Gen. Andrew Jackson
Remarkable and Amusing Incidents Attending the Great Soldier and Statesman's Visit to the Witch, and Other Reminiscences
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:
E Ingram - Dear Sir:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
T. L. YANCEY
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.