In today's episode, we talk about the Bell Witch from Southern United States folklore, a spirit that haunted a family in Tennessee in the 19th century. We discuss horror as a way to talk about abuse, the demonization of independent women, and the problematic nature of the "Indian burial ground" trope.
An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch: A True Story by Martin V. Ingram
Transcript: Episode 41 — The Bell Witch (Southern US Folklore)
Lizzie: Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all around the world. We're your hosts.
Zoe: I'm Zoe.
Lizzie: And I'm Lizzie. And how are you today, Zoe?
Zoe: Very, very tired. I'm so tired.
Lizzie: I'm sorry.
Zoe: It's fine. Um, I, it's just been a long week, even though I only had three days of classes because I had break earlier this week, but I'm just very tired and lots of work to do. So.
Lizzie: Life of a college student is so hard.
Zoe: Life of a college student is so hard.
Lizzie: It was so long ago. But not actually. Yeah, I'm fine. You didn't actually ask, but I thought I would say anyway [laughs].
Zoe: Well, how are you, Lizzie? How are you?
Lizzie: I'm fine. I got an impulsive ear piercing today. And I went to a rugby game a few days ago. So that was fun.
Zoe: Yeah, I haven't been to any rugby games. That, I might go to one—
Lizzie: It was my first rugby game ever. I didn't know it was happening. And I had to kind of guess. 'Cause I don't know anything about rugby. But it was fun. And my roommate's team won.
Zoe: That's awesome. Good for her.
Lizzie: Exactly. So who are we talking about today?
Zoe: Today, Lizzie, I'm going to do something a little different.
Lizzie: Ooh. See, I had, I have no idea what to expect. I don't remember if you told me anything about it beforehand.
Zoe: I'm gonna tell you a ghost story.
Zoe: I am in particular going to tell you the ghost story of the Bell Witch haunting from Tennessee.
Lizzie: Oh, that's from like, yeah, yeah. Okay, I know of it. But I'm so excited.
Zoe: What do you know of it?
Lizzie: So it was like this town in I guess, Tennessee. And there was a family who lived in this house. And there was a witch, like a ghost? Who lived there and haunted everyone. And yeah, that's basically it. I think the thing was like that she was like, in love with the wife? I don't know. You can you can tell me about it. Okay.
Zoe: I will tell you about it, in fact. I have many pages of notes about it. Okay—
Lizzie: I'm so excited.
Zoe: Basically, it is a legend of Southern United States folklore. And it's associated with the family of the farmer John Bell Sr. who lived along the Red River in Tennessee, near the present day town of Adams, Tennessee. So this family experienced a haunting by a presence known as the Bell Witch from around 1817 to 1821. This being was able to speak, make physical contact with the family members, affect the physical environment, predict the future, be in multiple places at once, and even shapeshift. And it was often referred to by the name of Kate.
Lizzie: Ooh, okay.
Zoe: My source for this episode is the text An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch: A True Story by Martin V. Ingram, which is a compilation of various accounts of the family and the story and their experiences, based particularly on the story of Richard Williams Bell, who was one of the sons of John Bell. So it's a relatively primary source, which is why I'm using it, I will say there are many sections of the book that are extremely racist. And so if this, first of all, I want to acknowledge that because that is something that is going to affect the story and how it's being told, and something I'm going to talk about a bit later, hopefully.
Lizzie: When was this book published?
Zoe: In the 1800s, like, I think the late-ish 1800s.
Lizzie: Ah, I see.
Zoe: And also because if anyone here hears the story, and is like, that sounds really interesting and I want to look more into it, I wanted to just give a heads up like it's pretty bad. So, that being said, let's get into the story. So, John Bell and his wife, Lucy, and their children arrived in Tennessee in 1804, as part of a larger wave of Europeans, who were expanding west in search of wealth and promise in the early 1800s, in a sort of the first- one of the beginning waves of the mass colonization project of the United States westward expansion. And they seem to be relatively successful in that endeavor, as they purchased a lovely farm and became popular and well-known members of the community. Their beloved daughter, Betsy was growing up well and was being courted by a gentleman named Joshua Gardner. I want to talk about the fact that John Bell and his wife, like many families of their stature in Tennessee at the time, were slaveholders and held about, I think, a half dozen people captive in forced labor at the time. I wanted to mention that as well. So, around 1817 the hauntings began and they first occurred in the form of strange animal-like apparitions. So John Bell, the father, while walking through his cornfield noticed a strange looking animal sitting in the field and staring back at him. He thought it was probably a dog and shot at the animal and then it ran off. Then, one of his sons, Drew Bell saw a very large, strange looking bird perched on their fence. He originally assumed it was a wild turkey, but as he grew closer, the bird flew away and showed itself not to be a turkey, but some other strange and large fowl-like bird. Betsy, the daughter saw a pretty girl dressed in green hanging from the branches of a tree. And then also, one of the people that the Bells held captive in slavery, Dean, reported continually seeing an apparition of a two-headed dog at night. So then one night, a little while after all these sightings occurred, which I'm assuming occurred over the span of like a month or two, the four sons Bell began to hear a strange sound in their room, it sounded like a rat scratching on the floor. But when they got up to kill the rat, they found no sign of any animal or any scratch or bite marks. But as soon as they went back to bed, the noise began again. And no matter how much they searched, they couldn't find the source. This was the beginning of the Bell Witch haunting.
