The Tennessee Legend of the Bell Witch Haunting

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Whether it’s the haunting blue eyes of the Moon-Eyed People, the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights, the hellish Mothman of Point Pleasant WV, or ubiquitous sightings of Bigfoot, many people find themselves drawn to things that are seemingly inexplicable, eerie, and often outright terrifying.

If such spine-tingling tales get your pulse pounding, you’ll find that Appalachian folklore offers an array of these “mysterious and spooky” stories.

One of our favorites is the Tennessee legend of the Bell Witch haunting, a horrific tale of intrigue that dates back to nearly 50 years before the Civil War

There have been countless Bell Witch books, documentaries, movies, and podcasts trying to make sense of what the Bell family experienced in the early 1800s.

Fans flock to the Bell Witch Festival, an annual fall festival held in Adams TN, to see a dramatization of the Bell Witch haunting, hear other spooky Southern folk tales, and listen to live music by local artists.

Read on to learn more about this terrifying 200-year-old Appalachian folk tale of a tormented family reportedly cursed by the Bell Witch.

You’ll also learn how you can visit some of the historic sites connected to the Bell Witch story, where you can investigate for yourself the legend of the Bell Witch in Tennessee.

The Legend of The Bell Witch Curse

Appalachian ghost stories

The Activity Begins

In 1804, John Bell, his wife Lucy, and their 9 children moved to Adams TN, where they built a farm on 1,000 acres along the Red River. They lived a peaceful life there for over a decade before things started to go awry. 

Around 1816 the Bells began to experience peculiar happenings on their property, starting with John Bell’s encounter with a strange dog-like creature. He is said to have shot at it before it ran away. 

By 1817, odd occurrences were common, with other family members reporting sightings of strange-looking creatures around the house. These unusual encounters gradually became more bizarre and frightening.

There were myriad accounts of unnerving tapping at the windows, inexplicable gnawing sounds at the bedposts, and the sounds of wings flapping against the household’s ceilings.

The family also reported sounds of choking and strangulation, and the clanging and clunking of heavy chains being dragged across the floors of their house

They sought out rational explanations, but none were discovered. 

Whatever was invading the Bell family home soon increased the intensity of its visits. Some of the children reported being pinched and punched, having hair pulled, and their blankets being ripped from their beds while they slept. 

With the exception of Lucy and one of her children, 9 members of the family had harrowing run-ins with the unwanted house guest, which continued for over five frightening years!

READ MORE: The 10 Most Haunted Places in North Carolina

Betsy Bell of Tennessee Legend, The Bell Witch
Drawing of Betsy Bell, via Public Domain

Other Witnesses to the Bell Witch

Daughter Betsy Bell was particularly tormented by the specter, and her fiancee Joshua Gardner also became an unwitting target.

Betsy finally called off her marriage to Gardner for fear of what might happen to him if she continued the relationship, but she continued to be a victim of the spirit’s malice.

Dean, an enslaved African in the Bells’ service, claimed that the witch appeared before him in the form of a black dog, and sometimes as a two-headed wolf.

He claimed he’d been turned into a mule and attacked by the witch, and other enslaved people on the farm also reported having been beaten and tortured by her. 

According to local legend, future President Andrew Jackson (who owned land along the Red River at the time) heard the Bell Witch stories and wanted to find out for himself if the local rumors were true.  

On the way to the Bell family’s homestead, Jackson’s wagon became stuck and unable to move. With no obvious explanation for this, he decided it must have been the work of the Bell Witch.

The ghost allegedly spoke to Jackson out of nowhere, at which point the wagon finally became unstuck and moved forward on its own. 

Other family friends (including William Porter, John Johnson, and his son, James Johnson) claimed to have experienced similar haunting activities in the Bell Witch house.

All of them came to believe it was the work of a malicious spirit. 

READ MORE: The 10 Most Haunted Places in Georgia to Visit

Appalachian superstitions - Scary Forest

Who (or What) was The Bell Witch?

Martin Ingram’s book An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch claims that the witch had once made herself known to the family.

She reportedly said, “I am a Spirit; I once was very happy, but I have been disturbed and made unhappy.  I am the Spirit of a person who was buried in the woods nearby. The grave was disturbed, my bones disinterred and scattered, and one of my teeth was lost under this house. I am here looking for that tooth.”

Kate Batts is a name that always come up when you research the story of the Bell Witch.

Some Adams TN locals believed that the notoriously eccentric woman was behind the happenings at the Bell house, which resulted in the spirit being named Kate by the family.

The story goes that John Bell Sr. had once had a dispute with Kate’s brother.

But as rumors spread through the community, some folks began to believe that it was actually Kate that had the issue with John.

This hearsay, combined with the fact that some locals believed Kate had dabbled in witchcraft, ultimately resulted in her being blamed for the haunting episodes that plagued the Bell family for years. 

READ MORE: The 10 Best North Carolina Haunted Houses

The death of John Bell, of Adams, TN.
The death of John Bell in 1820. Illustration published in 1894, via Public Domain

The Death of John Bell Sr.

The Bell Witch’s abuse and torment gradually took a heavy toll on John Bell’s physical and mental state, and he eventually became bedridden.

On December 19, 1820, his son John Jr. went to the medicine cabinet to get his father’s medicine. But instead of seeing the usual three bottles of medicine, he only saw one.

Martin Ingram’s book records the witch as saying, “It’s useless for you to try to relieve Old Jack. I have got him this time; he will never get up from that bed again!” 

Then, she stated that she “gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was fast asleep, which fixed him.”

