Catch the Spirit in Adams: Home of the Bell Witch

August 6, 2008

By Jessica Mozo

Bell School Building in Adams, TN

Driving down U.S. Highway 41 in northern Middle Tennessee, you might miss the tiny community of Adams if you blink.

But don’t let the size of this sleepy town fool you – there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

For starters, it’s the home of the infamous Bell Witch, a spirit that tormented the Bell family from 1817 to 1821. The spirit reportedly held particular hatred toward the family patriarch, John Bell, and his youngest daughter, Betsy, and was blamed for John’s death and violent physical attacks on Betsy.

The Bell family log cabin now sits on the property of the historic Bell High School building, which houses the Adams Antique Mall, the Adams Museum and Archives, and the School House Cafeteria & Tea Room.

The Bell High School building and grounds anchor the town of Adams and attract hordes of visitors fascinated by the Bell Witch legend.

“People are so interested in it because it’s a documented event that can’t be explained to this day,” says Sarah Head, an Adams resident and president of Community SPIRIT Inc., a nonprofit organization that puts on a play about the Bell Witch every October. “This little-bitty community of 500 people is known all over the world. We often get visitors from other states and countries.”

Old Bell High School Diploma, Adams, TN

The Bell Witch’s Worldwide Fame

So intriguing is the Bell family’s story, it has been recounted in more than 40 published books and was even the basis for a major motion picture, An American Haunting.

The film was produced in 2006 and starred Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland.

“We’re not lost – we get a lot of publicity,” says Tim Henson, an Adams historian and curator of the Adams Museum and Archives. “When An American Haunting came out, we had newspaper and TV folks lined up along the streets. A lot of the local folks don’t like the movie because it doesn’t follow all their Bell Witch beliefs, but it does tell the tale.”

Adams is also home to the Bell Witch Cave, where the spirit is believed to have retired to after John Bell’s death, and Bellwood Cemetery, where several descendants of the Bell family are buried. But visitors should make the old Bell High School building on Highway 41 their first stop.

“This property was the edge of the Bell farm,” Henson says. “John Bell Jr. had 734 acres when he died in 1862, and this is a little part of that.”

Constructed in 1913, Bell High School served northwestern Robertson County until the building burned down in 1919. The current structure was built in 1920 and served as a school until 1975.

“It’s been an antique mall off and on since 1977,” Henson says. “Central air and paneling were put in and the ceilings lowered, but many parts of the building are the same.”

Covering much of the first and second floors, the antique mall offers an array of antique furnishings and home décor as well as jewelry, candles, books and gifts.

Artifacts at the Bell School Building

Another classroom houses the Adams Museum and Archives, where glass cases hold class photos from Bell High School, original copies of books written about the Bell family and the Bell Witch, photos of Bell descendants and other artifacts that reveal secrets from Adams’ past.

The Bell cabin behind the school is part of the museum and was last owned by Richard Williams Bell, a son of John Bell who died in 1857. The cabin is believed to have been built by John Bell or his sons.

“Richard Williams Bell was the one from whom most of the Bell Witch stories came,” Henson says. “He was a fairly wealthy man, but he had a turbulent life.”

Southern Food Favorites

The lower level of the Bell High School building holds the School House Cafeteria, a meat-and-three open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday. The cafeteria serves Southern favorites such as meatloaf, fried chicken, catfish, vegetables and “out-of-this-world desserts.”

Tea room at the Adams Antique Mall

One of the first-floor classrooms houses a quaint tearoom that is often used for bridal and baby showers, luncheons and private events.

“Four or five Bell High School graduates come eat lunch here just about every day,” Henson says.

The Bell High School building and grounds are open year-round, though they attract the most visitors in the fall, when people everywhere are looking for a good spook.

Henson, however, claims he’s “not big on the scary side of the story.”

“I’m a historian,” he says. “I’ve been researching about the Bells and the spirit since 1995, and I’ve met almost every line of the family.”

But Henson, who works two days a week at the antique mall, is quick to admit that every so often something happens that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

And that same feeling is what draws people to Adams from the far corners of the globe.

“People like something out of the ordinary, and there’s so much history intertwined with the Bells’ story,” he says. “Even the best of folks have a healthy fear of it.”

The Legend of the Bell Witch

Yearning to learn more about the Bell Witch?

See firsthand how the events unfolded in Adams in October, when Community SPIRIT Inc. presents its annual play, Spirit.

Held in an open-air pavilion behind the Bell High School building, the play features a cast of approximately 30 amateur and professional actors and recounts the tale of the Bell Witch haunting. Written by David Alford, an Adams native who serves as the artistic director for the Tennessee Repertory Theatre, the play is based on the book Our Family Trouble, the only written eyewitness account of the Bell Witch, written by Richard Williams Bell.

“We almost always have something unusual happen,” says Sarah Head, president of Community SPIRIT Inc. “[In 2007], we had a spectacular lightning display one night. As the stories go, one of the ways the Bell Witch appeared was as a black dog, and just about every year, a black dog comes around during rehearsals or at the performances.”

The play runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights the last two weekends in October. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students. For more information, call (615) 696-1300 or visit

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  1. John C. Cox says:

    I am a great, great, great, great grandson of John Bell Sr.
    I was born and raised in Water Valley, Yalosbush County where several of the Bell Children moved following the death of their father.
    My link is through Ester Bell’s marriage to Alexander Bennet Porter.
    I won’t touch on the many errors in this blurb with the exception of one:
    “The Bell family log cabin now sits on the property of the historic Bell High School building”
    Do you really suppose that tiny cabin housed the entire family of John Bell Sr. at any point?
    John Bell Sr., his wife Lucy,their children: Jesse, John Jr., Drewry, Esther, Zadoc, “Betsy”, Richard, Joel, and for a time Benjamin?
    Not to mention being the site of hosting large groups of people who came to see the Bell Witch “do her stuff?”
    You really need to do some research and re-write this thing!
    John C. Cox

    • Jessy Yancey says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your feedback. We received most of our information from the sources mentioned in the article, which was written in 2008. We will look into the wording of that section of the story and see if we can rephrase it to be more accurate that only a small portion of the Bell family lived in the cabin. I appreciate your comment detailing the family history.

