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Chapter 8 - Part 3
Home Up Links Visitor Remarks Contents Page The "Red Book" Bell Family

 

The Afflictions of Betsy and Father

The reader will understand that no feature of the exhibitions already introduced was ever abandoned, but continued developing virulence, or beneficence and felicity. The practice of pulling the cover off the beds was a favorite pastime, and frequently the sheets would be pulled from under the sleepers, or the pillows jerked from under their heads, and other new performances added to the exhibitions. The most serious consequence, however, was the afflictions of Elizabeth and father. Notwithstanding the invisible agency feigned a tender regard at times for Betsy, as it affectionately called her, it did not cease tormenting in many ways, increasing her punishment. The feint pretext for this was a manifest opposition to the attention paid her by a certain young gentleman, who was much esteemed by the family, often interposing impertinent objections, urging that these mutual relations be severed. At least there was no other cause manifested, or this would not be mentioned. Sister was now subjected to fainting spells, followed by prostra­tion, characterized by shortness of breath and smothering sensations, panting as it were for life, and becoming entirely exhausted and lifeless, losing her breath for nearly a minute between gasps, and was rendered unconscious.  She would revive and then relapse, and it appeared that her suffering was prolonged by the greater exertions used for her restoration. These spells lasted from thirty to forty minutes, and passed off suddenly, leaving her perfectly restored after a few minutes in which she recovered from the exhaustion. There is no positive evidence that these spells were produced by the witch. However, that was the conclusion, from the fact that there was no other apparent cause. She was a very stout girl, and with this exception, the personification of robust health, and was never subject to hysteria or anything of the kind. Moreover, the spells came on at regular hours in the evening, just at the time the witch usually appeared, and immediately after the spells passed off the mysterious voice commenced talking, but never uttered a word during the time of her prostration. In the meanwhile father was strangely afflicted, which should have been mentioned in the outset, but he had never regarded his trouble as of any consequence until after sister recovered from the attacks just described.  In fact his ailment commenced with the incipiency of the witch demonstration, or before he recognized the phenomenal disturbance. He complained of a curious sensa­tional feeling in his mouth, a stiffness of the tongue, and something like a stick crosswise, punching each side of his jaws. This sensation did not last long, did not recur very often, or cause pain, and therefore gave him but little concern.  But as the phenomena developed, this affliction increased, his tongue swelling from the sides and pressing against his jaws, so that he could neither talk nor eat for ten or fifteen hours. In the meanwhile the witch manifested a pernicious dislike for father, using the most vile and malignant epithets toward him, declaring that it would torment "Old Jack Bell" to the end of his life. As father’s trouble increased, Elizabeth was gradually relieved from her severe spells, and soon recovered entirely from the affliction, and never had another symptom of the kind.  But father was seized with another malady that caused him much trouble and suffering.  This was contortions of the face, a twitching and dancing of his flesh, which laid him up for the time.  These spells gradually increased, and undoubtedly carried him to his grave, of which I will have more to say further on.

The Witch Named "Kate"

People continued to ply our loquacious visitor with shrewd eager questions, trying to elicit some information concerning the mystery, which were with equal dexterity evaded, or a misleading answer given.  First, it was a disturbed spirit hunting a lost tooth; next, a spirit that had returned to reveal the hiding place of a buried treasure. Then it told Calvin Johnson that it was the spirit of a child buried in North Caro­lina, and told John Johnson that it was his step­mother's witch.  At last Rev. James Gunn manifested a very inquisitive desire to penetrate the greatest of all secrets, and put the question very earnestly.  The witch replied, saying that Brother Gunn had put the question in a way that it could no longer be evaded, and it would not do to tell the preacher a flat lie, and if the plain truth must be known, it was nobody else and nothing but "Old Kate Batts’ witch," determined to torment "Old Jack Bell" out of his life.  This was a startling announcement and most unfortunate under the circumstances, because too many were willing to believe it, and it created a profound sensation. Mrs. Kate Batts was the wife of Frederick Batts, who was terribly afflicted, and she had become the head of the family, taking charge of her husband's affairs.  She was very eccentric and sensitive.  Some people were disposed to shun her, which was still more irritating to her sensitive nature.  No harm could be said of Mrs. Batts. She was kind hearted, and a good neighbor toward those she liked.  Mr. Gunn, of course, did not believe the witch's statement, but many did, or professed to, and the matter made Mrs. Batts very mad, causing a lively sensation in the community.  Ever after this the goblin was called "Kate," and answered readily when addressed by that name, and for convenience sake I shall hereafter call the witch Kate, though not out of any disregard for the memory of Mrs. Batts, for after all she was a clever lady, and did not deserve the cruel appellation of “witch.”

