CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – It’s the perfect week for hauntings and ghost stories and that means includes one of Tennessee’s most famous legends, the Bell Witch.
People come from far and wide to the Adams community to learn about a mystery that is now over 200 years old. On Tuesday night, science and folklore collide when Austin Peay chemistry professor Dr. Meagan Mann gives a free talk about a critical part of the Bell Witch legend – was the chemical element arsenic responsible for killing John Bell?
Mann became interested in the Bell Witch story when she moved to Tennessee in 2008.
“I technically live in an unincorporated area between Clarksville and Adams, but my address is Adams, Tennessee. So, I’m quite close to there, and you can’t be close to Adams without seeing a lot of things about the Bell Witch,” Mann said.
The story stems from John Bell’s mysterious death inside his home in 1820. Three years earlier, Bell reportedly saw strange animals on his property. Betsy Bell, the family’s daughter, then apparently reported seeing a girl swinging from a tree limb, while the family’s servant, a man named Dean, said a dog had followed him on his way home.
The Bell family then reportedly heard scratching sounds on the walls of their home. John Bell then began feeling a paralysis of the mouth and family friend James Johnston told the family a spirit was haunting their home and was responsible for John’s condition.
Over the next three years, the family allegedly communicated with a spirit that went by the name Kate, who reportedly took a liking to Lucy Bell, the family matriarch, and disliked John and Betsy. Kate then allegedly wreaked havoc on the Bell family, and some say she did so to keep Betsy from marrying the family’s neighbor Joshua Gardner and to kill John, although nobody knows why.
On Dec. 19, 1820, John died a mysterious death.
“At the base of the story, it’s kind of a paranormal murder mystery. John Bell died under seemingly mysterious circumstances, and the legend is that this disembodied voice of a paranormal entity is the responsible party for killing him,” Mann said.
Mann is an accomplished scientist and enjoys looking at things from a scientific perspective, but also acknowledges there are some elements of the story that are better off left unexplained.
“There are certain parts of the story that we can look at with scientific eyes, and there are other parts that we cannot, and I don’t try and attempt to look at the paranormal aspects of what necessarily happened,” Mann said. “But, there are a lot of details that were written specifically in the manuscript “Our Family Trouble”…[John Bell’s youngest son] wrote that manuscript as, I guess, a case file, almost a diary of the unusual things that happened with the Bell family back in the early 1800s, and so when I look through that, I look at it with the questions of what different chemicals or chemical could provide the details that he wrote about in that manuscript. I can’t say who poisoned John Bell, I wasn’t there, but there are enough details in the story for me to get a pretty good idea of what could have killed John Bell, even if I don’t know who killed John Bell.”
However, despite Mann’s strong interest in the story, she has avoided using her scientific background and training to add in some of her own theories to the story.
“I think that as a scientist, I can’t read more into it than what the information tells me, right?” Mann said. “I can’t make up data; I can’t make up parts of a story. I can only try and justify what they wrote, so I don’t tend to add anything extra to it. But you know, that said there’s just so much of the story that we can’t explain, but the parts that I possibly can explain or can’t explain make it so that it kind of lends some validity to the fact that something was unusual going on in that Bell home in 1820 that we just can’t really explain.”
According to Mann, “Our Family Trouble” was written about 45 years after the mysterious occurrences happened at the Bell home. The manuscript was published by a man named Richard Ingram, who was reportedly given the manuscript by John Bell’s grandson, the son of John Bell’s youngest son who originally wrote it. Ingram published the manuscript in a chapter within a book he titled, “An Authentic History of the Famous Bell Witch”.
Mann said some skeptics don’t believe any of the occurrences ever happened and that Ingram actually just wrote the whole book. However, Mann told News 2 she looked through historical literature and found written record about 10 years before the book was published. That written record was written by Robertson County officials talking about the Bell Witch legend, certifying the legend existed before Ingram wrote a book about it, and the details mentioned are eerily similar to the ones Ingram wrote about in his book. They also correlate strongly with the ones allegedly written in “Our Family Trouble” which, at the time, was not public or visible.
Tuesday night’s talk is free and family friendly. It starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Sundquist Science Complex on the Austin Peay campus. Anyone looking to attend is encouraged to wear a costume.