of the Bell Witch Legend
It doesn't matter where
we look -- movies, documentaries, books, plays, and web sites; there seems to
be more self-proclaimed "authentic" and "official" versions of the
legend than you can shake a stick at. There are also versions of the
legend -- I can think of 6 -- that, according to their proponents, solve the
mystery, once and for all. When perusing the myriad of conflicting versions, how can someone
become confused about the Bell Witch legend?
inevitable question seems to be, "What makes this version
(or that version) of the legend authentic or official?" Or, to put
it into my own personal words, "Can this be proved beyond the shadow of
any and all doubt?"
is a very fine line between fact and opinion.
start with the "authentic" versions of the legend. I
will paraphrase the definitions of
"authentic," below. These come from
Not false or copied; genuine; real.
Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence; authenticated; verified.
Entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience.
Using those definitions, an account of the legend must be supported by
and must be in agreement with known facts if it's to be
considered authentic. Of all the books, movies,
documentaries and web sites that claim to be "authenticated
accounts" of the Bell Witch, none fall within the above definition of "authentic."
For example, M.V. Ingram claimed in
his 1894 book, "An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of
Tennessee," that Dean, a slave, was turned into a mule for a brief
period; however, he does not provide the reader with evidence that proves the event
actually happened. How believable is this? I mean, come on now;
have you ever seen a person turned into a mule? In this case, we aren't
"questionable evidence." We are dealing with no evidence at all. Another example is his account
of Kate Batts. The number and gender of her children as reported by the
book does not
coincide with the census and other records of the period.
That is just the beginning of the many errors of historical fact. But is
Please note, had Ingram not used the word,
"authentic" in the book's title, I wouldn't have a problem with
it. The book is an entertaining
but not an authenticated account. Ingram honestly drew
from his own memory, I feel, but memory sometimes fails us.
I have seen a stage play
that bills itself as the "authentic" telling of the Bell Witch legend. While the
play itself is excellent and I have spent a lot of money bringing my friends and
family to watch it, and while I applaud the writer, director, and actors, I do
not feel that the "authentic" descriptor is warranted, nor the direct statement,
"and those are the facts," because, simply put, they are not the facts. If fact,
the directly and blatantly ignore and contradict some of the legend's most
solid, validated facts.
For example, during the scene
that referenced Kate's recital of two sermons that took place simultaneously
but 13 miles apart, one of the actors stated, "Both Baptist ministers!" It is a well-documented fact that Rev. James
R. Gunn and Rev. Sugg Fort, whose sermons were allegedly quoted by Kate, were
Methodist and Baptist ministers, respectively. A casual glance at the Red River
Baptist Church minutes and McFerrin's History of Methodism in Tennessee is all it takes to
learn this. If that and the 11 other historical misstatements throughout the
production weren't enough, it was announced near the end of the play that Betsy
Bell died in 1890, which is yet another falsehood. The
problem in general is that the production was based on a book that contains
numerous errors of historical fact, which does not warrant the distinction of
"authentic." And to boot, the book was not even the first account of the Bell
"Official?" What makes a
particular version of the legend "official?" Why are there
so many "official" versions of the legend, yet they
all contradict each another at almost every turn? If
there were such a thing as an "official" version, wouldn't all accounts be in
agreement? Once again, we turn our sights to
where the most applicable definition seems to be, "Authorized or issued
For something to be issued
authoritatively, there must be an owner or governing body to authorize
it. There is no such thing as an "owner" of a legend or
folktale; legends and folktales are products of the folk. As for
their historical elements, facts themselves can not be
owned. They are researched and found by various individuals at different
times, and they are in turn shared with the folk. Now is where it gets tricky.
Although legends and folktales
have no owners, the books, movies, documentaries, and web sites that address
them do. The owners can sanction or authorize an "official"
logo, picture, title, web site, etc. that pertains to their
of the legend. For example, The Bell Witch Site (bellwitch.org,
the site you are now reading)
is the "official" web site for the book entitled, "The
Bell Witch: The Full Account." It is not the official web
site for the Bell Witch legend itself because no one
individual or company owns the legend. Another
example is bellwitchhaunting.com,
which is the official web site for the movie entitled, "The Bell Witch
Haunting." It is the official web site for that movie
and not the actual legend. The same can be
said about the "An American Haunting" web site, and for Brent
Monahan's web site. They are "official" as they pertain to
their owners' versions of the legend, but not the legend itself.
Extreme caution must be
exercised when publicly labeling anything as "official," because it
could dupe the public into believing that it's the only real
version. You'll see advertisements for "official"
this, that, and the other, all the time, but simply
labeling one's own work as "official"
does not necessarily make it the best, or
the most authoritative.
Let's stop with all the
false authenticity claims, official labels, and bickering. The legend of the
Bell Witch belongs to all of us. Let's enjoy it!
Pat Fitzhugh, Author /