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An artist's etching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894.
The Bell Witch or Bell Witch Haunting is a poltergeist legend from Southern United States folklore, involving the Bell family of Adamsmarker, Tennesseemarker. The legend is the basis of the films An American Haunting (2006) and The Bell Witch Haunting (2004).

John Bell Jr. also wrote a book presenting the story as history.


An artist's drawing of Betsy Bell, originally published in 1894.

According to the legend, the first manifestation of the haunting occurred in 1817 when John William Bell, Sr. encountered a strange animal in a cornfield on his large farm in Robertson County, on the Red River, near Adams, Tennessee. The animal, described as having the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit [probably an Aardvark], vanished when Bell shot at it. This incident was quickly followed by a series of strange beating and gnawing noises manifesting outside and eventually inside the Bell residence. Betsy Bell, the family's younger daughter and the only daughter still living at home (Bell's oldest daughter Esther married Alexander Bennett Porter July 24, 1817), claimed to have been assaulted by an invisible force.

An artist's drawing of John Bell Sr.'s death, originally published in 1894.
In the foreground one can see a couple of men feeding the family cat with some of the unidentified liquid which was found near the body of Bell Sr..
Bell Sr., later in life, suffered frequent facial seizures, often rendering him speechless. He died on December 20, 1820. A small vial containing an unidentified liquid he allegedly ingested was found near his body. When some of the contents were force-fed to the family cat, the animal died. The vial was then disposed of in the fireplace.

Pat Fitzhugh's retelling of the Bell Witch legend concludes with a statement to the effect that some people believe that the spirit returned in 1935, the year when the witch claimed it would return ("one hundred years and seven" past 1828), and took up residence on the former Bell property. Other sources say that 1935 brought nothing out of the ordinary to the Bell descendants or the surrounding community.

Published accounts

The earliest written account is at page 833 in the Goodspeed History of Tennessee, published in 1887 by Goodspeed Publishing.

The most famous account is recorded in what has come to be called the Red Book, the 1894 An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by Martin Van Buren Ingram, which cites the earlier Richard William Bell's Diary: Our Family Trouble. Richard Williams Bell lists several witnesses, including General (later President) Andrew Jackson. However, no mention of the Bell Witch was ever made by Jackson in any of his letters, journals or papers.

The Black Book was written much later, and published in 1934 by Dr. Charles Bailey Bell, great-grandson of John Bell.

Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham includes the story of the Bell Witch.

The Guidebook for Tennessee, published by the Works Project Administration in 1939, also contains an account that differs from Ingram's on pages 392–393.

In popular culture

  • Other Worlds, a book published under the name of Barbara Michaels (a pen name of Barbara Mertz) in 1999, includes a detailed version of the Bell Witch events.
  • Bell Witch: The Movie starring Betsy Palmer was shot in 2002 in Tennesseemarker and released to video in September 2007.
  • The Bell Witch Haunting is a 2004 film made by Willing Hearts Productions. Filmed near the original location, the director claims to have encountered production difficulties such as fires and expresses the opinion that the Bell Witch might have been responsible.
  • On May 5, 2006 a film based on the Bell Witch legend, titled An American Haunting, was released. An American Haunting is a thriller written and directed by Courtney Solomon. It is closely based on the narrative presented by author Brent Monahan in his novel, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. This movie's explanation of the phenomena, derived from the novel, was that John Bell sexually assaulted his daughter, and her repressed memories of the event were transferred to the "hauntings of the witch". Despite being based on a work of fiction, the film was marketed as a true story.
  • In October 2003, the Nashville Ballet and Nashville Chamber Orchestra premiered The Bell Witch, a one-act story ballet with an original score by Conni Ellisor, choreography by Ann Marie De Angelo, and 3-D effects by artist Gerald Marks.
  • The Bell Witch - promotional EP released by Mercyful Fate to herald the band's reunion album. It features two tracks off In the Shadows, of which one is based on the American legend of The Bell Witch, plus four live tracks. The EP was released in 1994.
  • The T.E.D. Klein novella The Events at Poroth Farm begins with a strange animal sighting similar to the one experienced by John Bell.
  • In 2003 Nashville Ballet commissioned Ann Marie DeAngelo to choreograph a ballet about the legend called The Bell Witch with original music by Conni Ellisor.


  1. Hendrix, Grady, "Little Ghost on the Prairie", Slate, May 4, 2006.

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