ADAMS, Tenn. — There’s a new story to tell in the legend of Tennessee’s Bell Witch.
A Mississippi clairvoyant, featured on A&E’s upcoming five-part series, Cursed, The Bell Witch, is claiming to know the real story behind the nearly 200-year-old tale, and she says she got it directly from Betsy Bell, who, according to the legend, was tortured for years by an unseen force on her family’s farm.
“Some people will not agree with me, and that’s OK, but I gave Betsy Bell a voice to say what really happened,” said Sara Dulaney Pugh, better known as Angel Leigh, a clairvoyant from Leakesville, Miss.
“As a Christian, when I was told that this could be something evil, it scared me. I had to really pray about it. But once I talked to Betsy, I wanted to help as much as I could. For so many years, she was buried and couldn’t tell the truth.”
Pugh was three years old when she first started to see things that others couldn’t, she said. For years, the visions terrified her, so she kept them a secret from virtually everyone she knew, except her parents.
“I would tell my mom, and she told me to pray about it,” Pugh said. “If people had known the truth, I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had. I probably wouldn’t have been a cheerleader. I probably wouldn’t have had friends. I had a wonderful childhood, I really did, and it was because of my parents.”
Now 29 years old, Pugh has been married for more than seven years and has two children of her own. About a year-and-a-half ago, she decided to open up about her past and join Mississippi Paranormal Investigations as a way to learn more about her abilities.
Her involvement with the group led to her appearance on the A&E show, she said.
Filming leads to book
In July, Pugh was introduced to Sue Clifton, a Mississippi-based author and ghost hunter. The two met while filming for the A&E series at Betsy Bell’s grave in Yalobusha County, Miss. and, according to Clifton, they felt an immediate connection.
“I did not believe in mediums before I met Sara,” said Clifton, 70, a former teacher turned author. “Neither of us knew each other’s names, let alone anything else, before then, but Sara came up with things that night, personal things about my family that no one could possibly know.
“I was totally fascinated. She’s the most intriguing person I’ve ever known, and that night when we were having a break, I told her ‘I’m going to do a book about you.'”
Two months later, Clifton published Through the Eyes of Angel Leigh, a book she co-authored with Pugh, chronicling Pugh’s life, the people she’s helped and her interpretation of the Bell Witch legend. Before it was released in September, Pugh insisted on a meeting with descendant Bob Bell, of Springfield, Tenn., so she could tell him the story, Clifton said.
“That just speaks to what kind of person Sara is,” Clifton said. “People can criticize all they want to, but I don’t have to defend anything. I think Sara’s story is the true account of what happened.”
A new take on the legend
In Clifton’s book, Pugh claims that the Bells weren’t cursed. The land they chose to settle in Adams was cursed, and when they disturbed the land, the curse was set in motion.
At first, strange sounds were reported in and around the Bells’ cabin in 1817.
Over time, the situation intensified, and the Bells reportedly talked to a spirit they later named Kate. The spirit would target Betsy Bell, pinching her, pulling and tying her hair in knots and slapping her until she was bruised, according to Adams historian Tim Henson.
The abuse continued until the year after Betsy Bell’s father, John, died in 1820 at about age 70. The spirit took credit for his death, stating she poisoned him, Henson said of the legend.
But, Pugh says the spirit that tortured Betsy Bell and the rest of her family, even their slaves, on that pioneer farm nearly 200 years ago wasn’t responsible for John Bell’s death.
A slave killed John Bell, poisoning him because he could not protect Betsy, then 11, from another family member who was sexually abusing her, Pugh said.
“I had to give this girl a voice,” she said. “We had to bring this story to light. We couldn’t keep sweeping it under the rug.”
Bell Family reacts
For Bob Bell, the fifth great grandson of John Bell and a lifelong Robertson County resident, Pugh’s story “makes sense.”
“She blew me away,” he said. “For someone who doesn’t know anything about the history or hasn’t studied it at all, she pretty much nailed it.”
Earlier this summer, Bell, 52, said he and Adams Historian Tim Henson took Clifton and Pugh on a tour of places in Adams central to the Bell Witch legend. At each site, Pugh would scribble in her notebook, and, at the end of the day, she had listed the names of everyone in the Bell family and came up with facts that both men later said she couldn’t have known.
“I’m thoroughly convinced she has a gift that I don’t have,” Bell said. “She’s the real deal. A lot of the family isn’t going to like it because of the molestation part of it, but for me, the possession factor is central here. [The family member] wouldn’t have done what he did to (Betsy) for no reason.
“It’s a whole different version than the story I grew up with, but everything she wrote down had some fact to it. That story has as much right to be written as the original book. Whether it’s true or not, who knows?”
As for the A&E series, Bob Bell said last week that he wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but he could say with certainty that everyone in it is who they say they are.
“I’ve been warned that there are some fictionalized things in it,” he said. “But they tried to keep it as factual as they could while still being entertaining.”
For Mississippian Pat Gordon, also a Bell descendant who can trace her lineage up to John Bell’s oldest son Jesse, the upcoming A&E series is something she’s both anxious and excited about, she said. A resident of Union, Miss., Gordon was visiting Adams for the first time last week.
She had read Clifton and Pugh’s book, and like Bob Bell, found it answered some questions about her family’s history.
“I agreed with that book more than any other book that I’ve read,” Gordon said. “I mean, it fits.”
For years, Gordon, now 64, had always been curious about the legend, she said. One time when she was a young girl, her grandmother had started to tell her part of it, but her grandfather walked in and put a stop to it, she added.
“I never had the feeling like the Bell Blood was bringing me bad luck or anything,” she said. “I never felt that way. For me, it was always kind of fun to know your family history had a witch in it. You know that (saying) ‘in the South, we don’t hide crazy. We put them out on the front porch’? Well, that’s kind of how I feel about it.”
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