Lizzie: That's terrifying.
Zoe: Yeah. The noise began to spread to different parts of the house. The whole family searched far and wide, but they couldn't find anything, and it had become far too loud and chaotic to be a rat. They also heard sounds of snarling, sounds that sound like dogs fighting, but again, they couldn't find the sources of these noises.
Lizzie: This was when they first moved to the house?
Zoe: This is a few years after they moved to the house.
Lizzie: Okay, so for a while, it was like nothing weird was happening.
Zoe: Yeah, and then things just like started happening. Then at night, they began to wake up with their bedclothes yanked from their chins to their ankles. They also heard some other sounds similar to that of a gulping sound or smacking of lips. It became impossible to sleep at night except for around 1-3am, which is when the noises ceased. These disturbances continued and soon the spirits began to interact with the Bell family directly. They would- it would pull out their hair or slap their faces, especially when they tried to resist having their covers yanked. Betsy, the youngest daughter, was most affected. She would be slapped or have her hair pulled by invisible forces until she screamed. Even when—
Lizzie: Ooh, that's horrible.
Zoe: Yeah, it's a really rough—
Lizzie: How old were the kids, do you know?
Zoe: Um, so no, to be honest, I'm guessing it depends. There were like a wide variety of ages. I think Betsy was like a teenager.
Zoe: Even when she tried sleeping in another house away from her family, the presence followed her there, and she suffered just as much. The knocks became intelligent in nature, you could ask a question to the air, such as how many people are present, or how many steps between the house and the outhouse. And the unseen force would respond with the proper number of knocks. So it wasn't just random banging. There was like some sort of force behind it.
Lizzie: Okay. I always sort of wondered why ghosts don't just come up and be like, yeah, there's six people here. There's always like, some sort of, like, alternate method of communicating. But I guess that's kind of how it is when you're like a spirit. You can't just like, go into the human world again.
Zoe: Yeah. I mean, I, there's a lot of theories about ghosts like, and—
Lizzie: Like it's not just to be creepy. It's also because they have just, I don't know, the better way to do it. In the beyond.
Zoe: Yeah, there's limited methods of communication.
Zoe: And but speaking of that, the haunting, the spirit began to actually speak to them.
Lizzie: Oh no.
Zoe: So first, she only uttered a whistling sound. And then it developed into a whisper. And then finally a quiet voice. And at some point, someone asked, "who are you and what do you want?" and the spirit responded, "I am a spirit. I was once very happy, but I have been disturbed."
Zoe: And now that the spirit had developed the power of speech, she began to communicate relatively frequently with the family, and even taunt and trick members of the family. So at one point, she told them that she was the ghost of a woman whose body had been unrighteously dug up and disturbed and she was looking for a lost tooth that had been just like, knocked from her skull. When they dug up her bones. The family had actually discovered and partially dug up bones on their property. They went to work searching for the tooth. However, after a lot of painstaking searching, they found nothing and then the spirit mocked them for being so gullible.
Lizzie: Ooh. Okay, that's kind of funny though.
Zoe: She was like, yeah, I made all that up, like, you idiots. And then a little while later, she told the family she had hid a large stash of money under a stone near a creek and that she wanted it dug up and given specifically to Betsy, and—
Lizzie: And that was another lie.
Zoe: Well, okay, so first, she, like, made them sign a contract. And like there'd be witnesses to oversee, like the promise that the money would only be given to Betsy and like no one else in the family. And so she made the family promise. And then they went to work. They lifted this massive rock by the creek and dug a huge hole. And then they found no money and the spirit once again, taunted them for being really gullible. And it was like, you idiots.
Lizzie: That's kinda funny. And why was she so obsessed with Betsy?
Zoe: Um, I mean, it's never really clear that she- why she was so obsessed with Betsy. One of the things, I'm going to talk a little bit about this later, but like, she really didn't want Betsy and Joshua Gardner to get married. She really hated Joshua Gardner, the guy who was courting Betsy, and she would like, pick on both of them, but she would especially pick on Betsy and be like, Don't marry this guy. Or like, if you marry this guy, like something bad's gonna happen to you because of me and stuff like that. So like.
Lizzie: That's so horrible.
Zoe: Yeah. But for some reason, the spirit showed a very thorough knowledge of the Bible.
Lizzie: Oh, okay. That’s fascinating.
Zoe: Yeah, so she could quote passages from the Bible word for word, cite them correctly. And then she would also correct anyone who misquoted the Bible or offered an improper citation. She would also engage in liturgical discussion and people would actually travel far and wide to discuss religion with her because at a certain point, this story of this haunting became like really popular and people would like come from a long way away to witness this haunting for themselves. And like, speak to- speak to the spirit.
Lizzie: Okay. I don't know why people would seek out a ghost, but, okay.
Zoe: Listen, it was the 1800s. People didn't have anything to do, like, spirits were really interesting. Also, this is like, getting a little into it. But this is right at the beginning of the Spiritualism movement. This is like a few decades before spiritualism really takes off. And this is like 1840s to like 18, I don't know 70s, 80s, where people get really into like seances and communicating with spirits and stuff. And it becomes like a huge—
Lizzie: Okay, So maybe this is part of the whole beginning of this?
