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"Authentic" and "Official" Versions
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 not become confused about the Bell Witch legend?

The 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?"

There is a very fine line between  fact and opinion.

Let's start with the "authentic" versions of the legend.  I will paraphrase the definitions of "authentic," below.  These come from dictionary.com.

  1. Not false or copied; genuine; real.

  2. Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence; authenticated; verified.

  3. 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 unquestionable evidence 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 dealing with "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 considered "authentic?"

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 read, 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 Witch.

"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 dictionary.com, where the most applicable definition seems to be, "Authorized or issued authoritatively."

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 own rendering 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!

Submitted Respectfully,

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian

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Last Update: March 31, 2021


Tips

If you find The Bell Witch Site and research useful, please consider chipping in to help defray the increasing costs of running the site and making research trips. Anything helps. Thank you!

TIP JAR: https://paypal.me/ArmandPress

VENMO: @BellWitch