It's not the wind howling, it's a witch laughing...
All night long, the wind shook the walls of the wooden house where John, Lucy and their five children were sleeping.
But when the gale woke them, it wasn’t because of how loudly it was rattling the house’s windows.
The wind seemed to be howling and laughing…
A sharp, shrill cackle of an old woman.
Or a witch.
It was 1817. John Bell and his family had been farming the land around Tennessee’s Red River for years.
They owned land, slaves, lived comfortably in their wooden farmhouse, were respected members of the community.
The following night, the wind was stronger, the laughter louder, and there was banging on the front door.
When John got up to open it, he found a black cat on the porch, yellow eyes blazing.
And the night after that, when John again answered the door to loud banging, he found nothing but pile of stones arranged on the threshold.
Soon, John Bell’s children started to complain. Something was sneaking into their rooms at night and pulling off their bedclothes.
Taunting them, teasing them.
The family was terrified.
None more so than Elizabeth, John and Lucy’s beautiful young daughter.
When she walked around the house, she’d feel something tug her hair. And when she went to bed, invisible hands would slap her so hard she was left with bruises across her body.
Enough was enough.
One evening, his daughter sore from another beating, John Bell cried out to the family’s invisible guest.
‘What are you?’ he shouted angrily.
And suddenly, a reply.
‘I am a spirit,’ came the voice of an old woman. ‘I was once very happy, but I have been disturbed.’
Soon, the spirit had gone one step further.
‘I am old Kate Batts’ witch,’ it told John.
Kate Batts was an old woman whose land neighboured the Bell’s.
She and John were not on good terms.
What they’d rowed about is now unclear. Possibly the ownership of land. Although some sources say the row was over a slave.
Everyone in Red River knew Kate Batts. And most of them thought she was a witch.
She lived alone, and spent many hours in a cave that bordered the land owned by the Bells. And she’d go from house to house in the local villages begging for pins and stealing them through windows.
Pins, it was said, were used by witches for casting spells and curses.
But how was Kate Batts able to make herself invisible to torment the Bell family? Was she able to invoke spirits, ghosts, demons, to act on her behalf?
For on the nights the cackling wind was howling round the Bell’s home, Kate Batts was drinking in Red Rivers’ bars and taverns…
For the next three years, the family had no choice but to live with Kate Batts’ witch.
The rich and famous came from miles around to hear for themselves the cackling laugh, to see the piles of stones by the door, to be pinched and prodded like Elizabeth.
Even Andrew Jackson, then a general in the US army, but soon to be the seventh US president, visited the Bell home hoping to meet the witch.
The witch became so famous, she became known as the Bell Witch.
But then, things took an even more sinister turn…
Elizabeth got engaged to a man called Joshua Gardner. And the witch wasn’t keen.
Whenever Joshua visited the house, he’d be pricked with invisible pins by Kate Batts’ witch.
For some reason, the witch didn’t like Joshua. At all.
Then, in December 1821, John Bell was suddenly taken ill.
He’d been fit, healthy, active. But the next morning, he was dead. And by his bedside, a small bottle had appeared overnight. A bottle that had once contained a mysterious black liquid…
‘I gave John a big dose of that last night!’ the witch’s voice cackled.
Lucy tried what remained of the liquid on her cat. The poor thing died instantly.
If this was a warning to Joshua Gardner to stay away, he took it to heart.
Soon afterwards, he and Elizabeth broke off their engagement, and Joshua left their home for good.
Whatever it was the witch wanted, she’d achieved.
At John’s funeral, she could be heard singing rowdy drinking songs.
But soon after, Kate Batts left the area. And when she did so, the haunting stopped.
Before she disappeared into history, Kate Batts promised she’d return.
And those who visit the area around Red River hear a cackle on the wind to this day.
Some say Kate Batts – and her witch – never really left, that she’s still there in Tennessee, lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike again…
The Bell Witch – the real culprit?
Soon after Elizabeth and Joshua broke up, Elizabeth got engaged to local school-teacher Richard Powell. The couple married in 1824. But there were rumours at the time Richard was involved in the Occult. Had Richard somehow summoned a spirit, or a witch with the purpose of scaring off Joshua and claiming Elizabeth for his own?
…Or was it Elizabeth herself?
Not everyone believed the Bell family was being haunted. Some believed Elizabeth Bell herself was responsible. Twenty years later, a local paper published an article suggesting Elizabeth was behind it all. Elizabeth threatened legal action, and the paper was forced to retract its statements.
The real life Blair Witch?
There have been a number of films inspired by the legend of the Bell Witch. One of the most famous is the Blair Witch Project (1999). In it, a group of young friends investigate the local legend of a witch and enter the forest where she lived. They are haunted by the sound of laughter in the breeze, and find piles of stones outside their tent. And then, they discover the witch’s home…