Zoe: It shows like the seeds, you know, like people are interested in spirits. And yeah, and again, I think like people like didn't have things to do. I mean, they had things to do, but they there was just like work on the farm and stuff. So like, for entertainment, they would travel to this house that was like said to be haunted, and then ask a ghost questions and hear it knock the proper number of times or debate Bible stuff with them.
Lizzie: I don't understand the appeal. But sure.
Zoe: She was also a huge gossip, and she would spread information about everyone else's business and secret affairs and scandals to the rest of the house and the town. She couldn't—
Lizzie: That's really funny. Probably not for the people involved.
Zoe: Yeah. Well, so she could find out what someone was doing in a minute's notice and report it nearly always accurately. So someone would be like, hey, they called her Kate, they would be like, hey, Kate, like, what's this guy doing right now? And she'd be like, give me a second and like, disappear. And then like, or like, you know, not say anything, because they never saw her. Except for like in different animal forms, basically. And then she would come back in a few minutes and be like, this is what this guy's doing right now. And then later, they'd be like, hey, you know, what were you doing at this point in time? And he'd be like, Oh, I was doing this. And it would be exactly what Kate had said.
Lizzie: That's amazing. And could she be like many places at once?
Zoe: Yeah. So there's actually a pretty well popular story of how there were two preachers who were giving sermons at the exact same time. And she like was in the house, like giving the same sermon that one guy was giving at the same time as he was giving it. And then later, they were like, well, what about this other guy? And then she gave the other guy's sermon the exact the exact same way he had performed it.
Lizzie: That's horrifying. And impressive.
Zoe: Yeah. So as a gossip, she actually let her opinions about political upcoming elections, be known. And she told people who to vote for.
Lizzie: Ooh, she was politically active.
Zoe: Yeah. And so because of all this activity, the legend says that the town became a very moral place, and everyone sort of laid off drinking, gambling, affairs, lying, and swearing, because they didn't want everyone to find out like what they were doing through the spirit. And so—
Zoe: —rumors were spread that the Spirit was actually like a good spirit of the Lord, to correct the wrongs of the town because suddenly everyone was like, letting go of their vices because they were afraid of being like caught and found out by the spirit.
Lizzie: And pranking people into digging up holes.
Zoe: Yeah. So, however, despite all this godliness, the spirit was still causing harm to members of the household. As I said before, Betsy was particularly tormented. She began to have spells of 30 to 40 minutes in which she would become completely exhausted, faint, and feel as though she was being smothered. These episodes would happen around the same time every evening and so they were attributed to the spirit. And yeah, like I said it was believed by some to be because the spirit disapproved of her relationship with Joshua Gardner, the man who was courting her at the time. Then Betsy wasn't the only target of the spirit. John Bell Sr. also was being specifically afflicted. He began to feel a quote, "stiffness of the tongue" that prevented him from being able to eat and, quote, "he described it as feeling like a small stick of wood crosswise in his mouth, pressing out both cheeks. And when he attempted to eat it would push the victuals out of his mouth." So like—
Zoe: —when he tried to eat like, his mouth would like push the food out, he couldn't eat. And the condition was minor at first, but it grew worse and worse until his tongue swelled up and he couldn't eat for hours at a time.
Lizzie: That's horrible.
Zoe: The spirit also verbally abused John, called him horrible names. And eventually the abuse of Betsy lessened and the spirit concentrated all her power on John. He began to suffer horrible muscle fits in his face, and the muscles in his face began to seize and contort out of control. So that was sort of what was happening.
Lizzie: So she hated him.
Zoe: She really hated him. Then—
Lizzie: But she didn't hate Betsy, probably, we think?
Zoe: No, but she just picked on Betsy. Then, this is weird, but it was in the book, the spirit developed itself into four main identities. Which were like the family of the spirits, or like, they called it the witch family because they called her a witch, and "Blackdog assumed to be the head of the family," that's the name of one of the spirits, "and spoke in a harsh, feminine tone. The voices of Mathematics and Cypocraphy were different, but both have"—
Lizzie: What is that?
Zoe: Those are the two other spirits, Mathematics and Cyprocraphy.
Lizzie: What is cyprocraphy?
Zoe: I don't know. I should have looked that up.
Zoe: Jerusalem, who was the fourth spirit, "spoke like a boy." So those are the four spirits.
Lizzie: Wait, is Kate not one of these four?
Zoe: So, Kate is like all of them.
Lizzie: Oh, got it. She's the umbrella term.
Lizzie: Got it.
Zoe: Yeah. So the Bells, fin- like, began to really like, ask for help. But whenever someone came over to try and solve their problem, the Bell Witch outsmarted them.
Lizzie: Did they ever try to sell the house and move very far away?
Zoe: So, no, but also like, when they left the house, the spirit followed them. So they probably were like—
Lizzie: They probably figured it wouldn't. Yeah.
Zoe: And like moving is difficult now, but it was probably even more difficult when you're like a farmer in the 1800s.
Lizzie: That's true.
Zoe: So there was this man named Detective Williams, who came by to investigate the haunting. And he was initially very skeptical. The spirit stayed very quiet for the first few days of his visit. And so he was like, there's no spirit here. The Bell family is just making this whole thing up for attention. But then, one night, he went to bed and immediately felt himself pinned to the floor by an unseen force, which was scratching and pounding him. And then the spirit asked him which member of the family he thought was holding him down as she beat him up. And then the beating ceased, Detective Williams was scared out of his wits, and he fled the house. So.
