I wrote a little bit about John Murrell’s thumb for Pith.
Tomorrow I have many feelings about the Bell Witch, so it’s basically a week of me pooping on Nashville’s most beloved legends.
But here’s the thing I am becoming more convinced of. Oftentimes the legend of something obscures or erases a much more interesting bunch of facts. See Robert Johnson and the legend of him selling his soul to the Devil for very minor regional talent vs. Robert Johnson traveling the country and having a bunch of friends and working really hard to develop his talent.
Or the Mystic Clan, which obscures the bizarre summer of 1835.
As for the Bell Witch…
While I am a firm believer in some kinds of psychic phenomenon (which I am convinced have a scientific explanation we just haven’t discovered yet)–like your mom having a sudden feeling that you’re in trouble or the kinds of conversations the Butcher and I have where something at work can remind me of something that happened twenty-five years ago and I come home and ask “Hey, do you remember that guy with the green shirt who did that weird thing?” and he’ll know exactly which guy in a green shirt I’m talking about and what the weird thing was.–I think most psychics are scam artists. Because I think being psychic is like having a gut feeling or a moment of intuition. You can’t make it happen and it’s not some constant state of being on.
Someone who can make it happen all the time is cheating.
And when you’re cheating to accuse dead people of molesting a girl? That really pisses me off.
Here’s the thing that I didn’t get into at Pith, mostly because I didn’t feel on as firm a footing scholarship-wise as I did about my point about the story treating this spirit the way Victorians would have treated and understood the spirit and not like people in the 1810s and 20s would have, the Red River community was very small and people’s windows were open for a great portion of the year. If Betsy Bell was being molested, there’s a good chance people would have known. Not a perfect chance but a good chance. If Betsy Bell’s molestation had somehow led to the Bell Witch phenomenon, people would have made that connection back then.
If Betsy Bell had been the true focus of a poltergeist, during that time, it would have made her very hard to marry off. If Betsy Bell had been molested and people knew about it, it would have been practically impossible to marry her off. Public knowledge of molestation ruined women’s lives. If Betsy Bell had a poltergeist who told secrets (which this one supposedly did) and was molested (and people knew about it, which it seems likely they would have, if the first one were true), she could not have gotten married.
The fact that Betsy Bell married tells me that the story as we know it, as well as the story as this psychic is trying to sell books on, is not true.
It pisses me off, both at the level of accusing people of a horrendous crime with nothing more than the word of a psychic, and at the level of utterly misunderstanding how that accusation would have ruined Betsy Bell’s life so utterly and completely.
As hard as it is for victims these days to come forward, there’s been such a profound shift in how we understand this crime that it’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around.
I mean, not to be flip, but I’d like to hear some explanation for how Betsy Bell, if she was molested, was able to, back in her own day, keep this mostly secret and not see herself as fallen and ruined, let alone how she’s now come to the conclusion that she’s fine, it’s the fuckers who molested her who are the problem.
That’s something I, as a 21st century woman, firmly believe. But I find it hard to believe an early 19th century woman from a religious home on the frontier would have not experienced this as something profoundly shameful and ruinous that she had caused to happen to herself.
I don’t know. It just feels like making light of how terrible that would have been for Betsy, had it happened, how profoundly different her life would have gone, if it was true and enough people knew about it for it to make its way down to us somehow.