The Witch Family -- Blackdog, Mathematics, Cypocryphy, and Jerusalem

The next development was the introduction of four characters, assuming the above names, purporting to be a witch family, each one acting a part making night hideous in their high carnivals, using the most offensive language and uttering vile threats. Up to this time the strange visitor had spoken in the same soft delicate voice, except when personating some individual. Now there were four distinct voices. Blackdog assumed to be the head of the family, and spoke in a harsh feminine tone. The voices of Mathematics and Cypocryphy were different, but both of a more delicate feminine tone. Jerusalem spoke like a boy.  These exhibitions were opened like a drunken carousal, and became perfect pandemoniums, frightful to the extreme, from which there was no escape. Father would most gladly have abandoned home and everything and fled with his family to some far away scene to have escaped this intolerable persecution, but there was no hope, no escape. The awful thing had sworn vengeance, and for what cause it never named, nor could any one ever surmise. Nevertheless, when the question of moving was discussed, it declared it would follow "Old Jack" to the remotest part of the earth, and father believed it.  The family was frightened into consternation, apprehending that a terrible crisis was rapidly approaching. Many of our neighbors were frightened away, fearing they would become involved in a tragic termination.  Others, however, drew nearer, and never forsook us in this most trying ordeal.  James Johnson and his two sons, John and Calvin, the Gunn families, the Fort's, Gooch, William Porter, Frank Miles, Jerry Batts, Major Bartlett, Squire Byrns and Major Picketing were faithful and unremitting in their sympathy, and attentions, and consolations, making many sacrifices for our comfort, and not a night passed that four or more were not present to engage the witch in conversation, and relieve father of the necessary attention to strangers, giving him much rest. These demoniac councils were introduced by singing songs of every character, followed by quarreling with each other, employing obscene language and blasphemous oaths, making a noise like a lot of drunken men fighting.  At this stage of the proceedings Blackdog would appear as peacemaker, denouncing the others with vehemence and scurrility, uttering bitter curses and threats of murder unless the belligerents should desist and behave themselves, and sometimes would apparently thrash Jerusalem unmercifully for disobeying orders.  These carousals were ended only by the command of Blackdog, professedly sending the family away on different errands of deviltry, one or two remaining to keep up the usual disturbance in different rooms at the same time.  On one occasion all four appeared almost beastly drunk, talking in a maudlin sentimental strain, fuming the house with the scent of whiskey.  Blackdog said they got the whiskey at John Gardner's still house, which was some four miles distant.  At other times the unity appeared more civil, and would treat our company to some delightful singing, a regular concert of rich feminine voices, modulated to the sweetest cadence and intonation, singing any hymn called for with solemnity and wonderful effect.  The carousals did not continue long, much to the gratification of the family and friends, and our serious apprehensions were relieved.  These concerts were agreeable closing exercises of this series of meetings, and after they were suspended the four demons or unity never, apparently, met again. It was plain old Kate from that time on who assumed all characters, good or bad, sometimes very pious and then extremely wicked.

The Witch and the Negroes

Kate manifested a strong aversion for the Negro, often remarking, “I despise to smell a nigger, the scent makes me sick," and this no doubt accounts for the fact that the Negroes were never molested in their cabins after night, but away from their quarters they encountered a sight of trouble. Kate's repugnance was mutual; the Negroes disliked the witch, and were careful to evade all contacts possible by staying in after night, augmenting that natural odor peculiar to the race that was now worth something. They were afraid of the witch, and it was difficult to get one out for an emergency.

This fear was increased by the miraculous stories told by Dean, who was a kind of autocrat among the darkles, and by the way, was a good Negro, father's main reliance for heavy work, and noted for his skill with the axe and maul and wedge.  He was worth two ordinary men in a forest clearing.  Dean could see the witch any time when alone, or on his way to visit his wife, who belonged to Alex. Gunn.  It appeared to him, he said, in the form of a black dog, and sometimes had two heads, and at other times no head. The Negroes would stand around him with eyes and mouth wide open to hear his description of the witch, his encounters and hair­breadth escapes.  He always carried his axe and a witch ball made by his wife, according to Uncle Zeke's directions, to keep the witch from harming him. He came up one morning, however, rather worsted, with his head badly bruised and bloody, and always declared that the witch inflicted the wound with a stick.  Dean's stories are not to be quoted as altogether reliable; he was allowed a wide range for his vivid imagination.