Lizzie As would I. That sounds so awful.
Zoe: Yeah. She showed him that she was real.
Lizzie: I would honestly die of fright if I was one of the characters in this story.
Zoe: Yeah. I don't know.
Lizzie: I would just drop dead like one of those women who die of hysteria, you know?
Zoe: Yeah. One of the most famous visitors to the Bell house was Andrew Jackson, military commander and future US president.
Lizzie: Oh, future president, okay.
Zoe: Yeah, so this is like 1810s, 1820s. So he doesn't become president till—
Lizzie: As though I know when presidents were presidents. When does he become the president?
Zoe: '25 to '33.
Lizzie: Oh. How do you know that?
Zoe: AP U.S. History. Anyways. I could be wrong. If I'm wrong, that's very embarrassing. So.
Lizzie: I believe you. If you say it with confidence.
Zoe: When was the Panic? I might be wrong. It might be '29 to '37. Okay. Okay. Yeah, it was '29 to '37. Oops. Anyways, anyways—
Lizzie: Did you just look it up?
Zoe: No, I just remembered.
Lizzie: Oh, okay, I believe you.
Zoe: But anyways, um, so at this point, he was not president. He was probably becoming more, like, political. He was still very popular because he was really popular after the War of 1812. So people like knew who he was.
Lizzie: So he was just like some military guy people were a fan of.
Zoe: Yeah. And so two of John Bell's sons had actually fought in the War of 1812. And that's how, under his command, so that's how he heard about this.
Zoe: And came by.
Lizzie: It wasn't just so widespread that people were like, this is crazy.
Zoe: Yeah. So—
Lizzie: Maybe both. I don't know.
Zoe: I mean, like, maybe both, but he was probably like, oh, I remember the Bells. They served in my company. I should go see what's up. But yeah, anyways, so he arrived with a party of men, equipped with plenty of supplies for investigation. They were driving in a horse and wagon and moving along well until suddenly, not far from the house, the wagon stopped. No matter how hard the men pushed or the horse pulled, they couldn't get the wheels to turn. After a careful examination of the wheels, Andrew had reportedly declared, "by the eternal, boys, it is the witch." Then they heard a woman's voice coming from the bushes, saying, "all right, General, let the wagon move on. I will see you again tonight." Then the cart started rolling again. Then there was another man in Andrew's party that was known to be a witch catcher. And he spent a bunch of time bragging about how he had a silver bullet in his gun that he could use to kill the witch. So the spirit showed up, started taunting him, dared him to shoot her, and then beat him up, scaring him out of the house. [Lizzie laughs] And so, Andrew Jackson—
Lizzie: I mean, it goes to show. Don't brag.
Zoe: Yeah. And so Andrew Jackson and his party left later that night, they did not spend the entire night at the house. So the spirit—
Lizzie: And then he would go on to become the president.
Zoe: Yep. And then he became the president. And, anyways. We'll talk a bit more about that later, actually.
Lizzie: Oh, really?
Zoe: Yes. So the spirit only ever really seemed to like Mrs. Bell, Lucy. She never really hurt her. And at one point, when Lucy Bell became super sick and bedridden, the spirit kept her comfortable and made sure she had everything she needed. She actually even—
Lizzie: That's really sweet.
Zoe: —sang songs to Mrs. Bell, and brought her hazelnuts and grapes, which were supposedly, like, really healthy and like good for like, healing at the time. Like that was a popular belief.
Lizzie: I wonder if being sung to by the witch was comforting or scary.
Zoe: I mean, I feel like at some point, they got so used to her that like, they were like, yeah, sing to me, you know?
Lizzie: [laughs] Okay, that makes sense.
Zoe: So the spirit like essentially watched over her and nursed her back to health.
Lizzie: That's sweet.
Zoe: Yeah. But, meanwhile, Mr. Bell's fits grew worse and more frequent. He was also severely berated by the voice of the spirit, frequently suffered from her heavy blows, and, one day he experienced a vicious attack when he went outside and took to his bed. He didn't leave the house again, but he was able to move around the house. Until, finally, one morning, he was not awake at his usual time. His family tried to wake him and searched around the medicine cabinet, but could only find a dark, smoky vial. They tested the contents of the vial on the cat, and it died instantly.
Lizzie: Oh, poor cat.
Zoe: Yeah. John Bell rested for almost a day more in semi-consciousness, but soon passed away the next day. After his death, there was silence from the spirit until she was heard singing and mocking him at his funeral.
Lizzie: And what year was this?
Zoe: This was 1821, I believe.
Lizzie: Oh, okay, so this is like the end.
Zoe: Yeah, so actually, my next bullet point is she left after bidding farewell to her beloved Mrs. Bell and saying she would return seven years later. Which she did, but everything, like, this is the end of the main story. And, so, at the time of writing the account, Richard Williams Bell stated that many people had seen strange sightings on the property of the house, including odd flooding lights, beautiful music, and strange voices. And to this day, the property in Tennessee where the Bell Witch is said to have rested, is said to be haunted. And is said to, if you visit there, like, spooky stuff happens. basically.
Lizzie: I would not go there.
Zoe: Do you know what popular bit of media the Bell Witch influenced?
Lizzie: Is it The Blair Witch Project?
Zoe: Yes, it's The Blair Witch Project is the main piece of media that was inspired by the Bell Witch story.
