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Bell Witch of Tennessee

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Gen. Andrew Jackson

Remarkable and Amusing Incidents Attending the Great Soldier and Statesman's Visit to the Witch, and Other Reminiscences

 

  Andrew Jackson's Wagon is "Held" by the Witch

Col. Thomas L. Yancey, a prominent lawyer of the Clarksville, Tenn., bar, who is closely related to the Fort family, was raised in the Bell settlement, and has been familiar with the stories of the witch as told by different witnesses from his youth up, contributes the following interest­ing sketch from notes taken with a view to writ­ing the history. In addition to the visit of Gen. Jackson and party, it will be observed that he confirms the statements of three other parties in regard to Dr. Sugg's experience:

CLARKSVILLE, TENN.

Jan. 1, 1894

M. E Ingram - Dear Sir:

In answer to your inquiry as to what I know about the Bell Witch excitement of many years ago, I will state that I was born within four miles of the John Bell home, where the witch is said to have disported itself to the terror of many good and pious souls. While quite a young man I became much interested in the stories my relatives and other people told in regard to the phenomenon, which I had heard repeated from my earliest recollection, and ambitious in my youth to discover the cause and write a history of the affair, I determined to enter into the investigation, and did some forty years ago undertake the matter, gathering many amusing and strange incidents, but not sufficiently connected and au­thenticated to justify my purpose. I soon learned that Williams Bell was the only person who had kept a diary of what transpired, and had written the facts, leaving the manuscript with his wife or some member of his family at his death. Of course I was anxious to get the paper, and not being acquainted with Williams Bell's widow, I applied to Squire John Bell, Jr., to know if such manuscript was in existence, and if it could be had for publication.  He informed me that his brother had written the facts, etc., regarding the mystery, and that Washington Lowe, a lawyer of Springfield, had applied for it and been refused.  He thought, however, he could induce his brother's family to let him have it, and promised to intercede for me.  Some time after this he told me that he could not get it, that the family refused to let him or any one have it, and after this I gave up the purpose of writing a book and pursued the investigation no further.  However, I remember some very graphic stories told by the old people who visited the scene often, stated as having absolutely occurred, and told in all seriousness by persons whose veracity I could not doubt. My grandfather, Whitmel Fort, told me that he visited the place often during the excitement, meeting with many persons from a distance who came to investigate the witch. Grandfather said he could in no way account for the phenomena. There was no doubt of the fact that some­thing persecuted Miss Betsy Bell terribly after she retired to bed.  He went with others to her relief amid her outcries of agony, and they all could not hold the bed covering on her, so powerful was the unseen object in pulling it off. Even could this have been accounted for, the keen ringing sound like that of a hand slapping her jaws when she would scream with pain, and the deep red splotches left on her cheeks, were mysterious beyond comprehension.

