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"Authentic" and "Official" Versions of the 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 simply 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.

Please note, had Ingram not used the word, "authentic," in the book's title, I wouldn't have a problem with this.  The book is an entertaining, fascinating read in many regards, but not an authentic account.  Ingram honestly drew from his own memory, I feel, but memories sometimes fail us.  I don't feel that Ingram intentionally misstated anything.

Another similar example of misusing the word, "authentic," is the modern day play entitled, "Spirit: The Authentic Story of the Bell Witch," which has been put on in Adams, Tennessee every October since 2002.  While I did enjoy the play, I don't consider it to be a source of historical information.

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 -- or one of the authoritative Bell Witch research books -- is all it takes to know 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.  Once again, historical records were ignored.

But in fairness to the play and all the hard work that went into it, I am unsure of whether those misstatements are being made consistently.  They could have been made accidentally, on the night that I happened to be in the audience.  No one is perfect, and I imagine it would be quite difficult to remember so many facts when performing in front of an audience (that's why I keep my copy of the book next to me when I give lectures).

Just as with Ingram's book, I have no problems whatsoever with the "Spirit" play except that it claims to be the "authentic" story of the Bell Witch.  From what I have heard, the play is actually based on the Ingram book; and therein lies the problem.  If that's the case, it would explain -- but not justify -- the disagreement with known facts.

All Bell Witch books, plays, movies, documentaries and other renditions contain elements of fact and fiction.  For a particular version to be "authentic," the elements of fact must not be misstated.  Now, let's discuss another problem that we've seen a lot: the "official" versions of the legend.

"Official."  "Official??"  What makes a version of the legend "official?"  Why are there so many "official" versions of the legend that contradict each other at almost every turn?  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 rendering of the legend.  For example, 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 because no one 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 a movie about the Bell Witch, and not the Bell Witch legend itself.  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" Bell Witch web sites, documentaries, videos, novels, etc. all the time, but simply labeling one's work as "official" doesn't suddenly make his or her version of the legend "the holy grail."

As a rule of thumb, such things as books, movies, documentaries, videos, etc. that deal directly with the legend are not "official" accounts because the legend has no owner to proclaim them as being "official."  However, the web sites and other vehicles used to advertise those books, movies, etc. are indeed official to the actual books, movies, etc. that they represent.

Submitted Respectfully,

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian


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