Lizzie: I did not enjoy The Blair Witch Project because I was forced to watch it in film class and I couldn't leave and then I had nightmares.
Zoe: I did not enjoy it simply because I can't watch found footage movies because they give me motion sickness.
Lizzie: [laughs] That makes sense. Yeah, they are not the best cinematography.
Zoe: Yeah, I mean, the cinematography is intentional, but also, I can't watch shaky cam.
Lizzie: But it's not pleasant. That's, that's perfectly understandable.
Zoe: So anyways, who was the Bell Witch? We don't know, obviously, but—
Lizzie: We have no idea.
Zoe: —there is a prevailing theory of who she might have been and it is a woman named Kate Batts. So Kate Batts was an older woman who lived in the area. She had lost her three children before they reached adulthood and her husband was disabled. So she was in charge of running the farm and was very successful at it. So she was actually quite wealthy and prominent and she was also a slaveholder.
Lizzie: What year... is it like, kind of around the same time?
Zoe: This is around the same time.
Zoe: This is around the same time. There is a description of Kate Batts from An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch which says “She was a large fleshy woman, weighing over two hundred pounds, and was headstrong and very exacting in her dealings with men. She was exceedingly jealous of her rights, not always knowing what they were, conceiving the idea that everybody was trying to beat her out of something. Her tongue was fearful. She did not hesitate to tackle any man who came under the ban of her displeasure, with a scourge of epithets.” The women were afraid of her and her dominating spirit, and the men didn't like her either. So, naturally, she was rumored to be a witch, especially due to her habit of asking for a brass pin from every woman she saw.
Lizzie: That is a pretty strange habit.
Lizzie: Why would she want a brass pin from every woman she saw?
Zoe: I don't know. Maybe she just needed pins. Pins are easy to lose. [Lizzie laughs] I've lost many sewing needles.
Lizzie: Fair enough.
Zoe: Yeah. So, one story about Kate Batts says that a man named Joe Edwards was experiencing something similar to possession in church one day, when Kate came in and sat on him. Even though everyone cried out that she was crushing him, he was saved and cried out that he had been redelivered to the Lord and away from whatever spirit was possessing him.
Zoe: Another story tells of a young woman who was churning butter but couldn't seem to get any butter to form despite hours of churning. She became convinced that Kate had bewitched the milk and decided to burn her by sticking an iron poker in the fire and then pouring milk over it. The same girl later went over to Kate's to see the result of her experiment and found Kate nursing a burnt hand. Thus, to her, confirming her belief that Kate was- had cast a spell on the milk and prevented any butter from forming.
Lizzie: Interesting, okay, and she didn't have another story for where the burn came from?
Zoe: She said that she had accidentally grabbed a hot poker out of the fire. Most significantly to our story, it is said that Kate Batts was angry with John Bell for an unfair land purchase in which she believed he had cheated her. Therefore, people believe that the haunting was either the result of a curse that she had placed on the family or her spirit herself, and therefore they call the spirit Kate.
Lizzie: And so she actually met John Bell before she died?
Zoe: Well, so here's the thing. Kate Batts outlived the Bells, like, historically.
Zoe: Which doesn't really work with the legend but she's still like the main, like, the legend is still that like, oh, she was angry with John Bell and then like haunted him in some way or another.
Lizzie: Okay, so she was around for this whole saga. People weren't like, hey, stop hexing him, or, were they? I don't know.
Zoe: I mean, it doesn't say so in the book. So.
Lizzie: Okay. It's just a theory.
Zoe: Yeah. However, other members of the family dispute the claims that she was cruel or rude. So, for example, in his section of An Authenticated History, Richard Williams Bell says, quote, “for convenience sake I shall hereafter call the witch Kate, though not out of any disregard for the memory of Mrs. Batts, for after all she was a clever lady, and did not deserve the cruel appellation of ‘witch.’”
Lizzie: Oh, okay.
Zoe: Yeah. So.
Lizzie: So they're just being mean about this lady. Wait, do they call her Kate- she said she said her name was Kate right? She didn't, they didn't just call her that because of Kate Batts?
Zoe: I think they just called her Kate. So, what are your thoughts?
Lizzie: I did read the Wikipedia page for this a while ago, but I had, did not remember all the details. So some of this was new information. Either way, horrifying, I would run far away and maybe just drop dead of something. But yeah, I want to be like, Oh, she's so cool. But actually, she's so terrifying [Zoe laughs] and I am scared of her.
Lizzie: All respect to her. But, wait, wasn't there like a story of her like going to England or something?
Zoe: I don't- I didn't read that.
Lizzie: I feel like there was a story of somebody being like, oh, something something, and she's like, I'll prove it to you. And she came back with a story from England.
Zoe: Oh, well maybe she did.
Lizzie: I don't know.
Zoe: I mean, I like, didn't include every detail for obvious reasons, because I, like, the story's long enough. And I was like, I don't need to include every single detail. But like she would you know, go—
Lizzie: I feel like I remember a vague story about her going to England. Maybe it was somewhere else in Europe. I feel like it was England.
Zoe: Maybe- it probably was England, to be honest. But yeah, I mean, I believe it.
Lizzie: She came back seven years later?
Zoe: Yeah, she did come back seven years later.
Lizzie: Is that- and did anything interesting happen?
Zoe: Not really.
Lizzie: And people were still alive, right?
Zoe: People were still alive.
