Science may finally unravel the centuries-old, paranormal tale of the Bell family haunting, a story that’s captured the imagination of area residents and Hollywood executives alike for more than 200 years.
Austin Peay State University’s Dr. Meagan Mann, an assistant professor of chemistry, talked about her research and subsequent theories on the Bell Witch during a Science on Tap event, held in Clarksville earlier this month.
“I’m hoping that people can see this old and magical case through new and scientific eyes,” Mann said in prepared statements, ahead of an interview with the Leaf-Chronicle.
Ancient and modern folklore suggests the Bell Witch poisoned the family’s patriarch John Bell, something Mann’s research can explain through science.
Mann began researching the Bell Witch in 2008 and appeared in the debut of A&E’s new American documentary drama and paranormal investigative series, Cursed: The Bell Witch. The five-part show premiered in October of 2015 and was filmed on location in Adams, Tenn.
She became interested in the legend shortly after moving to Robertson County, when she spotted the Bell Witch cave sign on Interstate 24’s exit 11.
“I didn’t know what it was, so I was curious, and that’s when I started looking into it,” Mann said, noting that one of the biggest draws to the tale is its believability.
“It has some level of truth behind it which is unusual for a ghost story. We know that John Bell and his family were real people. There are records that these people lived here in this area, and so that kind of sets it apart from a lot of other legends in a way that’s kind of fun, I think.”
The story starts with John Bell, a farmer from North Carolina who moved with his family to a 320-acre, northern Robertson County farm in 1804.
For more than a decade, the Bell family lived in peace, until strange events began occurring around the farm and their home in the summer of 1817. They began to see strange-looking animals and heard knocking sounds on the door and walls at night, according to legend.
Other disturbing sounds included rats gnawing on bed posts, chains dragging through the home, stones dropping on the floor and gulping and choking sounds.
Eventually, the family made contact with a paranormal entity who identified itself as the witch of a neighbor named Kate Batts. From then on, it was known as Kate or the Bell Witch.
For the next three years, “Kate” tormented the family, none more so than John Bell and his daughter, Betsy Bell, who was pinched, scratched, stuck with pins and beaten, according to legend. Some historians say the witch’s efforts were meant to keep Betsy Bell from marrying the family’s neighbor Joshua Gardner and to ultimately kill John Bell – though no reason as to why had ever been provided.
In December of 1820, John Bell died from poisoning. Betsy Bell broke off her engagement with Gardner the following year.
Over the last century, it’s thought that “Kate” has returned twice, once in 1828 and again in 1935 – though many local residents believe she’s never truly left the area and remains in Adams today.
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For Mann, one of the most fascinating aspects of the legend has to do with John Bell’s medical symptoms.
“At the bottom of that story is really a poisoning… John Bell was supposedly poisoned to death,” she said.
In an effort to learn more, she dove into a written account of the haunting, Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee by Richard Williams Bell, John Bell’s son.
“His son talked about all of these strange medical symptoms he was having, and a lot of them sounded very neurological to me, as someone who knows a bit about things like biochemistry and toxicology,” Mann said.
“He would have trouble swallowing, and his tongue felt weird… he would start getting this weird twitching sensation in his face, and eventually, it grew to the point where it was kind of impacting him in other parts of his body – and if that happened to someone now, and you went to your doctor, they would send you to a neurologist.”
Even if John Bell’s medical ailments could be explained, the fantastical events are less easily understood.
“We have no way to authenticate them one way or the other,” Mann said. “Like his shoes would go flying off, and they just couldn’t be kept on his feet, and he felt like he was being smacked in the night… we can’t make heads or tails of any of that.”
In the book, Richard Bell goes into detail about his father’s final days.
“One morning, they couldn’t get him up,” Mann said, adding that family members discovered a smoky-looking vial full of a dark-colored liquid after John Bell fell into the coma.
“And that could be anything. I mean, that could be coffee right,” she said.
But legend says the witch, who could speak, claimed the liquid was a poison she had given him the night before, with the intention to kill him, something she’d been threatening to do for some time.
Hearing this, the family decided to give the liquid to a cat to see if it really was a poison. The cat died after ingesting it, and the family doctor said the liquid shared a similar smell with the scent on John Bell’s breath, according to Richard Williams Bell’s account.
The family decided to destroy the poison by throwing it in the fire, and it ignited a blue flame.
But, a blue-colored flame isn’t all that strange, Mann argued.
Neither are the neurological symptoms John Bell faced.
“If you look at these neurological symptoms, those often times are caused by heavy metal poisoning,” she said.
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Looking back to 1817, when the haunting began, Mann discovered about 50 known elements, 10 of which could cause the blue flame the family observed.
This led her to investigate arsenic and lead as possible poisons.
Lead was quickly debunked because John Bell could quickly recover from his symptoms. The heavy metal also remains in the body for a long period of time, continually building on itself.
It didn’t add up. But arsenic did.
It’s a solution that can be explained in the death of the cat as well, Mann said. Cats lack a certain type of metabolism known as glucuronic acid conjugation, leading Mann to believe the chemical used to poison John was metabolized through that pathway.
Arsenic is metabolized through glucuronic acid conjugation, allowing the body to quickly recover from small doses. It can be fatal in doses as small as 0.3 grams, much less than lead’s lethal dose of 21 grams. At the time, arsenic was widely available. It could be found in nearly every barn as it was commonly used as a rodenticide to keep mice and rat populations down around farms.
Arsenic poisoning also aligned with many other details in the story, including the blue flame and John Bell’s facial and muscle twitching, Mann said.
“And when you combine all those together, those details that Richard Williams Bell wrote about make sense,” she said. “The less paranormal stuff points to a very logical and common poisoning of that time and era.”
Mann believes John Bell was a victim of long-term arsenic poisoning. She believes he received small doses of the poison over the course of about three years, after the symptoms first occurred, and a large, fatal dose on the night before he died.
“We know that back then arsenic poisoning became such an issue that many places in the United States and in Europe, where it was happening a lot, were actually making laws, specifically to punish people who were accused and found guilty of poisoning people with arsenic,” she said.
“It was such a big thing, they had to make a law for it.”
As for who could have done the poisoning, Mann says it would be purely speculative.
“It could have been anyone,” she said.
The Bell family was considered a wealthy family in the early 1800’s. They had a number of enslaved people on the farm, and historical records from that time show enslaved people poisoning their enslavers, Mann said.
Historical evidence also shows abused wives poisoning their husbands.
“I mean, it could have been someone that didn’t like them from church,” she said, illustrating how difficult it would be to figure out who may have actually poisoned John Bell. “Like any folklore and legend, every time it gets retold, it gets changed to be more crazy and more fantastical.”
Katie Nixon can be reached at email@example.com or (615) 517-1285.
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