Grandfather Fort also told me the story of Gen. Jackson's visit to the witch, which was quite amusing to me.  The crowds that gathered at Bell's, many coming a long distance, were so large that the house would not accommodate the com­pany.  Mr. Bell would not accept any pay for entertaining, and the imposition on the family, being a constant thing, was so apparent, that par­ties were made up and went prepared for camping out.  So Gen. Jackson's party came from Nashville with a wagon loaded with a tent, provisions, etc., bent on a good time and much fun investi­gating the witch. The men were riding on horseback and were following along in the rear of the wagon as they approached near the place, discuss­ing the matter and planning how they were going to do up the witch, if it made an exhibition of such pranks as they had heard of.  Just then, within a short distance of the house, traveling over a smooth level piece of road, the wagon halted and stuck fast. The driver popped his whip, whooped and shouted to the team, and the horses pulled with all of their might, but could not move the wagon an inch.  It was dead stuck as if welded to the earth. Gen. Jackson commanded all men to dismount and put their shoulders to the wheels and give the wagon a push.  The order was promptly obeyed.  The driver laid on the lash and the horses and men did their best, making repeated efforts, but all in vain; it was no go. The wheels were then taken off, one at a time, and examined and found to be all right, revolving easily on the axles. Another trial was made to get away, the driver whipping up the team while the men pushed at the wheels, and still it was no go. All stood off looking at the wagon in serious meditation, for they were "stuck."  Gen. Jackson after a few moments thought, realizing that they were in a fix, threw up his hands exclaiming, "By the eternal, boys, it is the witch."  Then came the sound of a sharp metallic voice from the bushes, saying, "All right General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again to-night."  The men in bewildered astonishment looked in every direction to see if they could discover from whence came the strange voice, but could find no explanation to the mystery.  Gen. Jackson exclaimed again, "By the eternal, boys, this is worse than fighting the British."  The horses then started unexpectedly of their own accord, and the wagon rolled along as light and smoothly as ever.  Jackson's party was in no good frame of mind for camping out that night, notwithstanding one of the party was a professional "witch layer," and boasted much of his power over evil spirits, and was taken along purposely to deal with Kate, as they called the witch. The whole party went to the house for quarters and comfort, and Mr. Bell, recognizing the distinguished character of the leader of the party, was lavishing in courtesies and entertainment.  But Gen. Jackson was out with the boys for fun and "witch hunting" was one of them for the time. They were expect­ing Kate to put in an appearance according to promise, and they chose to set in a room by the light of a tallow candle waiting for the witch.  The witch layer had a big flintlock army or horse pistol, loaded with a silver bullet, which he held steady in hand, keeping a close lookout for Kate. He was a brawny man, with long hair, high cheekbones, hawk-bill nose and fiery eyes.  He talked much, entertaining the company with details of his adventures, and exhibitions of un­daunted courage and success in overcoming witches. He exhibited the tip of a black cat's tail, about two inches, telling how he shot the cat with a silver bullet while sitting on a bewitched woman's coffin, and by stroking that cat's tail on his nose it would flash a light on a witch the darkest night that ever come; the light, however, was not visible to any one but a magician.  The party was highly entertained by the vain stories of this dolt. They flattered his vanity and en­couraged his conceit, laughed at his stories, and called him sage, Apollo, oracle, wiseacre, etc.  Yet there was an expectancy in the minds of all left from the wagon experience, which made the mage's stories go well, and all kept wide awake till a late hour, when they became weary and drowsy, and rather tired of hearing the warlock detail his exploits.  Old Hickory was the first one to let off tension.  He commenced yawning and twisting in his chair.  Leaning over he whispered to the man nearest him, "Sam, I'll bet that fellow is an arrant coward. By the eternals, I do wish the thing would come, I want to see him run."  The General did not have long to wait.  Presently perfect quiet reigned, and then was heard a noise like dainty footsteps prancing over the floor, and quickly following, the same metallic voice heard in the bushes rang out from one corner of the room, exclaiming, "All right, General, I am on hand ready for business."  And then addressing the witch layer, "Now, Mr. Smarty, here I am, shoot."  The seer stroked his nose with the cat's tail, leveled his pistol, and pulled the trigger, but it failed to fire. "Try again," exclaimed the witch, which he did with the same result. "Now its my turn; lookout, you old coward, hypocrite, fraud. I'll teach you a lesson."  The next thing a sound was heard like that of boxing with the open hand, whack, whack, and the Oracle tumbled over like lightning had struck him, but he quickly recovered his feet and went capering around the room like a fright­ened steer, running over every one in his way, yelling, "Oh my nose, my nose, the devil has got me.  Oh Lordy!  He's got me by the nose."  Suddenly, as if by its own accord, the door flew open and the witch layer dashed out, and made a beeline for the lane at full speed, yelling every jump.  Everybody rushed out under .the excitement, expecting the man would be killed, but as far as they could hear up the lane, he was still running and yelling, “Oh Lordy.”  Jackson, they say, dropped down on the ground and rolled over and over, laughing.  "By the eternal, boys, I never saw so much fun in all my life. This beats fighting the British."  Presently the witch was on hand and joined in the laugh. “Lord Jesus,” it exclaimed, “How the old devil did run and beg; I'll bet he won’t come here again with his old horse pistol to shoot me.  I guess that's fun enough for tonight, General, and you can go to bed now.  I will come tomorrow night and show you another rascal in this crowd."  Old Hickory was anxious to stay a week, but his party had enough of that thing.  No one knew whose turn would come next, and no inducements could keep them.  They spent the next night in Springfield, and returned to Nashville the following day.

