know? He was comfortable running wars from the saddle. He was happy out with his men and, y’all, the man never shied from a good fight.
But maybe he acted on the letter because of its plea for help. Its author was the father of three boys that had fought along side him and the general was fiercely loyal.
Also, something about the letter rang true. Back then, no man would have sent a letter like unless he was desperate.
The matter had already gotten them, basically, get excommunicated from his church. He’d lost trust from his neighbors and good standing in the community.
What could anyone possibly gain from spreading a story like that, especially with a man like the future president of the United States?
Maybe the intrigue of the letter just got to the general. He’d heard the stories, sure. Word spread fast and word like that spread even faster. And, surely, the story had beat the letter to the cotton plantation.
But those were just stories. And there on the general’s desk was a handwritten letter from the source and a plea for help. And I bet it was filled with details that curled his hair.
And details like that — in that time back then — must have quickened the pulse of any man, even one who had seen so much bloodshed.
I can imagine the general finished the letter’s last words, blew out a deep breath, and threw his round reading glasses on his desk. He crossed his legs, leaned back, and ran a hand through that famous mane of wild hair. Maybe he looked out over his fields, and wondered what he should do.
Whatever that letter said and whatever he thought about it, Andrew Jackson became a witch hunter.
I’m Toby Sells. Let’s load up and head out. We’re taking the time machine back to an era Granny would call “pioneer times” to rural Adams, Tennessee. That’s where future president Andrew Jackson went hunting the Bell Witch. Did he find it? You’ll find out today on Haint Blues.
In 1810, James Madison was the country’s fourth president. That year — and thanks largely to Jackson — parts of West Florida became part of the United States.
That was also the year John Bell moved his large family from North Carolina to Tennessee, which had been a state for 14 years by 1810. There was some speculation about Bell’s move further into the frontier — he was running from bad luck, a bad business deal, or bad blood. But, really, it’s all speculation.
Bell was an apprentice barrel maker in his youth but turned to farming. He and his wife, Lucy, worked hard and had become some of the most successful planters in Edgecome County in their eight years together in North Carolina.
But — again, for reasons unclear — John decided to pluck his family from that land, move them over the treacherous Appalachian Mountains, and settle them in an area attractively called the “Barren Plains.”
Robertson County was (and is still) about 50 miles northwest of Jackson’s plantation home called the Hermitage, just east of Nashville. The Bell family lived in a Robertson County town now called Adams and grew their farm to a vast 328 acres.
Strange as the circumstances of the move might have been, though, by all accounts, nothing was unusual about the Bells. They were sturdy, independent, and led by their faith.
They also didn’t run away from a fight. Three of the Bells’ oldest sons, John Bell, Jr., Drewry Bell, and Jesse Bell, we're all Tennessee volunteers who served under Jackson at the famous Battle of New Orleans in 1814 and 1815.
But everything their family had built over the years was turned upside one day in 1817 when John saw something weird in his corn field.
Now, Southern pioneer folklore is full of ghosts, goblins, haints, hags, lake monsters, and wood boogers. But what John Bell saw that day was unlike much else out there.
Down a corn row, he saw a creature with body of a dog (a German shepherd as the story goes) and the head of a rabbit. And it wasn’t afraid of John. The man was able to shoot at the thing four times.
And, remember, this was no automatic rifle. This was a muzzleloader and them suckers take long time to load. It’s about a 10-step process where you load the powder, load the ball, tamp it all down with a ram rod, maybe pour powder under the flintlock, fire, and start all over again. The creature, whatever it was, only disappeared after a fourth shot.
That night, the Bells sat down for dinner and heard something beating and scratching at their door. They were long, slow scratches, not like a dog that wanted inside.
Finally, someone got up and flung the door wide open. But they found nothing.
Later, it happened again. So, they devised a plan. If they heard the scratching again, two groups of Bell men would burst out the door and circle the house in opposite directions.
They continued to eat, and I bet it was pretty quiet. Amid the clatter of forks on dinner plates, the scratches returned. The men jumped into action. They rounded the house but all they found outside was each other.
In the days after, they began to hear whispers around the house. And, later, they heard what they described as an old woman singing.
But, then, the spirit got violent. It started in the childrens’ room. They’d hear something like a mouse gnawing on their bedposts. Later, their blankets would be yanked off them in the middle of the night. Pillows would be ripped from under their heads.
Then, the spirit seemed to turn its anger to Betsy Bell, the youngest daughter. The spirit would pull her hair and slap her face so hard it’d leave bruises in the shape of handprints.
The Bells brought in family friend James Johnston for help. He stayed the night and in the morning was convinced something otherworldly lived at the Bell farm. He told John Bell it “was a spirit, just like in the Bible.”
It’s not clear how word got out. But just like in any small Southern town, word did get out. People began arriving at the Bell farm to experience “the witch” as they called it.
Now, “witch” back then didn’t really mean a “witch” witch, y’know green, pointy hat, rides a broom, hates Dorothy, that kind of thing. Though, there was some talk that the spirit could’ve been some manifestation of a woman — Kate Batts — with whom John had had a bad run in or two. But, really, “witch” just meant something, y’know, bad and unexplainable.
Those folks who showed up at the Bell farm usually got their money’s worth. (Well, that’s a saying. The Bells didn’t sell tickets and they wouldn’t take any money from anybody who’d come as a, y’know, witch tourist.) But the longer the spirit hung around, the more amazing its feats became.
It began to speak out loud. It would hold conversations. Later, it repeated — word for word — sermons given on the same Sunday morning but given 13 miles apart. It would imitate people’s loved ones, loved one’s who’d never laid eyes on the Bell farm.
