One of the more popular “Bell Witch theories” to emerge over the past decade centers on the first book written about the case, which was published by Martin Ingram of Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1894. Having been the author of the first book about something is an honorable distinction, but it also can be a curse.
A “first book” is often the starting point for people researching an old case, and as such, they must try to validate the author’s claims. What if the author is deceased, or can not be located for an interview? What if his or her sources were destroyed or went missing? It comes as no surprise that the first published accounts of allegedly true events usually end up falling victim to repetitive and sometimes harsh scrutiny.
Because Martin Ingram is long deceased, and his source document--Richard Bell's "Our Family Trouble" manuscript--has yet to be found, his Bell Witch book is often scrutinized. Many even think he made the legend up. Did he? Welcome to the jungle.
The “Ingram Fabrication Theory,” which has become popular in the skeptical community as of late, suggests there was no Bell Witch prior to 1894, except, perhaps, in the back of Ingram’s mind. In short, he allegedly made up the Bell Witch legend.
The main premise behind the Ingram Fabrication Theory can be summed up, as follows:
“If the alleged disturbances were so frightening and extraordinary that people came from all over the country to witness them, as Ingram stated, people would have written volumes about the disturbances, yet the earliest written account came from Ingram in 1894, almost 75 years later. Since nothing was published about the Bell Witch prior to Ingram’s book, he must have made the story up.”
Serious researchers and scholars of the legend will not accept such a conveniently generalized conclusion as fact unless the theory’s proponents prove that Ingram indeed fabricated the story. And to date, they have not done so, and likely never will. Rather than prove their claim, proponents have chosen to support their conjecture with even more conjecture, by presenting a “compelling circumstance” that adds a false sense of validity to their argument.
That compelling circumstance—Ingram’s source document, "Our Family Trouble," was never found—sounds compelling, but falls short of being persuasive. The old manuscript could turn up any day or week now, one-hundred years from now, or never at all. Neither its existence nor its alleged NON-existence has been proven. So, rather than embark on a witch hunt, or pen a dissertation on the fundamentals of logic, argument, and persuasion, I will pose a simple question.
Would the existence or non-existence of Ingram’s source document still be discussion-worthy if the Fabrication Theory’s main premise—that nothing was published about the Bell Witch until Ingram’s 1894 book—is proven false? No. The source document’s alleged non-existence would no longer be relevant to the Fabrication Theory as a "compelling circumstance" because the theory is rooted in the belief that nothing was written about the Bell Witch prior to 1894.
A pre-1894 account of the Bell Witch—which some Fabrication theorists say would amount to the “HOLY GRAIL”—would not, in and of itself, solve the Bell Witch mystery, nor would it rule out some degree of embellishment on Ingram’s part. However, it would invalidate (debunk) the popular theory that suggests Ingram fabricated the Bell Witch legend, which would amount to a monumental advance in the case. Was there indeed an account of the Bell Witch prior to Ingram’s? The elusive answer lies in an obscure, early newspaper's long-lost archives that have since been located and digitized.
Many Bell Witch accounts, including Ingram’s, tell of an 1849 article that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and how it was later retracted when Betsy (Bell) Powell threatened to file a defamation suit because the article accused her of being the culprit. Although such an article would prove the story existed long before Ingram’s book was published, researchers have not been able to find an archived copy of it; its existence, absent any physical evidence, amounts to nothing but hearsay.
It comes as no surprise that Ingram Fabrication theorists readily dismiss the never-found Post article as a fictitious device used by Ingram to give his made-up story more credibility.
I searched for the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. about 20 years ago, but found only a later, 1850s-period article (listed in an index document, with only a title and lacking details) that some past librarian had categorized as a “Tennessee Ghoulish Haunt.” With so little to go on, the wrong period, no cross-references to additional information, and no direct mention of the Bell Witch in the librarian’s category description, I decided to just “let it go.” So close, yet so far; it was a painful dead end... but not the end.
In November of 2016, I was advised via E-mail that new information about the 1849 Saturday Evening Post article had recently come to light. Welcome to the holy grail.
An early REPRINT of the Post article has surfaced, and it is dated many years prior to 1894. Although an archived copy of the original article as it actually appeared in the Post continues to elude researchers—perhaps lost in time—the reprint, especially because of its early publication date, is sufficient evidence to prove Ingram did not make up the Bell Witch legend.
On February 7, 1856, the Green-Mountain Freeman, a newspaper based in Montpelier, Vermont, reprinted the Post article, entitled “The Tennessee Ghost.” It was featured on the paper’s front page, in the Variety section, which contained article reprints from newspapers around the country. There can be no mistake as to the reprint’s original source; the Green-Mountain Freeman's editor attributed it directly to The Saturday Evening Post. This attribution disproves the Fabrication Theory's suggestion that Ingram lied about the article's existence.
The reprinted Saturday Evening Post article, which briefly describes the disturbances and the many curiosity-seekers who visited the Bell farm, mentions John Bell, Betsy Bell, Joshua Gardner, and Robertson County, Tennessee. It directly accuses Betsy Bell of using ventriloquism to stage the entire haunting. Her motive, it says, was to ensure that she would marry Joshua Gardner, a young man with whom she had fallen in love. When asked when it would leave, the Bell Witch entity would reply, “not until Joshua Gardner and Betsy Bell get married.” This version of the legend is much different from later accounts, including Ingram’s, which state that the entity was strongly opposed to Joshua and Betsy marrying.
So, there you have it. Ingram did not make it up. The Bell Witch legend had already been published and was widely known—at least as far away as the New England states—some 45 years before Ingram published his book (38 years if you count from the Freeman reprint date). Although it is possible Ingram embellished parts of the story, the skeptical theory that accuses him of fabricating the entire thing, and which implies the Bell Witch never existed due to its having been Ingram’s hoax, has now been disproved.
Here is the 1856 reprint of the Saturday Evening Post's Bell Witch article: