Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona on December 19, 1937 · Page 42
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Arizona Republic from Phoenix, Arizona · Page 42

Phoenix, Arizona
Issue Date:
Sunday, December 19, 1937
Page 42
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AMERICA': NO.! ST GMO REAKS A DATE MADE YE AIRS AGO SplBlSJ -IS r' 4s II VV ft, '1 Betsy Bell. . . . The famous old Bell witch selected Betsy's husband for her. ft 1 might be laid out by a hefty punch from the frisky plow handles." A particular object of the witch's attentions was the beautiful Betsy Bell, for whose love the gallant Joshua Gardner and the handsome Prof. Richard Powell then were vieing. With loud peals of laughter the apparition invaded Betsy 'f bedroom at night, snatching the covers from her bed, pulling the pillows from under her head and sticking pins in her body. The girl cried out in terror. Then the witch's strident voice would fade to a low, piteous tone as it pleaded, earnestly, from out of the shadows: m ft? General Andrew Jackson once visited the Bell home to see the spook perform. According to tradition it met his expectations and gave him a hearty chuckle by tweaking the nose of a visitor who had boasted he would shoot it with his horse pistol. The Bell Witch was a fairly tough sort of spook, back in Andrew Jackson's day, with a murder, a broken engagement and much ordinary deviltry to its credit. But its return, promised for 1937, has fizzled By Robert Talley m m mi 4 tx. THE famous old Bell Witch may be America's No. I Ha'nt, but it or she has a remarkably poor sense of timing. Away back in 1827, when Tennessee was frontier country and Andrew Jackson was a name to conjure with, this noted spook took one last dig at the harassed Bell family which had been plagued by the apparition for a solid decade and took off for shadowy regions unknown, promising faithfully to return in 1937. So all this last year the descendants of old John Bell, who still farm their fertile tobacco land in Robertson county, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, have awaited the spectral visitor. For the Bell Witch was the kind of ha'nt you don't forget about in one brief century, and if it was going to come back on schedule there was no sense in being caught unprepared. But except for a few strange midnight noises that were traced to such tilings as loose barn shingles flapping in the wind, and ghostly flares that turned out to be simple phosphorescent "fox fires" in old tree stumps, nothing has happened. People rather expected that Hallowe'en night would be the night chosen for the visitation. But although farmer families staged Hallowe'en parties with plenty of hard cidei and pumpkin pie, and terrified Negroes remained safely behind locked cabin doors, nothing happened. And as the year drew to a close, Robertson county folk agreed that the witch must have forgotten all about it. The Bell Witch plagued the pioneer Bell family in middle Tennessee from 1817 to 1827. In the end, so family tradition says, the witch murdered old John Bell and switched the love affairs of the beautiful Betsy Bell so that she broke her engagement with the gallant Joshua Gardner, the family's choice, and married Prof. Richard Powell, the handsome young schoolmaster. It all began early in 1817, a few years after John Bell had migrated from North Carolina to Tennessee with his family and his slaves. Near Springfield. Tenn., he cleared the land and built a double log house (two wings with an open hallway through the middle) and like other farmers in that pioneer region he grew tobacco and floated the crop down the rivers in flatboats to New Orleans and there sold it. The first evidence of the mystery came one day when Mr. Bell, while walking through his cornfield, saw a strange animal sitting among the rows and gazing at him with burning eyes. Some days later his son. Drew Bell, observed a very large fowl which he supposed to be a wild turkey, but when he shot at it the charge fell harmlessly and the creature flapped its wings and soared away. It was not a turkey, but some mysterious bird of extraordinary size. A little later Betsy Bell, then ripening into beautiful young girlhood, was walking through the woods with some of the younger children when she saw something which she described as "a pretty little girl dressed in green" swinging from the limb of a tall oak tree. Next. Dean, one of the Negro slaves, rep6rted that a strange animal, resembling a woolly dog and having two heads, had followed him to his' cabin door in the moonlight and suddenly vanished. Very soon there came a mysterious rapping on the walls of the Bell home and a noise like that of heavy iron chains being dragged across the floors. Then more eerie noises were heard within the house. These sounded like rats gnawing on the bedposts and dogs fighting on the kitchen floor. As soon as a candle was lighted, the strange noises would cease. "FHEN the witch (and by that time the family agreed it was a witch) began to invade Betsy Bell's bedroom, frightening the girl almost out of her wits. Betsy's terrified screams brought her father, whom she told that someone was snatching the covers off her bed and slap- Betsy Bell was one of the first to see the witch. She reported that she was walking through the woods with some children when she saw "a pretty little girl dressed in green" swinging: from the limb of an oak tree. ping her in the face with a clammy hand. Mr. Bell now found a strange affliction coming on him which he could not account for. He said it felt as if a small stick of wood was cross-wise in his mouth, pressing out both checks and preventing him from