I love a good story…
(Actually I love ripping a good story apart)
Many years ago, when we hung our hats in Nashville, a friend of ours suggested I take a little ‘look-see’ into the story, so I did what any rational adult would do: I gassed up the car, made sure I had some lipstick on and threw the husband, the children, the dog into the car hightailing it to Robertson County where I started knocking on doors much to my family’s mortification– asking What they knew? Where to go? Who’s your momma? See… RATIONAL.
We were instructed to go down “that dirt road until you come to a double-wide off to the river side and a real mangy looking dog on a chain. That’d be Jesse’s house and he can sell you a ticket to the caves”.
“Oh yea. Them caves figure right into that poor family’s misery all hainted and such. He’s the last of ’em. It’s his property.”
“Is there a graveyard or the original house?”
“House dun burned down long time back but there’s a marker where them all is a restin’.”
“I thought Betsy finished her life in Misssissippi and is buried down there? “
“Well, all of them that didn’t make it out, that is”.
Reminds me of my family, but I digress…Thanks”
Fast forward a decade, several books, some library visits, reading between the lines, and a little helper called the interwebs and I believe I’ve cracked the case.
The ORIGINAL Story goes something like this:
John William Bell is born in North Carolina around 1750.
He marries and moves his growing family (and slaves- I mention this because it will factor into the story) to Tennessee to stake his own claim and farm his own land.
When his second daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) turns 12, (with the older daughter married and out of the home) the
family Betsy is suddenly afflicted with poltergeist activity; her things go missing, her hair is pulled in the night, her bedcovers get thrown off, her face shows slap marks as well as bruising on her body. The family, though horrified concludes it’s a haunting.
Of course they did…
Eventually this ‘spirit’ will even talk- sorta like hearing a voice from afar
on the other side of the wall. And She (Yes, it sounds faintly feminine) swears, and is disrespectful, and shares secrets, and makes predictions (poorly it turns out) and generally just taunts the hell out of Daddy.
The ‘spirit’ calls herself Kate, which just happens to be the name of the woman John has been having a feud with for years and the community considers ‘crazy’.
This goes on and on and on (for around two-three years) until, lo and behold, the old man dies allegedly having been poisoned by the ‘Spirit’ Kate- then poof all better.
Let’s tell it another way shall we?
John William Bell is born in North Carolina around 1750 to very wealthy parents.
John is a bit of a skirt chaser and is an unpleasant presence in the slave quarters.
The town is talking and Daddy is getting a little bit sick of cleaning up after him, so Daddy offers him the cash downpayment for 300+ acres in the far off land of Tennessee, and the ownership papers on several slaves, if he will marry for the love of God and get a move on.
John (age 40) agrees and marries 18yo (of course) Lucy Williams.
The Bell’s, and other members of their extended family, make their way to Tennessee, and in 1804 stake their claim and grow their family and tobacco. (Lucy will have nine children over their 23 year marriage. Kill me now).
They have four sons, then a daughter, then another son, then the ‘victim’ of our story Betsy, then two more boys.
Though John is supposedly a pious man, he does have a few questionable run-ins with the community over slave agreements and land deals. In fact, he is EXCOMMUNICATED from his church for “covetousness” and “contempt”.
I wonder if that had the same meaning then as it does now?
In the meantime, his youngest daughter is showing up battered for breakfast- and I don’t mean part of the pancake mix.
His slaves are also mysteriously showing signs of physical harm. One in particular. The old house servant who has a special place in his heart for Betsy.
Yet, there sits poor John, all “Look at me. Isn’t Kate a meany? Why does she say these things? I’m not feeling well. We could sell tickets! Burp. We have a great opportunity here! Why is my arm suddenly without feeling? I’ll show that damn Church who’s pious enough! Dear Lord my head hurts. Spread the Word!”
And the people came- and when they left they gave gifts, and sympathy, and questioned the Church’s motives, and shunned the REAL Kate on their way out of town, and spread the story of poor tormented John Bell and his difficult situation.
And mother Lucy, did not much (What could she do?), except accept the accolades of the Spirit, who loved her dearly, and assure her eldest daughter Esther, upon the occasional visit, that the same thing was not happening to Betsy that had happened to her.
It turns out that a prepubescent Esther had had a run-in with ‘spirits’ as well.
As for the Cave- it was place the children liked to play, until, suddenly the summer Betsy turned 12, they never wanted to set foot in it again.
So, there we were at the doublewide with the mangy dog.
“Is this the Bell property?”
“Hi! We are, well, really ‘I’m’ here, to explore the Bell Witch legend. I understand you sell tickets to the caves?”
“I’d like to purchase a few. Can you tell me anything about what happened here?”
“Well… Ya’ll need to see Minnie down at the Exxon. She sells da books. An’ Old Henry at the Society sells the ticket to see the art-TIE-facts from da old homestead- some china and such. That’ll be $20 and you go around back and follow the path. I don’t go there much. Full of bats. If ya’ll wanna see the cemetery thata’ be $20 more. If youz wanna see where Kate Bates old house was you take a left at the light and it’s the red diner. Sally probably want youz to order a bite though before she shows you out back, though da house ain’t there anymore but the ‘Spirit’ still ’round.”
And I can see it’s still screwing people.”