Wednesday, October 15, 2008
The Bell Witch Cave- Adams, Tennessee
There is no greater ghost story in the history of America than that of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. It would require a book to chronicle the strange haunting that occurred in Robertson County between 1817 and 1821 but in short, the family of a local farmer named John Bell was plagued by a mysterious and violent spirit for nearly four years. The haunting involved spectral creatures, disembodied voices, unbelievable violence and even resulted in the death of John Bell --- all at the hands of the infamous Bell Witch.
The haunting began in 1817 when the Bell family began experiencing strange phenomena in their home. First, the house was plagued with knocking and rapping noises and scratching sounds.
Blankets were pulled from beds, family members were kicked and scratched and their hair pulled. Particularly tormented was young Elizabeth Bell, who was slapped, pinched, bruised and stuck with pins. At first, John Bell was determined to keep the events secret, but soon confided in a friend, who then formed an investigative committee. John Bell's friends soon learned that the strange force in the house had an eerie intelligence. It soon found a voice and from that day on was seldom silent.
The spirit identified itself as the "witch" of Kate Batts, a neighbor of the Bell's, with whom John had experienced bad business dealings over some purchased slaves. "Kate" as the local people began calling the spirit, made daily appearances in the Bell home, wreaking havoc on everyone there. People all over the area of soon learned of the witch and she made appearances, in sounds and voices, all over Robertson County.
The ghost became so famous that even General Andrew Jackson decided to visit. He too experienced the antics of the witch and his carriage wheels refused to turn until the witch decided to let them.
John Bell fell victim to bouts of strange illness, for which Kate claimed responsibility. While he was sick in bed, the spirit cursed and prodded him, never allowing him to rest. One day, he went to bed and never recovered. He was found senseless in his bed one morning and a strange bottle was found nearby. Bell's breath smelled of the black liquid in the bottle, so a drop of it was placed on the tongue of a cat and the animal dropped dead. John Bell soon followed suit and Kate screamed in triumph. She even made her presence known at his funeral, laughing, cursing and singing as the poor man was buried.
Kate didn't vanish immediately after the death of her proclaimed enemy, though. She stayed around, threatening Betsy Bell to not marry the man that she truly loved, Joshua Gardner. The witch would never say why, but she did allow the girl to later marry the local schoolteacher, Richard Powell. Kate soon left the family but promised to return in seven years. She did come back and plagued the family again for two weeks. She soon departed but many believe that she may not have gone far.
Who was the Bell Witch? Was she really a ghost, who claimed to be connected to a living person? Or did the resentment and the hatred of the real Kate Batts create an entity of its own? Or could the haunting have been poltergeist activity linked to Betsy Bell? No one will ever know for sure -- but whoever, or whatever, the Bell Witch was, many believe that she has never left Adams, Tennessee at all.
Near the Red River, on the former Bell farm, is a cave that has been called the "Bell Witch Cave". Thanks to local legend and lore, many people have come to believe that when the spirit of the witch departed from the torment of the Bell family, she went into this cave. Others (myself included) believe that the cave marks the entrance to a doorway through which Kate came into the world, departed, and perhaps even returns today. Who knows? But I can tell you that with the large number of bizarre incidents reported in and around the cave in modern times, notions of the witch returning may not be as odd as you might think.
While the cave has become quite famous in recent years, there is little mention of it in contemporary accounts of the haunting. It is believed that the cave might have been used for the cool storage of food in those days, thanks to the fact that it remains a constant 56 degrees. It was also mentioned in some accounts that Kate’s voice was often heard nearby and one day, Betsy Bell and several of her friends had a close encounter with the witch inside of the cave.
The cave itself is located in the center of a large bluff that overlooks the river. The mouth of the cave opens widely but entrance to the cavern itself must be gained through a fairly long tunnel. The cave is not large compared to most commercial caves; however its true length is unknown because of narrow passages that go beyond the 500 or so feet accessible to visitors. Although geologically, this is a dry cave that has been carved from limestone, in wet weather, a stream gushes from the mouth of the cavern and tumbles over a cliff into the river below. This makes the cave nearly impossible to navigate and even shouted conversations become inaudible over the roar of the water.
In dry times, the cave has proven to be quite an attraction to curiosity-seekers and ghost hunters. Once you pass through the entrance passage, the visitor enters a large room that opens into yet another tunnel and an overhead passageway. Another large room can be found at the rear of the explored portion of the cave, but from that point on the tunnels become smaller, narrower and much more dangerous.
