Clarksville, TN – The Bell Witch legend has held the region’s attention for more than 200 years, but on October 25th enthusiasts will hear a part of the story that will do more than spark their imaginations.
They will learn that an (un)healthy dose of science also laces the tale.
That night – in time for Halloween spooks and haunts – Dr. Meagan Mann, an associate professor in the Austin Peay State University (APSU) Department of Chemistry, will examine the possible role that arsenic played in the paranormal murder mystery.
Mann will give her presentation on Tuesday, October 25th at 6:30pm in Room E106A/B in the Sundquist Science Complex. The event is free and open to the public, and “festive” dress is encouraged. Austin Peay State University also will reserve a seat for Kate Batts, aka the Bell Witch.
The presentation – titled “The Murder of John Bell and the Bell Witch Legend: A Paranormal Murder Mystery” – also coincides with the launch of Austin Peay State University’s new podcast, “The Austin Peay Experience Podcast.”
The podcast will highlight what the university is doing to become the region’s university of choice by its centennial year, 2027. The first season will focus on “Forgotten Tennessee” to share the university’s work in preserving and celebrating the state’s history (and legends such as the Bell Witch).
The first episode features Mann and is titled “Mixing Science with the Legend of the Bell Witch” and is available on podcast platforms such as Apple, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon Music and Podbean.
Revisiting the Bell Witch
The story of the Bell Witch in popular folklore goes something like this:
In 1817, John Bell saw several strange animals on his property. Betsy Bell, the daughter of the family, then saw a girl swinging from a tree limb. The servant of the family, a man named Dean, also shared that a dog had followed him on his way home.
This culminated with the Bell family hearing scratching sounds along the walls of their home. John Bell then began feeling a strange paralysis of the mouth. Family friend James Johnston told the Bell family that a spirit was haunting their home.
Soon after, the family communicated with a spirit that went by the name of Kate. Kate took a particular liking to Lucy Bell, the matriarch, and had a particular dislike of John Bell and Betsy Bell.
For the next three years, Kate tormented the family, and some say her efforts were meant to keep Betsy Bell from marrying the family’s neighbor Joshua Gardner and to kill John Bell, though nobody knows why.
On December 19th, 1820, John Bell fell into a stupor and died.
Did arsenic kill John Bell?
Mann’s research centers on a mysterious vial of liquid found in the medicine cabinet at the time of John Bell’s demise. The family gave the liquid to their cat, and it quickly died.
“His son talked about all of these strange medical symptoms he was having, and a lot of them sounded very neurological to me, as someone who knows a bit about things like biochemistry and toxicology,” Mann told a Tennessean reporter in 2021.
During her presentation on October 25th, Mann will explain several key pieces of evidence, including:
- The wide availability of arsenic in the 1800s.
- John Bell’s symptoms at the time of his death.
- The cat’s quick death after ingesting the liquid.
- The blue flame that shot through the chimney when the Bell family threw the vial into the fireplace.
“They claimed that a blue flame shot up out of the chimney. That sounds almost magical, right? But that’s exactly what happens when you put arsenic in a flame, it makes a bright blue flame,” Mann said. “The emission spectrum of a chemical is what color it’ll change a flame. We have some chemicals that will turn flames red, some that’ll turn it orange, some that alternate purple or blue.”
Mann uses science to make a compelling argument.
“I do think that Bell likely died from an acute dose of arsenic,” she said. “I don’t know if it was a member of his family who did it. It could have been one of the people he enslaved. It has been reported that at the time, there were a lot of slaves who were poisoning their owners.”
The APSU College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is sponsoring the presentation.
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