Home » Episodes » Episode 61 – New York, NY & Clarksville, TN (Andrew Jackson: Ghost Hunter)

In Episode 61, Rachel talks about the Astor Place Riot which occurred on May 10, 1849 and left between 22 and 31 rioters dead, and more than 120 people injured.  Then, Emily shares the legend of the Bell Witch, a “witch” who murdered John Bell and terrorized his family for years in Clarksville, Tennessee. 

Story 1: Astor Place Riot

It’s 1849. Things are not awesome in America, as we’re about a decade before the Civil War. There’s a lot of industrialization happening, as well as immigration, mostly from Ireland due to the potato famine, but from other European countries as well. People were immigrating to popular Northeastern cities, including Boston, and you guessed it, New York City.

When people immigrated, it drove down the wages, because, generally speaking, people who were immigrating to America for more opportunities would work for less. And the, and I use this term very loosely, “native-born” were prejudice against immigrants.

Also, the War of 1812 was not ancient history. I’m not going to get super into it, but essentially, America wanted more land, and England was restricting America’s ability to trade. 

Edwin Forrest.jpg
Edwin Forrest

So although now Emily, you and I might consider ourselves to be slight anglophiles, America was not stoked on England or anything representing British culture at this point in history.

And speaking of culture, we are almost to our main event in May of 1849 at the Astor Opera House. Time for some thespians to do a little Shakespeare, including Macbeth and Hamlet. And there are a couple of main players that we are going to be talking about today.

In this corner: We’ve got Edwin Forrest. He’s young. He’s macho. He sometimes has a mustache. And most importantly: He’s American-born. 

William Charles Macready by John Jackson.jpg
William Charles Macready

And in this corner: We’ve got William Charles Macready. He’s classically trained. He’s rigid. He has played Hamlet many many times. And, most importantly: He’s English.

Now, if you’re thinking, okay Americans, pipe down, Shakespeare was English, I’ve got you. Somehow, Shakespeare’s plays and poems were loved by everyone, BUT, Americans wanted to see themselves reflected in the actors. So think of William Charles Macready as more of a Hugh Grant type, and Edwin Forrest as more of a Hugh Jackman, but not real, Australian Hugh Jackman. More like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

So, Edwin and William have a bit of a professional thespian rivalry going on. I’m imagining some sort of sneaky low-blows that were quoted about one another in the papers. But it came to a head when Edwin went to a rendition of Hamlet in Scotland, in which William played the role of Hamlet. And Edwin Forrest booed him. He called William Macready’s portrayal of Hamlet, “a desecration of the scene.”


Now to us this wouldn’t be a big deal nowadays. But Americans ate that shit up. They supported him like loyal/angry football fans. And British people were horrified and I’d imagine quietly pissed. They were a little more passive aggressive. When Edwin would star in plays in Europe, the British press wouldn’t cover it, so Edwin wouldn’t get the fame he was hoping for. Meanwhile, when William was in the states, he was only booked at less-reputable places with shady people. For example, at a performance in Cincinnati, OH, theatre-lovers threw HALF A DEAD SHEEP ONSTAGE AT WILLIAM MACREADY. 

Not to mention the actors kept arguing back and forth in the papers. Although it seems very silly to me to have a couple of Shakespearean actors throwing jabs back and forth, it was simultaneously an accurate representation of the class warfare currently happening in America.

Finally, we’ve arrived at the horrible event. We’re at the Astor Opera House, which is as fancy as it sounds. It had velvet seats and a strict dress code. Think long white gloves, and in my mind, monocles. It was the perfect place for rigid, British, William Macready to take the stage… or so he thought.

On May 7, 1849, William took the stage and was met with angry Americans… pelting things, like pennies… and rotten eggs. We look real great in this, guys. William decided he’d leave town and go back to performing only in Europe, but his supporters were like, listen, we love you bro. stay here until after you play Macbeth on Thursday night. And William was like, Okay fiiiinnnneeeee.

Meanwhile, a group called the b’hoys who were basically a bunch of rowdy working class men… in my mind the type who would have stormed the capital, decided they were going to get rid of this British Thespian the best way they knew how. They hung up fliers all over NYC. They read: “WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE IN THIS CITY?” – Signed, the “American Committee.”