There was much talk about the witch shaking hands with one of the Johnson's, a near neighbor, and Patrick McGowin, a highly esteemed Irishman, who lived across the line in Montgomery County, and had refused to shake hands with all other persons, for the reason, as was stated the witch said, thee two men were honest and truth­ful and could be trusted when they promised not to try to hold or squeeze its hand.  I knew Mr. McGowen well, who was then getting to be quite an old man, and knew he was cautious, prudent and perfectly reliable in all he said.  This was his general character, and I went to see him ex­pressly to hear his own statement about the mat­ter.  We discussed the witch and the many mysterious stories in regard to the occurrences at Bell's, which he could in no way account for. I asked him particularly about the handshaking. The old gentleman talked about it with some reluctance.  He said the witch did offer to shake hands with him, but he was not sure it could be called a handshaking.  He held out his hand for that purpose, and felt something in his hand, which felt like a hairy substance. Calvin John­son described that which he felt, like unto a woman's hand.

Dr. Henry Sugg was a man of great prominence in that community. He was quite a small boy during the reign of the witch, and of course never witnessed the early demonstration; and growing up skeptical, did not believe the stories told by the older people.  He was disposed to ridicule the whole matter when spoken of, and he heard much about it in his practice among the sick. The old Bell house was torn down after the death of the old people, and moved to the place near Brown's ford, now owned by Levi Smith. It was also said that when the witch took its departure, it promised to return after a certain number of years and remain permanently, and this many people believed.  This brings me to Dr. Sugg's statement which I had from his own lips.  He was called to see a patient at this house, some thirty years after the witch first disappeared, or in the fifties.  If I mistake not, he said Joel Bell lived there or owned the place.  Anyway, the subject of the Bell Witch came up, and the man told about the strange noise heard and ridiculous things that had occurred the night before, and said he was sure that it was the Bell Witch.  Dr. Sugg laughed at the man and told him it was all imagination, that the Bell Witch was a hoax and there never was anything in it, ridiculing his superstition.  Just then he heard a terrible rattling of the vials in his medical bag, setting on the floor near the door, where he had placed the pocket as he entered the house, and immediately following the rattling noise came the sound of explosion, as if every bottle in the valise had burst or the corks all popped out.  He rushed immediately to the pockets to see what had hap­pened, and found everything intact, just as it should be.  Then it was the other man's turn to ridicule him.  He, however, tried to explain the phenomena to the satisfaction of the superstitious man, and while doing so the same sound was re­peated with still greater force, and the second examination discovered nothing wrong or out of place in the valise, and, said he, "I could find no explanation for the mystery, and never have; it was so remarkable and unmistakable that there could be no explanation."

Mrs. Wimberly, who was a daughter of Mat. Ligon, told me about the visit of Betsy Bell to her father's on the occasion when the witch followed and abused her dreadfully, boxing her jaws, pinching her arms and pulling her hair, calling her ugly names, for trying to run away from it.  Ligon's family got no rest that night, and were terribly frightened.  I could tell you many other stories in regard to this unexplained mystery, but no doubt you have them all from the statement of Williams Bell and others.

T. L. YANCEY

The house referred to by Col. Yancey is the same building in which Reynolds Powell and Allen Bell had a lively experience some time about 1861, as described in another chapter. The body of the house is made of hewed logs, now probably 100 years old, well preserved by weatherboarding.

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