| By Jason C. Mattox
Panola County descendants of a family allegedly haunted by an apparition known as the "Bell Witch"are still uncertain about what took place on the Bell Family farm in Adams, Tennessee nearly two centuries ago.
The Bell Witch has been the subject of a number of books and several movies including "An American Haunting" which was recently released on video.
The legend has also been discussed around Boy Scout campfires for generations, and has been embraced in Panola County as part of the local lore.
And discussion continues among the descendants of the Bell family who moved from Tennessee and settled in Panola County in the mid-1800s.
Billy Wray Fowler, a descendant and Bell family historian, said his obsession with whether or not the family was haunted has led him to split time residing in Texas and Mississippi.
"I started reading about it, and I had a lot of questions, so I began doing my own research," he said. "And it had gotten to the point where it was too hard to look into the family history from Texas."
Allegedly the family of John Bell was troubled between 1817 and 1820 by a series of strange occurrences which resulted from a business dispute/spurned romantic affection/or cruelty to farm workers, depending on whose version of the legend is being told. Someone died and supposedly came back to haunt the family.
Fowler, who replaced the vandalized gravestone of John Bell’s daughter Betsy Bell in the Long Branch Cemetery in Yalobusha County, said while there are possible logical explanations for the events that took place, there is no denying they actually happened.
"The witch, if there was one, should have been called the Batts witch," he said. "Everyone called the witch Kate after Kate Batts."
According to internet sources, Kate Batts was a neighbor to the Bells in Adams, Tenn.
"The two of them had a falling out of some sort over a business dealing involving a slave or some cows," Fowler said. "When all of the strange things started happening, people of the time thought Kate was the one responsible."
During the time the alleged witch took up residence with the family, legend says that several Bells would hear unexplained knocking and hear voices during the night.
"There is a lot about the legend that people can’t explain," Fowler emphasized.
One such unexplainable incident pertained to the death of family patriarch John Bell.
"When John Bell died, nobody knew what killed him," Fowler said. "Most people believe it was the witch, because the legends say people heard singing at his funeral."
According to Fowler, after John Bell’s death, a bottle containing a black liquid was found on the mantle of a fireplace in the home.
"When the family threw it into the fireplace, the flames shot up the chimney like it was an explosion," he said.
Another family member says most of the "haunting" can be explained.
Olive Herring Smith, the great-great-granddaughter of Betsy Bell, said there is a reasonable explanation for the events surrounding the Bell family.
"People thought Granny Betsy was a witch, but that’s not true," Smith said. "Granny Betsy was a good woman."
As for claims that John Bell was possessed or tortured by the spirit in the home, Smith and niece Mary Jo Dorr Cook said there is medical evidence now that would change that opinion.
"The twitching and fits that he used to have are symptoms that could be tied to epilepsy or Bell’s Palsy," Cook said. "There has to be some kind of medical explanation."
And what about the knocking and voices heard in the old family home? Smith said that too can be explained.
"Granny Betsy’s school teacher, Richard Powell, who she later married, is the one some people believe to be responsible for the noises in the house," Smith said. "The knocking could have been Powell using the secret tunnels in the house at night.
"There might have been some things that took place that they couldn’t explain at the time, but I believe they can be today," Cook added.
It was after the death of Richard Powell that Betsy moved to Yalobusha County to live with her daughter. Other members of the family were already living in Panola County. According to Smith, there has been no evidence of a haunting taking place in Mississippi.
Both Smith and Cook acknowledged that it is hard for Bell descendants to discuss the events to this day due to the torment ancestors received over the alleged haunting and people’s fascination with the legend.
"The older generation in our family did not speak about the Bell Witch," Smith recalled. "It was just something they did not do at the time."
Smith said the first time she remembered hearing of the Bell Witch was when she was a young girl in the 1930s.
"I was working at the family store selling candy after school and my uncle walked in and he was through the roof," she said. "He was normally a soft-spoken, really gentle man, but he was very upset with a story that had run in the paper that day."
The Commercial Appeal had published a story about the Bell Witch legend, including Kate’s threat to return for more haunting a century later, which motivated the news story to which Smith’s uncle referred.
The threat was apparently unfulfilled.
As for rumors of the haunting of Long Branch Cemetery, site of Betsy Bell’s grave, Smith said there is no evidence of such.
"All I know is that some teenagers like to go down there and vandalize the cemetery," she said. "I know that some kids are probably responsible for breaking Granny Betsy’s original tombstone."
That original tombstone has since been replaced.
"We just want people to know that not everyone believes there was a haunting," Smith said. "Some strange things did happen, but that does not mean Granny Betsy was a witch or John Bell was tormented."