The Bell Witch Cave became an attraction thanks largely to a man named Bill Eden, who owned the property for a number of years. Eden was a wealth of information about the cave and about the fact that strange occurrences were continuing to take place on the land that once belonged to John Bell. Although he was mainly a farmer, Eden did make some early improvements to the cave by adding electrical lights, but that was about all.
Despite being undeveloped though, the cave managed to attract hundreds of visitors every year who wanted to be shown through it. Bill always obliged although was always puzzled about how they found the place. There were no signs to point the way at that time but somehow people tracked down directions to the site and they always asked to hear the stories of the witch, and the stories that Eden spun from his own weird experiences at the place.
Many of the strange experiences actually happened to Bill Eden himself, while others involved visitors to the cave. For instance, a woman came to visit one day and asked to go down and see the cave. She had brought a group of friends along and in all, about fifteen people followed Eden down the rather treacherous path to the cave’s entrance. All at once, the woman in charge of the group abruptly sat down in the middle of the path. One of the people who was with her asked why she was sitting there, and she answered that she wasn’t! She claimed that a heavy weight, which felt like a ton of lead, was pressing her down to the ground and she couldn’t get up. Several members of the group managed to get the lady to her feet and half carried her back up the hill to her car.
Bill Eden could also recount a number of encounters he had on his own in the cave. "You can hear footsteps in there all the time and I saw one thing," he once said in an interview. "Lots of people come out here expecting to see a ghost or a witch of whatever you want to call it. I just call it a spirit - and it looked like a person with its back turned to you. Looked like it was built out of real white-looking heavy fog or snow, or something real solid white. But you couldn’t see through it. It had the complete figure of a person till it got down to about its ankles. It wasn’t touching the floor at all. It was just drifting - bouncing along."
As Eden mentioned, a lot of people came to the cave hoping to see, or experience, a ghost. While many of them went away disappointed, some got a little more than they bargained for.
Eden had taken a group of young people into the cave one evening for a tour. They had been inside for about an hour and had stopped in the back room where they talked for awhile and Bill told of his experiences in the area. As they were starting to leave, one of the girls in the group started to make some remarks about the authenticity of the place, whether or not it was really haunted, and about how disappointed she was that nothing had appeared or had happened. She continued this monologue into the passage connecting the two rooms, which is quite narrow. Everyone else in the group seemed to be having a good time and Eden was used to the squeals, giggles and laughter that often accompanied young people on tours of the cave. The girl who was complaining was walking directly in front of Eden at this point.
She was walking along and then all of the sudden, stumbled backwards as if she had been pushed. She took a couple of step back and then sat down hard on the floor of the cave. She insisted that someone had slapped her, even when Eden tried to convince her otherwise. Eden helped the girl to her feet, still skeptical, and they all moved to the front room of the cave. Once there, he shined his light on her face to see how badly she had been hurt. He looked at her cheek and was surprised to see a red welt - and the prints of fingers that were still visible where she had been struck!
In the early summer of 1977, several soldiers from Fort Campbell, Kentucky came over to visit the cave. Eden took the young men on a tour and ended up in the back room, where all of them sat around talking and Eden told his stories of the odd events on the farm.
One of the men politely expressed some doubts about the validity of the story. He had been to many places that were supposedly haunted and nothing out of the ordinary had ever occurred to him. Eden laughed and shrugged his shoulders. The man could believe whatever he wanted to, but as for Bill, well, he had seen enough things on the farm to know that something unexplainable was going on. "If something happened, you probably wouldn’t ever come back here again," Bill added with a grin.
The group sat and talked for a short while longer and then they all got up to leave -- all except for the young man who had spoke up about his disbelief in ghosts. "Mr. Eden! Come here and help me," the soldier said. "I can’t get up."
Eden and the man’s friends all assumed that he was joking and they all began to laugh. It wasn’t until Bill took a good look at the man that he realized that something really was wrong. The young man was now begging for help and his face was drenched so badly with sweat that it looked like someone had poured a bucket of water over him. When Eden took hold of his hand to help him up, he could feel the man’s hand was cold and clammy as if he were going into shock.
The man continued to call for help and claimed that he could feel strong arms wrapped around his chest. They were squeezing him tightly, he said, and he was unable to breathe. Eden and the other men helped their friend to his feet and while the soldiers supported him, Bill wiped his face off with some run-off water from the cave. When the soldier got to feeling better, they took him outside of the cave. By the time they were ready to leave, the young man had completely recovered and was suffering no ill effects from his harrowing experience.
As he was heading to his car, he stopped and shook Bill Eden’s hand. "Well, you were right about one thing, Mr. Eden," the young soldier said. "I won’t ever be back here again."