So Thursday morning, May 10, 1849, the New York Herald put out an article that leads me to believe they hadn’t seen the flyers. They essentially said that the rioting at Monday’s show made everyone realize that they were being stupid. Order and propriety would rule at the show tonight!  

Spoiler alert: They were wrong.

Not only were tensions high, but the tickets to the show were oversold. And it was really easy to discover whose side people were on, because William Macready’s agents put special marks on the tickets. I don’t know that this is true, but I like to imagine it looked like “Mr. F.” (For British Eyes only).

Astor Place Riot - Wikipedia

When the curtain rose, about 200 police officers were posted inside the theatre, and another 75 cops were outside. Also outside? A swarm of over 10,000 people! Edwin Forrest’s supporters AKA the Good Old Boys were arrested one by one during the first act of the play. 

So they did what any reasonable person would do: they set their holding cell on fire. 

Outside, the crowd started to riot. They grabbed loose cobblestones from a nearby construction site and started pelting the theatre. Windows broke, water pipes busted, and streetlights became dark.

Police joined with the New York State Militia to attempt to control the crowd to no avail. General William Hall told the mayor it was time to retreat or to open fire, because he didn’t want his men stoned to death while they were carrying guns. The mayor was like, finnnneeee you can start shooting over the crowd’s head, just to scare them a little.

This did nothing. People kept throwing shit. So, the soldiers fired into the mob. And again, the mob kept throwing stones. 

Eventually, the government was like, “if you heathens don’t head back to your homes we are getting the fucking cannons!!!”

…I’m paraphrasing.

The angry mob was all, “sheesh bro, calm your tits,” and they did disperse.

Tragically, in the aftermath of this insanity, 18 people were laying dead and dozens were injured – most of whom were just morbid curious bystanders. Over the next few days, 5 more people succumbed to their injuries, bringing the total dead to 23. Over 100 rioters were arrested. Pretty much all of the rioters were working class, but interestingly, not all of them were American-born. 10 of the men behind the riot were convicted and jailed the following September.

After the riot, the protesters swore vengeance and they were super upset about police having the audacity to fire on American-born people. Armed military patrolled the streets, and eventually everyone stopped threatening to riot again. 

None of the military or police were held criminally accountable for shooting in the crowd, as a jury considered the circumstances to have justified the gunshots. 

As happens in most of the protests and or riots between the haves and have-nots, no one felt any resolution. It seemed that there was just more awareness of how stark the differences between the lives of the wealthy and working class really were.

Edwin Forrest kept on keeping on, thinking he was god’s gift to America. He ended up having a very public and very dramatic divorce from his wife… who was *gasp* English. And he continued to act until 1872, when he died.

William Macready stopped acting only 2 years later, in 1851. His diary later revealing his relief when he wrote, “I shall never have to do this again.”

As for the Astor Place Opera House, this fancy-pants building could not overcome its reputation of being called the “Massacre Opera House at Disaster Place.” All of its beautiful furnishings were sold off by May of 1853, and the building was sold off to the New York Mercantile Library, who renamed the building “Clinton Hall.” In 1890, the former opera house was replaced with an 11-story building, which the Library continued to refer to as Clinton Hall. It is still there today.

Story 2: The Bell Witch

The story starts with John Bell, a farmer from North Carolina who moved with his family to a 320-acre, farm in 1804. His family included his wife Lucy and their nine children Jesse, John Junior, Drewry, Benjamin, Esther, Zadok, Elizabeth (who went as Betsy), Richard Williams and Joel Egbert. For more than a decade, the Bell family lived in peace, until strange events began occurring around the farm and their home in the summer of 1817. 

The follow is allegedly what took place at their home.

First, imaging laying in your bed, just trying to sleep, and you hear rats gnawing on your bed post or wings flapping against your ceiling. Of course, when you get up to check it out, there isn’t anything there. Then you hear chains dragging through your house… or stones dropping on the floor… knocking on the doors… the sound of someone gulping and choking.