Lizzie: Did anything happen to Betsy? Did Betsy marry John Gardner?
Zoe: So, she and him broke off their relationship for a while but eventually they did get married.
Lizzie: Okay, and did anything happened to him after?
Zoe: No, they seemed to have been okay. I mean, like yeah, I think they were relatively- they were, they were okay after, after her father's death.
Lizzie: Okay. Did anything weird happen to anyone else?
Zoe: Not really. So there's like an account at some point where people are like, yeah, I returned to the house like several years later and like I think it was like, Joel Bell or Joe Bell? One of the other sons was there and living there and there was still like haunting stuff happening. But they were just like, chilling. Like they were used to it.
Zoe: So yeah, I mean, I think she never like really fully left but it became, she became less like scary or as much of a threat. And, like—
Lizzie: Once John was gone, she was kind of just chillin' and not haunting people so much?
Zoe: Yeah, I mean, she was probably still like talking and stuff, but they were like less concerned about her as a whole. But, yeah. So, I had trouble finding good analysis of the story, because most scholarship is focused on whether or not the story could be true. And that’s—
Lizzie: That's kind of irrelevant to us.
Zoe: I don't care. That's boring.
Lizzie: Yeah. I agree with that.
Zoe: I, like, there- again, there are some aspects of the story that are provably false. Like the fact that Kate Batts did outlive the Bells, or at least John Bell, like. That's fair.
Lizzie: I mean, surely some of it is, at the least, exaggerated.
Lizzie: But, whatever. We're not concerned with that.
Zoe: But the question of, like, whether or not this entire thing was made up or not, like, I don't know, I don't care. There's no way we could fully prove that or not at this point. And so the story has lasted over the past 100 years, regardless of its truth. And that's more interesting to me than like whether or not every single thing described here actually happened.
Lizzie: Especially because you could never figure that out.
Zoe: Yeah, no, like—
Lizzie: Or, like, figure out the reasons behind it. And it doesn't matter.
Zoe: Yeah. So there are two main explanations for the haunting told in legend throughout the years. So, the first is previously outlined, that the haunting was the spirit or curse of Kate Batts, who's angry because she has been cheated in a land exchange by John Bell. And the second is that the Bell's property was originally a Native American burial ground and the haunting was a result of the unquiet spirits disturbed by the construction of the Bell's house and farm. So, I want to take a moment to talk about the problematic nature of the second theory, which is quite a popular trope in media throughout the years.
Zoe: It's the trope of the quote unquote "Indian burial ground" furthers the image of Native Americans as evil and ruthlessly targeting innocent white settlers. And it also forces a Christian concept of the afterlife onto Native Americans, ignoring their own religious beliefs about death and the afterlife. But, also, this trope furthers the idea that Native Americans are all dead and gone, which is not true. And so, like, Native Americans are still alive today. They're still fighting for their rights today. And so the idea that they'll be—
Lizzie: I'm pretty sure not every single place in the whole country is a burial ground.
Zoe: Yeah. And, so, this is a sidebar, but it's, I think it's irresponsible to mention this trope and legend and not discuss like the harmful implications in it as well.
Lizzie: Also, you probably can't, like, prove it, it just seems like a stupid like, solution.
Zoe: Yeah. And so my analysis of the trope comes from the article “Digging Up the Problem of the Indian Burial Ground Trope” by Shea Vassar. And, in this article, Vassar points out that, like, there's ways to do that it was secretly like a cemetery without being racist. Like, Poltergeist does that with like the plot twist that, oh, they just moved the headstones, they didn't move the bodies, you know, like.
Lizzie: Spoilers. Just kidding, I've never seen that. I don't care. But yeah, I mean, it makes sense that like literally any burial ground or like any place where bodies are buried, could have ghosts or spirits or whatever.
Zoe: Yeah, like, you can see bodies without, like, mystifying it in this weird racist way.
Lizzie: Yeah. And, also, the witch was citing the Bible. It was probably like a Christian settler.
Zoe: Yeah. So, the interesting thing to me about both these explanations is that to me, they seem to show a fundamental insecurity about the land that the bells resided on. Inherent in both these explanations is the idea that the Bells do not have the full rights to own the land that they do. So, in a way, the story seems to question the ideas of colonialism, and perhaps marks some relic of guilt about land theft, and acquisition of land in ways that are questionable at best. And I think that's especially interesting, considering that Andrew Jackson plays such a role in this legend, as well, like, of all historical figures, and also there's like, again, we don't really, I don't want to, like talk that much about what's true or not. But there's no like historical evidence supporting that Andrew Jackson ever came to the Bells' house, but it's such a, like, deep part of the legend that, like, most people bring him up whenever they talk about the Bell Witch house. So. It's really interesting—
Lizzie: And what if I didn't pay attention in US history and I don't know what he did?
Zoe: I'm about to talk about it, Lizzie!
Lizzie: [laughs] Okay.
Zoe: It's very interesting that Andrew Jackson is, like, so associated with this legend because he was the architect of the Trail of Tears, which was—
Zoe: —the brutal displacement and essentially a genocide of Native Americans from what is now known as the southeastern United States. Nations that were displaced in this included the Muscogee, the Cherokee, the Seminole, the Chickasaw, and the Choctaw nations. And Andrew was known for being a harsh, fierce general. And so, the story of him being frightened out of the house by the spirit is very interesting. It's like a humiliating story for him. So.
