Along U.S. Highway 41 in Adams, Robertson County, a state highway historical marker documents the site of perhaps Tennessee's most famous ghost tale, the story of the Bell Witch. John and Lucy Williams Bell, a prosperous couple with several children, migrated from North Carolina in 1804 to Middle Tennessee, then on the western frontier. For over a decade after their arrival the Bells lived a quiet and uneventful life, developing their farm on the Red River and participating in the activities common to rural America.
Sometime around 1816 the Bells became aware of the occurrence of bizarre events but initially said nothing to neighbors about the disturbances. Apparitions appeared and strange noises increased for a year or more, at times becoming so violent that the house reportedly shook as if it was being buffeted by a storm. Soon after the "spirit" arrived, John Bell began to experience peculiar and painful physical symptoms. Other family members were slapped, pinched, taunted, and otherwise harassed, but the spirit exhibited only kindness toward Lucy Bell. Often cantankerous, "Kate," as "she" was called, stripped the covers from beds while people slept, pestered the slaves, and prevented young Betsy Bell from marrying her sweetheart.
First trusted friends and then a variety of visitors, including Andrew Jackson, came to the Bell home to assist in solving the mystery. When the spirit began to speak, it recited prayers, imitated the voices of local people, and argued Scripture. At weekly prayer meetings, it sang along with the church congregation.
After suffering great physical torment, John Bell died on December 20, 1820. According to the spirit, Bell was a victim of a toxic liquid she had given to him. The following spring, after a four-year stay, the spirit left, but returned less spectacularly in seven years, as it had promised.
Today, it is difficult to grasp the uneasy ponderings of the nineteenth-century community as one views the quiet Bell family cemeteries, the old farm well now abandoned, and traces of the lane down which General Jackson rode on a visit to see for himself the unknown force troubling his friends and neighbors. A log dwelling, allegedly once a slave or tenant house on the Bell property, has been moved to the grounds of the old public school at Adams.
Charles B. Bell, The Bell Witch, A Mysterious Spirit (1934); Charles E. Price, The Infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee (1994)