I teach history at our local high school. I have read your column for years, so I know that you always dedicate an entire column to haunted houses during Halloween week. Some time ago, you wrote a creepy story about the “Bell Witch” in Tennessee. I wish I would have saved it so that I could read it to my students at our classroom’s Halloween party. Could you repeat it?
Sure. This is the 10th anniversary of my annual Halloween column, so it seems like a good time to look back at the infamous Bell Witch and provide an update on the many spirits that some believe still walk the halls of the White House today.
The Bell Witch haunting is notorious because it may be the best-documented case of murder by the supernatural in U.S. history. The alleged victim was John Bell, a Tennessee farmer and father of a large family.
Bell’s troubles began in 1817, when he claimed to have seen a demonlike beast in his cornfield. He shot at the creature several times before it disappeared into thin air. Later that evening, the Bells heard frightening “beating” sounds on their walls. They rushed outside with their shotguns and found nothing, but the sounds grew louder and more violent as the weeks progressed.
Soon, a quiet voice, described as that of a feeble old woman who would either sing hymns or sob, started emanating from inside the house. The disembodied voice also grew louder as time went by, and the Bells’ small daughter started to complain of being beaten by unseen hands — with cuts and bruises to prove it. John Bell finally asked his nearest neighbor to spend the night, but he, too, was awakened and then beaten by the invisible spirit.
After the violence spread to other household members, the Bells were visited by longtime family friend Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson — the great war hero who would later become the nation’s seventh president. Jackson brought a small contingent of troops with him but left after a single night of terrifying encounters that included one of his own men being violently attacked by the malevolent ghost. “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than deal with the Bell Witch,” Jackson later said.
John Bell grew ill and finally died on Dec. 20, 1820. His family found a small vial of unidentifiable liquid near the corpse and gave it to the family cat, which died minutes later. Family and friends say a bodiless voice then filled the room: “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, and that fixed him!”
As mourners left Bell’s funeral a few days later, some said they heard the ghostly voice bellow with laughter and sing a little ditty about a bottle of brandy. Their accounts, as well as those of Jackson and others, are perhaps the best evidence to suggest that at least one human life has been claimed by the undead.
Is it true that the White House is haunted?
Actually, a convincing case can be made that the president’s home, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C., is the most haunted house in America.
Perhaps the most colorful spirit there is the aforementioned Andrew Jackson, a fiery leader who often peppered his conversations with four-letter words and liked to smoke foul-smelling cigars. Some overnight visitors and even staffers have been awakened by the spirit’s cussing and the stench of a cheap stogie.
Yet, the most frequent White House visitor from the afterworld is apparently Abraham Lincoln. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt are among those who reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost or feeling his presence. So did their wives, as well as visitors ranging from Maureen Reagan to late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (Churchill was so freaked out by the apparition that he reportedly moved to a nearby hotel the next morning and vowed never to stay at the White House again.)
Lincoln and his troubled wife, Mary Todd, often held seances at the property to contact their late son, Willie. At one seance in 1863, Lincoln reportedly had to ask a Maine congressman to sit on a piano that was levitating several feet in the air so the efforts to contact his late son could continue. Members of Ulysses S. Grant’s family said they often conversed with the spirit of young Willie Lincoln, whom they found to be “shy, but quite charming.”
President Barack Obama apparently hasn’t seen any ghosts since moving into the White House earlier this year, or at least hasn’t reported it if he has. But first lady Michelle Obama admits that she and the president often have been awakened by strange sounds in the middle of the night, and that some people in her family have complained of a feeling that something or someone was gnawing at their feet — as if, one report said, “trying to eat them from the bottom up.”
A rambunctious or even flesh-eating spirit? No. It’s the first family’s dog, a Portuguese water dog named Bo.