Maybe for a while you’d think you were sleeping. It was a dream. You’re just imagining things. But then you start seeing and hearing weird things during the day. You’d be in one room and hear sounds emanating from the bedroom as if “beds were suddenly and roughly pulled apart and as if fighting dogs were in the room.” In all cases the source of the noise was never found. 

TSLA::“Tennessee Myths and Legends"

Then, they started seeing a very strange animal that looked like a half-dog, half-rabbit. Like a dog with a rabbits head. Which sounds, so weird. A rog. Or a dabbit.

Soon, blankets were pulled from beds, family members were scratched and kicked and had their hair pulled. Elizabeth received the worst of the abuse and was slapped and pinched until her body was covered in bruises. If it were me, I’d start freaking out a little bit. Wouldn’t you?


Unfortunately, due to the time of this happening, while families had enslaved people and one of the Bell family’s enslaved people had several weird experiences. This man was named Dean and he said he would frequently see a large black dog or wolf, sometimes with two heads, sometimes with no head. Dean also claimed to be turned into a mule and attacked several times. So, he carried an axe with him at all times.

So, at first the family kept the haunting to themselves. Why? Well, apparently John Bell, the father, was an elder at the Red River Baptist Church and he was nervous that the community would think he believed in the supernatural or something? One quote said that “this was the buckle of the Bible Belt and the Salem Witch Trials were only 125 years earlier, so would YOU mention that you were being haunted??” and I honestly didn’t quite understand that reasoning.

Anyway. Eventually, John shared his experiences with one of his closest friends, and the two went to a local preacher for help. Apparently, all three men swore to keep the supernatural experiences a secret – got themselves some BFF necklaces and did a pinky promise. But, one of them was a gossipy bitch apparently because just weeks later, people from all over Tennessee and even a few from Kentucky were traveling to the Bell farm to see the house and peep the spooky shit that was happening to this family.

And of COURSE this made the haunting worse.

Now, whatever the hell this thing was started beating the children and tripping adults. Then, the creep found its voice. People started hearing low and melodic sounds… then sometimes a shrill screech. And then finally, it announced aloud its intentions (#manifest) – it was going to kill John Bell.

Fun side note, by the way, General Andrew Jackson – future president – got involved at some point. Apparently, he heard about what was going on because three of the Bell sons fought under him Andrew Jackson, and Jackson was so intrigued by the story that he insisted on visiting the family and taking a gander.

This didn’t go so well. One of his wagons became stuck by an unseen force and could not be moved, despite whipping the horses, examining the wheels, and having it pushed by the men in his party.  He exclaimed, “By the eternal boys, this is the witch.”  To which the Witch replied, “All right, General, let the wagon move on, I will see you again tonight.”

Later that night, they had set up a camp and were sitting around when they heard the sound of light footsteps. Then one of the men was hit by an invisible force, another claimed to feel the pain of being stuck by needles, and one exclaimed he had been grabbed by the nose. I guess Jackson and his crew booked it out of there and went on to Nashville early the next morning.

OOOK. So, if you’re anything like me, at this point you are thinking “WHAT THE HECKING HECK IS GOING ON.” WHO or WHAT is haunting these people??

Mary Catherine “Kate” Batts (d. after 1847), the wife of Frederick Batts was believed by many to have been the culprit behind the disturbances known as the “Bell Witch.”  Although not a poor woman, she was often mocked by others throughout the county. She used words incorrectly and had some “strange ways” – so obviously the people around town thought she probably practices Black Magic or other forms of the occult. Apparently Kate had some kind of business feud with John Bell and so the two were feuding. And, like ALL women do when they are in a feud with someone… she “cast a witch’s spell on him.” That’s just standard woman best practice.

Batts of course strongly denied any connection to the haunting, but after that supposedly the entity began responding to the name Kate.

SO, the torture of the Bell family went on for 3 years, apparently, and then it all kind of finally came to a head when Kate decided to make good on her promise to kill John Bell. Then he mysteriously came down with an odd illness.

Bell Witch Cave : Ghost Adventures : Travel Channel | Ghost Adventures |  Travel Channel

He would have trouble swallowing, and his tongue felt weird… the man started getting this weird twitching sensation in his face, and eventually, it grew to the point where it was kind of impacting him in other parts of his body. And he may have been having seizures or experiencing Parkinson disease or something of that nature, but everyone claimed it was the “witch” making him sick.