Zoe: And also, people really like Andrew Jackson, especially in the 1800s. So it's interesting—
Lizzie: So this would kind of go against the grain of being like, oh, he was so scared, he ran away and his cart didn't work.
Zoe: Yeah, it's interesting to me that that's involved. So, like, I can definitely acknowledge that this is a reach, but I do wonder if the legend is representative of some wider white settler colonial guilt. And then also, alternatively, the legend could just be an extension of the settler colonial idea that people still have a right to the land that they have taken by force. And the haunting could just be, again, a representation of the struggles that pioneering Americans faced as they colonized westward.
Lizzie: I'm wondering if the enslaved people on the Bell property also has stories of the Bell Witch haunting them? Did they leave, did she leave them alone? Or did they just not care enough to talk about it? Like, the people around the Bell family?
Zoe: So... So, yeah, so they talk about this. So first of all, there's the story of Dean, who has the experience of often seeing like a two-headed dog creature when he's like going back to his house at night. But then there's also the fact that the Bell Witch really hated Black people and didn't want to be with them, ever.
Lizzie: She just didn't want to be associated with them at all.
Lizzie: Oh, well, that's not exactly a happy ending, then.
Zoe: No. But that's what's in the text. That's part of the text.
Lizzie: They weren't being like, haunted.
Zoe: Yeah, she didn't haunt them because she hated Black people.
Lizzie: Wow. Oh, yeah. I guess if it was Kate Batts, she also was a slaveholder.
Zoe: And that also supports the idea of like, this is, I mean, everything about her as like a spirit plays into the, the lens, I guess of, you know, white Christian settler colonizer white supremacist, like. It makes zero sense to be like, oh, she's a spirit of an indigenous person. Because that, like there's, that doesn't make any sense at all. And the only reason to say that is to be like—
Lizzie: The only reason to think that is like, yeah, mysticizing everything.
Zoe: —it was a Native American burial ground.
Lizzie: It was so scary. Yeah.
Zoe: Yeah, you know, which is like, gross and bad.
Lizzie: Not, not the right conclusion.
Zoe: And so, like, since we're, I believe, like in the texts, we're meant to sympathize with the Bells throughout their struggle, I think like, potentially, it's more of just like, oh, this is what you know, the colonizers went through, like the pioneers went through so much hardship when they like, went out on their land, you know—
Lizzie: Killed people.
Zoe: —and struck out on their own, which like, ugh, whatever.
Lizzie: Stole land.
Zoe: Yeah, when they stole land and massacred people and broke treaties.
Lizzie: It was so hard for them.
Zoe: It was really hard for them. But, yeah, so I'm potentially more inclined to believe that like, the point is more like oh, this is just you know, the American man like striking out on his own. And this is what happens sometimes, but like, I mean, I do think it's interesting that, you know, there is an emphasis on like, improperly, like, owned, like land like land that you own that you shouldn't own. I do think that's interesting. So then another interesting aspect of the legend is the demonization of Kate Batts. So, the account of Kate Batts by Ingram is different from Richard William Bell's description, as I explained, however, although most accounts of the Bell Witch legend are based on Bell's account, Kate Batts is still the most popular culprit. Like, people, if you like, listen to like, people talking about it on podcasts or whatever, they're like, yeah, like it was this woman Kate probably, who, like, cursed the land, you know? Even though like—
Lizzie: They probably want to pin it on someone.
Lizzie: And that's the only real candidate.
Zoe: Yeah. And, like, they all call her Kate. Like they do call her Kate throughout the entire, like, story. So, like, the descriptions of Batts from Ingram are super monstrous and dehumanizing. She's described to be the opposite of the ideal woman from the time period. And she's large—
Lizzie: I do find it odd that they led by being like, she's 200 pounds.
Zoe: Which isn't that big? Like, she's large and menacing—
Lizzie: It's not an important detail.
Zoe: —and she's also the one who runs her farm instead of her husband. So she's like, she's the woman in charge, which is like, nuh-uh, you shouldn't do that, ladies. She's also supposed to be super rude and foul-mouthed. And so basically, she's not a lady. She is... basically all these images are meant to demonize Kate Batts and make her unsympathetic to the reader. Like we're not supposed to like her reading about that from Ingram.
Lizzie: I wonder if some of these traits were sort of retroactively placed on her like, oh, yeah, we all hated her. And she was just like the witch and she was so mean.
Lizzie: 'Cause they just didn't like her.
Zoe: Yeah. And so Kate Batts' story, as outlined by Ingram, is one that we often see in early American folklore. We've got a wealthy, prosperous, and independent woman who does not conform to the standards set by the society she lives in, and therefore is ostracized and called a witch. She's scapegoated for all the small troubles that occur in town and eventually larger troubles as well. And so the story of the Bell Witch and other stories of witchcraft from the 16 to the 1800s serve as a moral tale against women becoming wealthy and independent and help uphold gender norms.
Lizzie: And then the husband being disabled as well.
Zoe: Yeah, like he's emasculated—
Lizzie: [overlapping] emasculated and then she's taking that place.
Lizzie: Which is also bad for everyone involved. Because that's super wrong and the reverse of what's supposed to be happening.