The spirt also proved to love the Bells, well, some of them. At one time, the witch helped save the Bell children playing at a nearby creek. She also loved John Bell’s wife, Lucy. The witch called her the “most perfect woman to ever walk the earth” and would give her fruit — yes, make fruit appear out of thin air — and sing her hymns.
But the witch hated John Bell. And promised to one day kill “Old Jack,” as she called him. It’s unclear, really why she hated John, but if I was him and heard this kind of talk from a spirit who’d proven so powerful, I might reach out for help, too.
Maybe that’s when he wrote that letter to Jackson.
And, again, whatever was in that letter, made Andrew Jackson — only two years after becoming a national hero for his win against the British in the Battle of New Orleans — load up a bunch of rowdies to go hunt the Bell Witch.
Alright, since we’re already out this way, let me take y’all down this side road on Jackson. It won’t take long.
He was crazy. When he was younger, he and his entourage would head into Nashville and wreak absolute havoc in the riverside taverns, drinking, fighting, gambling, and, uh, whatever else you could cook up in the early 1800s.
Jackson — one of the most influential presidents of these United States (and I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing) — was in three duels that history knows about.
One time, he was crossing the civic square in Knoxville when he passed the governor of Tennessee, Jackson’s boss at the time. The governor — John Sevier — had just beaten one of Jackson’s buddies in an election. Well, Sevier said something ugly about Jackson’s beloved wife, Rachel, and Jackson lost it. Pulled his pistol and fired on the man. Let that sink in: He pulled a gun and shot at his boss — the governor of the state of Tennessee — in a very public place in one of the state’s biggest cities. He wasn’t arrested either. The two dueled later but agreed not to kill each other, y’know, like gentlemen.
Another time, Jackson threw a house party and it got so rowdy, he had to escape out of a window. That party was his inauguration party at the White House.
Those stories could go on and on BUT anyway Andrew Jackson, total wild man.
After he got Bell’s letter, Jackson organized a a bunch of his buddies to go and hunt the Bell Witch. In that group was one guy who fancied himself a ghost hunter and a witch tamer. (Keep an eye on him for later.)
They all load up and head out. They get to Adams. But before they got to the Bell Farm, Jackson’s carriage stops on a wooded path. The horses were fine and the wheels weren’t stuck. They just couldn’t move.
Jackson got out to assess the situation, after a few unsuccessful tries of getting unstuck, he bellowed, “by the eternal, it must be the Bell Witch.” Maybe they all laughed but they didn’t laugh long. They heard whispers in the woods and a voice hissed back at them, “you may pass, general, and I’ll see you later tonight.” With that, the carriage was allowed to carry on.
They got to the Bell house and, for the first few hours, Jackson and his crew were disappointed. They ate dinner and John Bell regaled them with stories about the witch.
Remember that one guy I told you about? The ghost hunter SLASH witch tamer? Well, if you mix good-old boy (for which he surely was), insufferable braggart, total weirdo, and homemade liquor (for which their surely was), you get, well, trouble.
The story goes that this old boy started hollering that his pistol was loaded with silver bullets and that that the Bell Witch was staying away because she was afraid of him. Bad move.
He immediately fell to the floor, twisting, writhing, and convulsing uncontrollably. He was shouting that pins were stuck all over his body. Finally, he was stood up by an unseen force, dragged to the door, and kicked in the pants out into the yard.
The witch hissed again, “the tamer is just one of two frauds in this house tonight.”
Now, I don’t care what kind of rough-neck rowdy bar brawler you are back in Nashville, but after you witness something like that — a bar fight is one thing, y’know — but I wouldn’t want to stick around to see if the Bell Witch thought I was the other fraud.
Jackson’s men begged him to leave. He wouldn’t. (No surprise there, at all.) But he agreed that all the men should stay awake the rest of the night to see if the witch ever came back. She didn’t. And in the morning Jackson and his men, “made all deliberate haste back to Nashville.” No kidding.
The Jackson incident hardly covers the breadth and depth of the Bell Witch legend. The unexplained was commonplace around the farm and a nearby cave for decades, and right on up to the present.
Bob Bell, a descendant who now owns a funeral home around Nashville, told Bell Farm tourists in a 2014 YouTube video that the house was sort of a paranormal epicenter.
His grandparents were still living on the property when he was a kid. And, once, his grandmother found her bone China perfectly arranged on the living room floor. The China had been locked away in a heavy trunk.
His grandfather once saw the specter of a horse-drawn carriage around the nearby cemetery. The carriage had no driver.
The farm, house, and cave have been featured on just about all of the spooky television show you can think of. The story has been told in several films. It’s considered by many to be the most well-known (and maybe most-told) ghost story in America.
As a scaredy cat, I didn’t dare turn off the bathroom lights and ask “Who’s afraid of the Bell Witch?” into the mirror. Not one time. Certainly not the three times prescribed by my idiot friends.
Fueled by the legend, the Bell Farm is now a full-blown, bless-our-hearts tourist attraction.
Around Halloween, you can celebrate Bell Witch Fest at the home and grounds in Adams. The gift shop there offers books, hats, and refrigerator magnets.
A cave and cabin combo tour ticket will set you back $18. In the summer months, the Bell Witch Cave Canoe Co. will rent you a tube or a boat for a day-long float down the Red River, which runs right by the Bell farm.
Is the Andrew Jackson story true? Who knows. I don’t.
The story first apparel in print in a 1894 letter from an attorney who said he’d heard it from his great grandfather. And It’s one that historian at the Hermitage will tell around Halloween
But as a Middle Tennessee kid, I grew loving the Bell Witch legend. Throw in a rowdy Tennessee guy who became US president and I’m hooked, no matter wherein came from.
I’m Toby Sells, thanks for loading up and heading out with me again today. Holler at me back here soon for more Haint Blues.