By Meghan E. Gattignolo
On a secluded farm about 30 minutes from Clarksville, in Adams, Tennessee, lies the Bell Family Farm and the Bell Witch Cave. One of the most documented cases of a haunting in American history, most people have heard the story of the Bell Witch. Not only is it the most widely documented paranormal event, the case of the Bell Witch is also the only time a death has been officially attributed to a supernatural entity. The site of the haunting on the Bell farm is also considered to be one of the most haunted places in America, even today.
Starting in 1817, a little over a decade after the Bell family first bought their farm in Adams and moved in, John Bell and his family began to hear strange noises – thumps in the walls, creaking and groaning, scratching at the windows. Nothing ordinary explained the noises away, but the family weren’t overly concerned… until the violence began. The haunting soon escalated to physical attacks. The children were pulled from their beds, and unseen hands pinched and slapped the family. Most of the phantom abuse was centered on Betsy, John Bell’s daughter, and John Bell himself. Sometimes the phenomena would speak. It would hurl insults at John Bell as if it was angry with him. A few years after the haunting started, the entity took credit for Bell’s sudden illness and demise, apparently poisoning Bell with a mysterious black liquid.
The scariest thing about the Bell Witch story is not that a ghost terrorized a teenage girl or even that a ghost was held accountable for the death of a person. The scariest thing is that so many people have taken the Bell Witch story so seriously. It’s not just a story, it’s a well-documented event reported by a multitude of people. Many people reported hearing the voice of the Bell Witch or hearing the scratches and knocks. Others also reported seeing strange animals on the property and floating orbs of light in the surrounding woods. The haunting of the Bell Witch takes many forms. The fact that the phenomena was not just witnessed by a few people in one household, but by many, is quite terrifying.
The haunting stopped inexplicably after John Bell’s death, but the story didn’t die in 1828. On the contrary, in the years after the purported haunting ended, the story was often shared and retold throughout the area. In Clarksville, newspaper publisher Martin V. Ingram would have heard the Bell Witch story retold often as he was growing up. Over 50 years after the initial haunting, Ingram came into the possession of a written account of Richard Williams Bell’s experience of the haunting. Titled Our Family’s Trouble, Martin V. Ingram used this manuscript as a primary source to publish an ‘official’ account of the Bell Witch haunting. Ingram’s An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, published in Clarksville in 1894, is the first instance of the entire story being printed and sold to the public. Ingram is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, so on the Historic Greenwood Cemetery Walking Tour you can hear a little about some of the spooky trouble Ingram claimed to have experienced while printing the book.
Today, anyone can be a part of the Bell Witch legend. The family that currently owns the site of the original Bell family farm offers tours of the property while they share the stories associated with the Bell Witch. For about $20, you can tour a replica of the Bell house, complete with a few artifacts from the original house. Included is also a tour inside a cave on the property. The Bell Witch Cave is creepy on its own, but when you know its reputation for its own strange activity, it’s even more unnerving. Strange photos and unexplained phenomena are just the tip of the iceberg when you venture into the Bell Witch Cave. October is the best time to go for the ultimate experience. This time of year, all of Adams is primed to celebrate Bell Witch season. A museum and a production of a play about the Bell Witch can all be enjoyed in Adams, Tennessee every year.
Join The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center Upstairs at Strawberry Alley Ale Works on October 25 at 5:30 pm for a special Halloween History on the Rocks, a Second & Commerce magazine event. Listen and learn more about the Bell Witch legend as well as some other equally scary history. Decide for yourself if the Bell Witch is real, or just a tall tale that got out of hand. Also, catch the Historic Greenwood Cemetery Walking Tour before it’s over this year to hear more local stories about Clarksville’s history!
Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two daughters.