John Sr. died the next day, and the witch was said to have caused quite the ruckus at his funeral.

Apparently, the witch’s ghoulish pranks declined dramatically after John Bell’s death. 

READ MORE: The 15 Best Haunted Houses in Georgia to Visit

The Bell Witch in Pop Culture

The Mark of the Bell Witch Documentary
The Mark of the Bell Witch Documentary

The Bell Witch Book & Movie

Though it’s not really “pop” culture (since it was published in 1894), one of the most commonly referenced Bell Witch books is An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch by Martin V. Ingram.

The tome is filled with detailed accounts of the Bell Witch stories, and many drawings depicting scenes of the legendary haunting

If you’re still left wanting more details about this fascinating bit of Appalachian Mountain folklore, type “Bell Witch” into YouTube. It will offer up countless videos about the Tennessee-based terror.

But Seth Breedlove’s Bell Witch documentary, The Mark of the Bell Witch, is easily one of the most popular ones.

This film tries to unpack the myths and legends surrounding the haunting, and untangles the original history from the more fantastical elaborations that have evolved over time. 

Academics and local historians are interviewed throughout the film, giving theological as well as cultural and sociological explanations for  the phenomena.

Still not satisfied? Try searching for “the Bell Witch” in podcast directories such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Any of them will reveal a number of podcast episodes and series dedicated to this famous Appalachian legend.

READ MORE: The 15 Best Scary Escape Rooms in Georgia

Bell Witch Tourist Attractions

The Bell Witch Cave
The Bell Witch Cave, photo by Www78 via CC BY-SA 3.0

The Bell Witch Cave 

The only original feature of the Bell farm that can still be seen today is a cave located on what was once the Bells’ property in Adams TN.

Visitors can explore the cave and see it much as the family would have back in the early 1800s. 

In 2008, the Tennessee cave was listed on the National Historical Registry. The Historic Bell Witch Cave manages the site, and has also preserved the original chimney stack of the Bell’s home.

Their cabin has been reconstructed and turned into a museum, where historic photos and other relevant documents can be viewed. 

READ MORE: The 7 Best Caves & Caverns in North Carolina


The Bell Witch Historical Marker

The Bell Witch Historical Marker can also be seen in Adams, which is located in Robertson County, Tennessee.

The marker is located on County Route 41, close to the grounds of the Bell School Building.

Click here for a map of the site.

READ MORE: 20 Ways to Celebrate Christmas in the Smoky Mountains (NC & TN)

The Bell Family Cabin in Adams Tennessee (Replica of 1805 cabin
The Bell Family Cabin in Adams TN, photo by Wayne Hsieh via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Bell Log Cabin & Bell School Building

log cabin that once stood on the Bell farm was moved to the grounds of the Bell School in Adams in 1982.

It is believed that a number of the logs in the reconstructed cabin were part of the original Bell house. Joel Egbert Bell, one of John and Lucy Bell’s sons, lived in the cabin until 1855.

The Bell School Building site is now a park. The building itself is home to an antique mall, a restaurant and tearoom, and the Adams Museum and Archives. 

The Adams Museum and Archives documents the small town‘s rich history, and also displays ancient Native American artifacts from the area. 

READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Lookout Mountain GA/TN

More Things to Do In and Near Adams TN

Red River Canoe, Adams TN
Red River Canoeing in Adams TN, photo via

Red River Canoeing

While you’re visiting Adams TN, why not try your hand at Red River Canoeing?

It is located just 1.4 miles west of Downtown Adams, which is about 30 minutes north of Nashville.

There you can rent canoes or kayaks and float down the river, right past the Bell Witch Cave site.

They also offer visitors opportunities for camping on their beautiful 70-acre property. 

READ MORE: The Ultimate Ocoee River Rafting Guide

Pork Royal Historic Park in Adams TN
Pork Royal Historic Park, photo via Facebook

Port Royal State Historic Park

This 30-acre state park located 5.7 miles west of the town of Adams TN is steeped in history and natural beauty, including a couple of short, easy hiking trails.

The 0.5-mile River Bottom Trail winds through the park’s forested area, and actually extends from a preserved section of the Trail of Tears.

The 0.2-mile Hopson Spring Branch Trail follows along Sulphur Fork Creek and the Hopson Spring Branch. This trailhead can be found at the Historic Main Street in downtown Port Royal TN.

You can also take historical tours of Port Royal State Historic Park and learn about the port’s role in Tennessee’s tobacco trade, the Black Patch Tobacco War, and the Cherokee Removal and Trail of Tears. -by Emma Gallagher


Leave No Trace logo

We encourage anyone who loves the Blue Ridge region to learn about the Leave No Trace principles of responsible environmental stewardship. 

Stay on marked trails, take only pictures, pack out your trash, and be considerate of others who share the trails and parks you explore. 

Remember that waterfalls and rocky summits can be dangerous. Never try to climb waterfalls or get close to a ledge to get a selfie.

When you're exploring the wilderness, it's better to be safe than to be a statistic!

Born in Britain, writer/photographer Emma Gallagher lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC on a permaculture homestead with her husband, Jonathon. While traveling the world for 13 years, she fell in love with the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge region when she lived at an artist retreat in Burnsville NC before moving to Brevard. Today Emma lives near Stone Mountain State Park and Doughton Park volunteers at the Surry County Fiddlers Convention, and cares for the gardens at the Reeves Downtown School of Music in Elkin. She's also a volunteer for the Elkin Valley Trails Association, which maintains segment 6 of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.