Last month, I wrote my blog about ghosts of Virginia. Today, with an eye toward Halloween, my favorite holiday, I’m going to take us on a “tour” of haunted houses of the south. The history in haunted houses intrigues me as much as the prospect of ghostly funny-business afoot. Perhaps the Amityville Horror spawned a movie and an abundance of sequels, but the history of the house is actually quite recent. Murders in the latter part of the twentieth century aren’t nearly as intriguing as houses that may have been home to other-worldly beings for a hundred years or more.
One of the most notorious haunted houses was a farmhouse in Tennessee. The home of John Bell, a farmer in Adams, Tennessee, the Bell family was allegedly tormented by a spirit for years after an incident in 1817 when John Bell claimed to have shot at a creature with the head of a rabbit and the body of a dog. The creature disappeared, but the spirit made its presence known soon afterward. Scratching and knocking was heard in the home, while residents suffered hair pulling and other annoying assaults. Bell’s daughter, Betsy, took the brunt of the abuse doled out by the vengeful ghost. Supposedly, the ghost was the spirit of Kate Batts, a deceased neighbor who was said to have cast a vengeful curse on Bell from her deathbed. The Bell Witch became so famous that then-future President Andrew Johnson visited the home. Eventually, John Bell succumbed to illness, possibly the result of his experience with the Bell Witch. John Bell may have been poisoned, or perhaps the Bell Witch had her final act of vengeance with his death.
Less well-known is a house in Portsmouth, near the Virginia coast. A sea-captain who’d lost his wife in childbirth and later, his daughter to an outbreak of yellow-fever is said to roam the house where he once lived. Doors open and close and footsteps are heard on the stairs. Dogs have been known to bark at empty hallways. Unlike the Bell witch, the ghost in the Portsmouth house has never harmed anyone. Perhaps the heartbroken sea captain still wanders, seeking the loved ones he lost a very long time ago.
Sometimes, a house doesn’t appear to be haunted, but an object in the house demonstrates supernatural characteristics. An example is the portrait of Martha Hill, a Virginia beauty born at Shirley Plantation on the James River. The painting was once removed from the home and displayed as part of a travel exhibit. A well-respected witness reported seeing the portrait sway on its own from its hanging place in the exhibit. Months later, the portrait was stored in a closet for a period of time. Noise emitted from the closet disturbed employees until the portrait was removed. Eventually, the portrait was returned to its place in Shirley Plantation, and has ceased its restless motion. Could it be that the spirit of Martha Hill inhabits the portrait – while at home, she’s content and at rest – or were these incidents the result of coincidence? Perhaps we’ll never know.
One could devote a great deal of research time to the history behind haunted houses. Fanciful? Certainly. Enjoyable. Definitely, if you’re like me and enjoy a taste of the supernatural not. Whether or not you believe ghosts might be setting up residence in houses, the history behind these legends provides insight into the lives of the former occupants. Deaths due to disease and childbirth, love and loss, superstitions – these factors and more impacted the lives of those who came before us. The history of the occupants while they walked this earth is as fascinating as the speculation over the possibility they may still take up residence in their homes many years after their deaths.