Harry, the houseboy, however, had cause for believing every word Dean told. It was Harry's business to make the morning fires before daylight. He became negligent in this duty, and father scolded and threatened him several times. Finally Kate took the matter in hand, speaking to father, "Never mind, old Jack, don't fret. I will attend to the rascal the next time he is belated."  This passed off like much of such gab, but a few mornings after, Harry was later than ever and father commenced scolding harshly, when the witch spoke again, "Hold on old Jack, didn't I tell you not to pester; I will attend to this nigger." Harry had just laid the kindling wood down, and was on his knees blowing the coals to a blaze; when some unseen force apparently seized him by the neck and flailed him unmercifully. Harry yelled and begged piteously, and when let up the witch spoke, promising to repeat the operation if he was ever derelict again. Father said he heard the blows as they fell with force, sounding like a paddle or strip of wood, but could see nothing but the boy on his knees yelling for life. Harry was never late after that.

A rather funny trick was played on Phillis, a twelve year old girl who waited in the house and assisted her mother in the kitchen. We had a log rolling on our place, as was the custom in the country. After the work was over, the youngsters, while waiting for supper, engaged in some gymnastic exercises, trying the difficult feat of locking their heels over the back of their neck. Phillis observed these exercises, and the next day stole away up stairs to test her athletic capacity.  After several unsuccessful attempts, she suddenly realized that her feet had forcibly gone over her head and were securely locked.  Time and again Aunt Lucy, her mother, called and Phillis as often answered up stairs, but never came. Finally Aunt Lucy got her dander up, and picking up a switch started, saying, “Bound I fetch that gal down them stairs." Pretty soon there was a racket upstairs, and Aunt Lucy had worn out the switch before Phillis could explain that the witch had her.

The case of Anky, however, lends more zest to the witch's characteristic antipathy for the Negro. Mother had taken notice of the fact that Kate never made any demonstrations in the cabins, and conceived the reason why, accepting the witch's own statement. She exercised her genius and hit upon a scheme to outwit Kate, which was rather novel in its purpose. However, she turned the matter over in her own mind carefully, and spoke not a word about it, not even to father, for the reason, perhaps, that she was afraid of the thing, and believed she fared best by cultivating the regard it manifested for her; consequently no one knew a breath of her plans until the outcome of the scheme was developed. Anky was a well-developed, buxom African girl, some eighteen years of age -- a real Negro, so to speak, exuberant with that pungent aromatic which was so obnoxious to Kate's olfactory. Mother had determined to cautiously test her plan for getting rid of the witch, telling Anky, in her gentle patronizing way, that she wanted her for a house girl and desired that she should sleep in her room.  The girl manifested some misgivings, but felt complimented by the distinction implied, and enquired of mother if she reckoned the old witch would not pester her?  Being assured that there was not much danger, that Kate would be too busy entertaining the company to take any notice of her, her fears gave way to her plucked up courage and she followed mother's directions to the letter, keeping the whole matter a secret from the other Negroes and all the family until the test was made as to whether the witch would trouble her or not.  So one evening after supper Anky quietly slipped in the room with her pallet and spread it under mother's bed, fixing herself comfortably on it, to await the coming in of visitors and the witch and hear the talking. It was a high bedstead, with a white-fringed counterpane hanging to the floor, hiding Anky completely.  She was delighted, and not a soul except mother knew she was there. Very soon the room was filled with visitors, keeping up a lively chit-chat while waiting the coming of Kate, and mother had taken a seat with the company anxiously waiting to see the outcome of her scheme. Presently the voice of the witch angrily rang out above the din of conversation. with the exclamation, “There is a damn nigger in the house, it's Ank; I smell her under the bed and she's got to get out.” In an instant a noise was heard under the bed like that of a man clearing his throat, hawking and spitting vehemently, and Anky came rolling out like a log starting down hill, her face and head literally covered with foam like white spittle.  She sprang to her feet with wonderful agility, frantically exclaiming, “Oh missus, missus, it's going to spit me to death. Let me out, let me out,” and she went yelling all the way to the cabin, “Let me in, let me in.”  The witch then addressed mother, “Say Luce, did you bring that nigger in here?”  “Yes,” replied mother, “I told Anky that she might go under my bed, where she would be out of the way, to hear you talk and sing.” “I thought so,” replied Kate, “I guess she heard me. Nobody but you, Luce, would have thought of such a smart trick as that, and if anybody else had done it I would have killed the damn nigger. Lord Jesus I won't get over that smell in a month!”

 

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