The Bell Witch and Spiritualism

I’ve been actually thinking, reading about the Watseka Wonder and Spiritualism in general, that this may be a kind of missing piece to the “WTF happened with that Bell Witch stuff?” I found this skeptic’s page and, while I have some major quibbles with his approach, I think he’s right about a couple of things and the main one is this: Almost all we really know about the Bell Witch–not the people involved, but the actual incident–comes from Ingram. I think skeptic dude is wrong to say all we know comes from Ingram. The history of Robertson county was published before Ingram’s account, but all that tells us is that there was, indeed, a fairly well-known tale. The details, though? I think a clear case can be made that all the details we know come from Ingram. And that’s a problem.

The interesting thing is the timing, though. The Robertson County history came out in 1886, almost seventy years after the events. So, all that tells us is that seventy years later, it had become a story. Nothing, nothing at all tells us that it was a story in 1820.

And it’s quite possible that Ingram took this folk tale and wrote a book based on it and passed it off as true in 1896.  When did the Lurancy Vennum event take place? 1877.

I bring this up because all of the almost-first-hand accounts (assuming the 1849 Saturday Evening Post coverage is true and not made up by Ingram) were being given at the height of the Spiritualist movement, when there was literally nothing peculiar about a young teenage girl being the focus of ghostly interest (maybe “nothing peculiar” is not quite accurate, maybe not “nothing peculiar” but it wouldn’t have been inexplicable. Folks had a framework with which to make sense of these stories).

Just as Mary Roff’s family seemed to be rewriting her problems not as problems but as evidence of her mediumship that they did not recognize (with great aid from Vennum, once she was possessed), I can’t help but wonder if the Bell Witch might be a way to rewrite some family problems as supernatural in origin, especially in an effort to reimagine John Bell as a victim of wrongful spiritual persecution as opposed to the recipient of seemingly deserved religious persecution, when he was tossed out of his church.

The thing that really gets me, though, as I poke through these books is that these incidents–the Bell Witch, the Watseka Wonder, etc.–only seem uniquely strange if you don’t know about the other incidents. Once you start to learn about the other incidents, they start to seem like the same kind of thing.

One thought on “The Bell Witch and Spiritualism

  1. Your last paragraph gets neatly at the difference between antiquarianism and history. And between factoids and facts, when you get right down to it.

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