The present-day owners of the Bell Witch Cave, and the piece of the old Bell farm made so famous by Bill Eden, are Chris and Walter Kirby. Walter is a tobacco farmer and Chris manages to stay busy managing the upkeep and offering tours of the cave. In the summer months, this task is more than a full-time job.
The Kirbys purchased the land in April 1993. The place had been empty for several years, after the death of Bill Eden, but by that summer, the cave was open again for business. Over the course of the next year or so, they made a number of improvements to the cave, which included new lights, a new electrical system, an improved path to the cave, wooden walkways to cross the most treacherous areas of the trail, and a number of other things. These improvements continue today.
It wasn’t long after the Kirbys moved to the farm, and began conducting tours in the cave, before they realized things were not quite right on the property. They began to notice first that there were strange noises that didn’t have an easy explanation. "We’ve heard them in the cave and we’ve heard them in the house," Chris has said on occasion. "I feel like if there’s anyplace that could be haunted, it’s this place here. First of all, it’s got the legend of being haunted. There’s an Indian burial mound right above the mouth of the cave on the bluff. And the previous owner of the cave died in our bedroom."
One day, Chris and her dog were leading a tour of the cave for a group of visitors. She was just opening the steel gate that leads inside when she heard a strange sound - the same sort of sound described by Bill Eden and one of his tour groups years before. "It sounded like real raspy breathing sounds," she said, "like someone couldn’t get their breath. It only lasted for a minute and then it was gone." Chris looked back to her tour group, but they were quietly talking amongst themselves and hadn’t heard a thing.
The tour continued through the first room, down the narrow passage and into the second room. Here, as is the tradition in Bell Witch Cave Tours, Chris began telling stories of the witch, the haunting and strange incidents on the farm. As she was talking, the dog suddenly reacted to something that no one else could see. The hair on the animal’s back stood up and she began showing her teeth and growling. The tour group asked what was wrong with the dog, but Chris had no idea. She was finally able to calm the dog down, but then the animal began whining and tucked her tail between her legs. She cowered back against Chris and at that same moment, the flashlight in Chris’ hand suddenly went out!
"I guessed that it was just the battery at first," Chris remembered, "but then a lady’s video camera stopped working too. We were all standing there in the dark and I’ll tell you, I was ready to get out of there and everyone else was too!"
Chris has also reported strange apparitions that have been seen in the cave by visitors and staff members alike. s Some of these shapes are misty and fog-like, sometimes appearing in different parts of the cave, only to vanish when approached. She also recalled another type of image they had seen. "It looked like heat waves that come up over the highway in the summer time," she explained. "You can see them out of the corner of your eye and then they’re gone."
One of the ongoing traditions (or legends, if you will) of the Bell Witch Cave involves the removal of any sort of artifact from the premises, be it rocks or anything else found inside of the cave. Some believe that perhaps the energy of the area is imbedded in some way within the actual makeup of the place and by removing a portion of the cave, you are inviting the phenomena that occurs here to travel with you. Others are not so scientific -- they believe that the spirit of the witch will follow anyone who removes something from the cave!
It’s likely that this tradition got started a number of years ago when the remains of a young Native American woman were discovered by men doing construction work on one of the local roads. Because it is well known that the former Bell farm contains a burial mound, it was requested that the bones of the Indian woman be entombed within the Bell Witch Cave. The remains were laid out in the first room of the cave in a shallow indention that was then lined with limestone slabs. Unfortunately, they did not remain there for long.
A short time later, trespassers into the cave made off with the bones, but according to local lore -- not without a price! Gossip in the community has it that each of the persons who removed one of the relics suffered a series of misfortunes, accidents and injuries within days of the theft. For this reason, it has come to be believed that it is bad luck to remove anything at all from the cave. Over the last several years, I have received a number of accounts from people who claim to have taken away stones from the Bell Witch Cave, only to then experience not only bad luck, but strange happenings in their previous un-haunted homes! Chris Kirby has assured me that she has received a number of packages in the mail over the years that have contained rocks and stones that were removed from the cave. After getting them home, the folks who removed them began to suffer all sorts of problems and weird events. They believe that by mailing them back to the cave, they might alleviate their problems.
Since the late 1970s, the Bell Witch Cave has a destination point for ghost hunters, curiosity seekers and paranormal enthusiasts. Strange phenomena has been reported on this property for centuries, dating all of the way back to the time of the Bell family in the late 1810s and 1820s. Weird events continue to this day and anyone with an interest in the supernatural is encouraged to make their way to the small town of Adams, Tennessee and seek out the Bell Witch Cave -- if you dare!