Finally, one morning, they couldn’t wake him up and it seemed like he had slipped into a coma. And apparently the family found a vial next to the bed that had the remnants of a dark-colored liquid in it. When they found that vial the witch spoke up allegedly and said “I gave Ol’ Jack a big dose of that last night, which fixed him!”  So, everyone is panicking now thinking omg dad has been poisoned this is terrible. But they wanted to double check that it was actually poison so they gave a little bit to a cat….. and the cat died instantly. And then later when a physician came he smelled the vial and smelled John’s breath and concluded they smelled the same. So, people truly believe that he was poisoned.

The family needed to get rid of this vial of poison and so they destroyed it by throwing it in the fire, and it ignited a blue flame and shot up out of the chimney.

Eventually, John succumbed to whatever he was suffering and died. He was 70 years old.

The haunting died down after John Bell’s death and was quiet for a while, until Betsy got engaged to a man named Joshua Gardener. Apparently the witch was hella jelly or something because she was NOT pleased and started her antics right back up.

This eventually convinced Betsy to break off her engagement in 1821 and it wasn’t until 1824 that Betsy ended up getting married to her old school teacher Richard Powell. Icky.

After that, the Bell Witch disappeared for a time before coming back to say that she would return in seven years, Fitzhugh said. When she returned to John Bell Jr. in 1828, she is said to have spoken to him for three nights about the past, present and future. A real Ebeneezer Scrooge kind of experience. The ghost of haunting future apparently said that it would John Bell’s most direct descendant in 107 years, in 1935. BUT no tales from 1935 forward exist as part of the original legend.

Now, obviously, this is a story from the early 1800s. It’s been passed down and modified and built up over the years I am sure. At the very least there is SOME level of truth behind it which is unusual for a ghost story. We definitely know that John Bell and his family were real people because there are records that they lived in that area. But, there is still a lot of speculation around what the heck happened and if it was a ghost or the devil or that witch Kate Batts or something else. So, here are a few of the theories.

Since we just talked about Betsy’s engagement, let’s start there.

Some people think that Joshua Gardener was the culprit. He had known the family a long time, and some think he may have caused the initial manifestations. Powell began teaching in the area in 1815, and soon developed a liking for Betsy. He became friends with Betsy’s parents and was a frequent visitor to the Bell home. It wasn’t long after he met them that the mysterious noises began. Also suss – Powell’s first wife died in 1821, the same year Betsy ended her engagement to Gardner.

Another, perhaps more logical / scientific reason might be POISON.

Some folks believe that John Bell was a victim of long-term arsenic poisoning. That he was receiving small doses of the poison over the course of about three years, after the symptoms first occurred, and a large, fatal dose on the night before he died. Now this is interesting because arsenic poisoning was a huge issue back then because essentially every home in America had a big ole can of arsenic. It was just widely available. They even made a law about it at one point because people kept poisoning each other!

There are a lot of people who might have done the poisoning. The Bell family was considered a wealthy family in the early 1800’s. They had a number of enslaved people on the farm, and historical records do show that sometimes enslaved people poisoned their enslavers, understandably. Historical evidence also shows abused wives poisoning their husbands – also understandably. 

It could have even been someone that didn’t like them from church. For all we know the legend came about from the mouth of someone who was experiencing some traumatic neurological symptoms and over the years they’ve gotten blown up and turned into this witch legend.

In fact, the legend is still going strong. These days, it is said that the Bell Witch lives in a cave near Clarksville called the Karst Cave. She has been the subject of countless modern books, analyses, documentaries and movies, including the 2006 movie An American Haunting, very loosely based on the Bell Witch legend. 

AND many also claim they experience encounters with the Bell Witch at Karst Cave. It’s become an attraction for thousands of visitors every year. The cave is on the National Historical Registry, added in 2008 – and during Where in the World I’m going to read you a few stories of people having experienced some spoooooky shit in the cave.

And that’s the story of the Bell Witch and the death of John Bell!



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