Zoe: Exactly, yeah. And so, finally, I feel like the Bell Witch could be interpreted as a story of family trauma. So like, Kate, the witch slash spirit, is an interesting character because she's not fully evil. She's able to quote and cite scripture and have lengthy conversations about the Bible. And so, according to like popular ideas about like demons and spirits at the time, like, if she was actually a demon, she could not quote the scripture or talk about God. Like the idea is that like demons cannot like say prayers or talk about God.
Lizzie: Oh, really?
Zoe: Yeah, so that's the concept. So, like, the idea... do you remember in The Witch or The VVitch? You know, the movie with Anya Taylor-Joy?
Lizzie: I actually didn't watch that movie.
Zoe: Lizzie. [sighs]
Lizzie: [laughs] Sorry.
Zoe: Well, anyway, there's a part where like, the some people are like, I can't remember my prayers. I can't say my prayers. And it, like, means that, like, they've been influenced by the devil. Because if you can't say your prayers, like if you physically can't say your prayers, that means that like you're possessed, because demons can't say prayers. They can't do anything holy.
Zoe: And so like, the fact that she can talk about the Bible is really interesting, because that means she's not, like, a demon.
Lizzie: She's just a weird spirit lady.
Zoe: She's just like, weird, yeah. And then she's also—
Lizzie: I think it's a bit of fun that she plays pranks on people. And she's like, gossiping about people. It's kind of fun.
Zoe: Yeah. And then she's also kind to Mrs. Bell and nurses her back to health when she's sick. So, like, she does kind things. But she's also not good. You know, she beats members of the family, she berates and insults them constantly, and she kills John Bell.
Lizzie: And she does physically like torture and hurt them as well. Not just John.
Zoe: And despite the intervention of friends leaving the house and all their begging, they can't get rid of her. So, for me, the Bell Witch could be said to represent an abusive relationship dynamic. She can be both kind and cruel and can switch at a moment's notice. And she plays favorites and anti-favorites. Unfavorites. She isolates the Bells from the rest of their community and makes them unsafe in their own home. Furthermore, she does not leave. She disappears for a while, but returns seven years later, and members of the Bell family report hauntings from her years down the road. To this day, the property of the Bells is said to be haunted and dangerous. And so the 1800s were a time when family troubles such as domestic violence were both normalized and not spoken about. The creation of a being such as the Bell Witch would allow the Bell family members or other people in this time who are later discussing the story and telling it to each other, a way to discuss their experiences of abuse and trauma in a more acceptable lens at the time, i.e., demons and witchcraft. So, discussing these experiences, even in a veiled way could eventually help them process trauma and lead to healing.
Lizzie: Yeah, like we were talking about a bit like last episode, sometimes, I don't know, sometimes you just can't talk about this sort of thing. And then you use some sort of like allegory in order to be able to discuss it and like and be able to be able to talk about it and like heal from it.
Zoe: For sure. Yeah. Like, I mean, so one of the, like, prevailing theories is that, you know, Betsy made it up to disguise the fact that her father was abusing her. Which, like, sure, again, like who's to say, but it does show, you know, like that this is a period of intense abuse, from some, like, really frightening and seemingly omnipresent force in their life, you know, and whatever way that you know, like, if they're talking about it, either as like something they actually experienced that was haunting them for years constantly, or as a way to discuss the abuse that she's experiencing. Like, it's just a way, it's a way to express what you're going through. Like, you're going through something really awful, and you need a way to talk about it.
Lizzie: Yeah, but also the other children and the parents also experienced abuse from her as well. So it wasn't just Betsy, although Betsy did get a lot of the brunt of it.
Zoe: Betsy got the worst and so did Mr. Bell. And Mrs. Bell didn't really ever experience anything super bad. Except for, I guess, seeing the rest of her family being abused.
Lizzie: I mean, it must have been like a weird feeling to be the favorite and not get hurt.
Lizzie: Because that's probably not very desirable either, to be doted on by a witch. Like it would be very spooky.
Zoe: Yeah, absolutely.
Lizzie: It wouldn't be like, this rocks. It would be like, what's going on?
Zoe: Yeah. I mean it also like, the fear that eventually she might turn on you, too. Like, because you don't know.
Zoe: She likes you right now, but maybe in the future you will also be like having these horrible—
Lizzie: Can't get too comfortable.
Zoe: Yeah, exactly. Which is definitely, like, an abuse, like, experience.
Lizzie: Yeah, definitely.
Zoe: Of always being on edge. And, so, yeah, that's the story of the Bell Witch.
Lizzie: It was very on theme for Halloween. You know, I remember when I read the Wikipedia page several months ago, and then forgot stuff about it, I was thinking that, I was thinking that it would be, like I was, like, thinking about what you would say if we were talking about it on Mytholadies. So, so fun that we're talking about it on Mytholadies.
Zoe: Yeah, no, I remembered you talking about it and I was like, well, this would be a fun episode theme. And then I was like, no, I'm not gonna do it. And then I was like, yes, I'm gonna do it. And then I was like, no, and then I was like, yes. And then finally I did it.
Lizzie: And it's a great time.
Zoe: I hope so.
Lizzie: Okay, so, thank you for today's episode, Zoe, and thank you everyone for listening. Please feel free to subscribe, listen to our other episodes, and leave a review, and we will see you again in two weeks.
Zoe: Thank you so much. Happy Halloween.
Lizzie: Mytholadies podcast is produced, researched, and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Mytholadies and visit us on our website at mytholadies.com. Our cover artist is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening, see you in two weeks.