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Austin Peay State University chemistry professor Meagan Mann explores the science in the Bell Witch

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – Austin Peay State University (APSU) chemistry professor Dr. Meagan Mann has written a paper that explores the role that arsenic played in the famous Bell Witch legend that has held Middle Tennessee’s imagination for 200 years.

Her research might explain not only John Bell’s death but also the magical components at the core of the Bell Witch legend.

“Some of this stuff just seemed outright magical,” Mann said during a recent interview. “But a lot of it has kind of a chemical background.

“I’m hoping that people can see this old and magical case through new and scientific eyes.”

Tennessean reporter Katie Nixon recently interviewed Mann about what led to her interest in the Bell Witch legend and what her research uncovered. You can read the full article on The Leaf-Chronicle or The Tennessean websites. If you can’t get past the paywalls on those two websites, you can see the full report on Microsoft News’ website.

Before Mann talked to Nixon, she discussed the case with Austin Peay State University student Kyle Watts. His account appears below.

Revisiting the Bell Witch legend

Austin Peay State University professor Dr. Meagan Mann speaks during a recent Science on Tap about the Bell Witch legend. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University professor Dr. Meagan Mann speaks during a recent Science on Tap about the Bell Witch legend. (APSU)

The historical record of the Bell Witch hauntings comes from an account called “Our Family Trouble: The Story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee,” which was passed to Martin Ingram, a Clarksville, Tennessee, journalist. That account was written by John Bell’s son, Richard Williams Bell, who was only 6 at the time of the hauntings at the Bell home near Adams, Tennessee.

The story of the Bell Witch in popular folklore goes something like this:

In 1817, John Bell witnessed several strange animals on his property. Betsy Bell, the daughter of the family, then witnessed 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.

All of this culminated in 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 the witch’s 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.

Did arsenic kill John Bell?

Mann’s research centers on a mysterious liquid that was found in the medicine cabinet at the time of John Bell’s demise. The liquid in the vial was given to the cat that quickly died. It was reported that there was also the smell of garlic on John’s breath as he was dying.

“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 Nixon. 

According to Mann’s paper, arsenic was widely available at the time in the form of rat poison. The two most interesting symptoms that apply in the John Bell case include dysphagia, which is discomfort in swallowing, and the smell of garlic on the breath. Both of these symptoms support the account of Richard Williams Bell.

The most compelling piece of evidence pointing toward arsenic poisoning, though, was a blue flame that shot from the Bell chimney after the vial was thrown 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. So we have some chemicals that will turn flames red, some that’ll turn it orange, some that alternate purple or blue. Arsenic turns fire into the color that they reported.”

The death of the cat is key to Mann’s case for arsenic as the poison used to kill John Bell, she told Nixon.

Cats lack a certain type of metabolism known as glucuronic acid conjugation, leading Mann to believe the chemical used to poison John was metabolized through that pathway. Arsenic is metabolized through glucuronic acid conjugation, allowing the body to quickly recover from small doses. It can be fatal in doses as small as 0.3 grams.

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 that did it. It could have been one of his slaves. It has been reported that at the time, there were a lot of slaves who were poisoning their owners.”


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