      Jessy Yancey
      Tennessee Home & Farm

    • Amanda Collier says:

      Hi- this is for John Cox. My name is amanda collier. I have just bought a rocking chair from an antique shop in Adams Tn. It has paperwork and supposed to be 100 percent authentic- it’s supposed to be john Bell’s ricking chair. There is sum paperwork from a family member- could u text me? I would love to reaserch the chair further- for my own piece of mind..maybe u could help me get in contact w sum of the bell family? My cell is 417-366-3883- text anytime!! Thank you!
      Amanda Collier

  2. Angela Keaton says:

    Does anyone know any history about who wrote the Bell Jar spell that killed John Bell? As a descendent of the Williams family as a young child I learned how to use this spell from my family members. Their may be several family rifts keeping me from the answer as to why. Why does the spell exist and who wrote it? A spirit who says she is Betsy Bell speaks to me, pulls at my heels and grabs my wrists at night. What does she want or is she speaking to other family members? My theory is when the weird unnatural family stuff kicks up that I am not the only one. I theorize this stuff travels sequentially to other descendents. So, if young John is the spirits target while it is on a break from giving me all night banters of late shaking doors walls and knocking all over closets. Cameras and paranormal equipment could prove that I am not crazy. It is embarrasing to admit any of this really happens to me. If I deal all my life with this, could someone please give theories as to why? Also, what did this Williams family have to do with the most ghoulish scandal in the Jewish Cemetery in Norfolk Virginia. Some thing happened where bodies were being dug up with a defense given that Jews from England hated Jews from Germany, more than 1 funeral took place secretly so bodies wouldn’t be dug up and thrown out but, why? If this isn’t ghoulish what is? I have to stand up and defend the Williams family but, it gets really hard to do sometimes.
    One of the problems expressed is that cousin Betsy isn’t happy with the movie. The person with the most anger should be Lucy. As a Williams woman with natural gifts,could she be the subconscious source. How are these things connected? The family has dumped on me all paranormal responsibilities for this stuff but, knowing a few truths might keep really dangerous spirit activity from happening, house fires electrical water kitchen knives hurling by themselves car accidents prediction of these occurrences and especially death along with freaked out spouses demanding divorces from paranormal activity are just a taste of my secrets. I am getting angry as to why everyone thinks they can leave me holding the bag. I didn’t start this nor summon nor feed it or give it permission. I can reduce the strength through directions to spend the energies. Well, I am pooped and tired. Since I keep all hell from breaking loose at young john bell’s door, he could at least tell me what happened. So,then we could get an understanding with this thing. Who knows maybe I could reason with it. Maybe the spirit and I could learn to live in harmony together. As it is it is just building momentum. Nobody wants to deal unless they are currently hammered by the paranormal nightly banters. We don’t really have to go through hell every night. It warns when it is done with me it is going after the current John Bell and his family. I asked the spirit if it could say just one thing to young John Bell what would it be and it said,’we don’t really have to go through hell every night.’ What does that mean? Is it current Hell or future Hell? So, at least 3 spirits are disturbed. The spirit cousin Betsy and cousin Vlad. If you have knowledge about family facts you can email me at

  3. Angela Keaton says:

    Over the years my unwanted experiences have lead to focused control and getting angry to demand the answers as to why. After investing quite a large amount of money time and effort in equipment the Jewish community or perhaps my family is for some reason hiding some of the old news articles and other information. If anyone has bits of information that will help my research please write to me. Using an SB7 -spirit box, I asked questions as to why the current John Bell and other family members are still being pestered after 200 years over something we had nothing to with what so ever. Here, were my results a spirit not giving her name or did not remember her name stated that she was a slave a young girl. She was upset and confused as if she had only recently experienced the trauma of her own assault and murder. She seemed surprised when I explained how awful slavery was thought to be. Upon research there were actually people living in her time believing this was a worthy practice. This girl was confused that we are many generations removed and no longer aware of so much elapsed time. There are connections of magic secret groups in which whites and slaves alike practiced. This girl practiced something with the female members of my family. Or my question to her is are you a family member? These so called paranormal gifts are inherited. What type of spirits are these kindred spirits? I want to lay out the real story line. In growing up not far from Williamston NC, local children told me that their ancestors were slaves and that their captors had been Jewish farmers. They were Jews living right in the area. When a group decided to fund a heritage museum in Williamston, they dropped the project citing lack of funding. They were unwilling to accept the truth. What ever people believe in the after life all these people are together. In my sessions the voices of British and slaves are all one big family. What I am suggesting is that slaves were actually family. Could a bit of family violence be misleading? Why did Kate Batts not marry John Bell? What was the reason the marriage never happened. What if Kate is not even involved but, Lucy some how is the unintentional source being unaware of undeveloped abilities. After the movie the spirits are rising demanding the truth. The only thing to stop this truth. I am digging in the mystery. Spirits are around us all the time. We just have not been listening to their messages. Contact me if you have any useful information.

  4. Misty W says:

    My sister used to sing on the Bell Witch Opry which broadcast from the auditorium on the top floor back in the 80′s. For years afterward, I would have nightmares about being trapped in a pitch dark building surrounded by spirits. It took me 20 years to realize this building in my nightmares was the schoolhouse…right down to the staircases and corridors.