eating. Dean, the Negro slave, showed up with aching muscles one morning and reported that the witch had changed him into a mule and ridden him back and forth across the county most of the night, releasing him shortly before daybreak. As the news of the witch spread, curious visitors flocked to the Bell home and strange things happened. The w itch , thumped chairs and tables, hammered on the walls and in a loud voice castigated the wicked as it tattled on their misdeeds. "Citizens of the community," wrote M. V. Ingram of Clarksville, Tenn., in a book published in the I890's, "feared the witch's scorpion tongue. Everybody got good; the wicked left off swearing, lying and whisky drinking just as people do now for the Rev. Sam Jones, the great evangelist. No man allowed his right hand to do anything that his left hand might be ashamed of. No citizen thought of locking his smoke-house or corn-crib door. The wickedest man in the county could break new ground all day long with a fiery team and kicking colter, singing psalms and never thinking of cursing, for he knew that if he did he (Copyright. 1937. by EveryWeek Magazine) "Please, Betsy Bell, don't marry Joshua Gardner; please, Betsy Bell, don't marry Joshua Gardner . . ." A S the fame of the Bell witch spread, men came from far and wide, determined to "expose" the witch and solve the mystery. Most famous of these was Gen. Andrew Jackson, then living at the Hermitage near Nashville. His party journeyed to the Bell home in a covered wagon. The story of General Jackson's visit is related in Mr. Ingram's book by Col. Thomas L. Yancey, a prominent lawyer of Clarksville 40 years ago. who obtained it from his grandfather, Whitmel Fort. The latter said he was an eye witness. In the Bell home that night. General Jackson and his friends waited by the light of a tallow candle for the arrival of the witch. One of his companions who professed to be a "witch-layer" had a big horse pistol loaded with a silver bullet which he held in his hand, keep ing a close lookout for the spook. "This man." said Colonel Yancey, "ex hibited the tip of a black cat's tail, about six inches long, and told how he had shot the cat with a silver bullet while sitting on a bewitched woman's coffin. He said that by stroking the cat's tail on his nose it would flash a light on a witch on the darkest night, and thus he would be able to see the witch and shoot it with hit silver bullet." . The man prattled on, according to Colonel Yancey, until he was interrupted by a loud voice which said: "All right, Mr. Smarty. here I am; now shoot!" The witch-layer pulled the trigger but the gun refused to fire its silver bullet. Then an invisible hand grabbed the man by the nose and started dragging him around the room, thumping his head against the walls. "The witch-layer finally broke loose and dashed for the lane at full speed, yelling at every jump," said Colonel Yancey. "General Jackson roared with laughter; he grasped hit sides and said. 'By the eternal, boys, I've never had so much fun in all my life; this beats fighting the British 1 " The manifestations continued and late in December, 1 820, John Bell whom the witch had never ceased to hate sickened and died of a strange malady. Williams Bell, his son, said that in the medicine cabinet the family found "a smoky-looking vial about one-third full of a dark liquid, and which we had not put there." Dr. Hopson. the family physician, and several others dipped a straw into the bottle and wiped the straw 1 A across the mouth of a cat; the animal died almost instantly. Then, said Williams Bell, the voice of the witch rang out: "I put that bottle there and gave Old Jack a big dose of it last night while he was astern. I fixed him I A short time later the witch disappeared from the Bell home, after plead- -.-ftj ing with Betsy Bell until the last not to marry Joshua Gardner. But a woman's love is a fickle thing. even when witchcraft is involved. As time rolled on, Betsy Bell and Joshua Gardner builded their flowery castles and became engaged. The handsome young schoolmaster. Professor Powell, apparently was completely forgotten. The date for the wedding was set and suddenly Betsy Bell changed her mind. Back to her ears came the witch's familiar voice, pleading "Please, Betsy, don't marry Joshua Gardner; please, Betsy, don't marry Joshua Gardner." At last, Betsy Bell summoned the courage of her convictions and told Joshua Gardner she could not marry him ; that she was convinced her tormentor would follow them through life and would make them miserable until their dying days. "DETSY BELL returned Joshua Gardner ring. He left Robertson county immediately for West Tennessee and there he died in the 1 880's, at the age of 84. Never did he see Betsy Bell again. Yes. you guessed it. In April, 1821, Betsy Bell married the handsome schoolmaster. Professor Powell. The witch paid a two-week return visit to the old Bell home in Robertson county, Tenn., in 1827, at which time it is said to have told members of the family that it would return in 1 1 0 years. The intensity with which the Bell Witch story gripped Robertson county is indicated by the fact that in 1875 many years after the specter's disappearance two men residing near Cedar Hill, Tenn., murdered a farmhand named Smith and were freed by a jury on their plea that they thought Smith was a reincarnation of the Bell Witch. The defendants were represented at the historic trial by the late Col. John F. House, one of middle Tennessee's most famous lawyers and orators, who showed the jurors that the victim had practiced hypnotism and was guilty of many other suspicious acts. U ii n

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