The Oldest House on the Block

The Oldest House on the Block

324 N Soledad | Credit: Courtesy
 
Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent
 

 

This c. 1900 home at 324 North Soledad Street was the only house on the block until 1917. Built on a small hill between Montecito and Gutierrez streets, on what was then the outskirts of the city, this Queen Anne–style home probably overlooked the city when there were fewer homes and trees in the area. Soledad (pronounced so-LAY-dad) means “solitary” in Spanish.

The home is painted historically appropriate earth-tone colors that owners Chris Emanuel and Paul Lommen had carefully researched. The colors accentuate the home’s original details. The steep slope of its roofline marks it as an older home among the shallower slopes of the newer homes that surround it. The home’s crowning glory is the cheerful sunburst motif that accents the front gable. This was a popular decoration for homes of this vintage. I’ve noticed it on other homes here. Keep an eye out for it as you walk around.

Built by a Pioneer Family

The Blood family posed on the front porch in the 1920s. Back row, from left to right: Addie, Carolyn, Fred, Mabel. Front row: Grace, Mary J., Ella.

The family of James Augustus Blood built the home. Blood and his wife, Mary Josephine Hall Blood, had traveled from Illinois by covered wagon in 1870 and settled in Santa Barbara. The Blood family came here because a relative, also named James A. Blood, had settled on a farm in Carpinteria in 1867. (My research was made especially challenging because both men shared the same name and died within a year of each other. The James A. Blood who built this home was referred to as James A. Blood Junior to distinguish him from the Carpinteria farmer, although the farmer was his uncle, not his father.)

The Bloods raised six children in Santa Barbara — several of whom spent their adult lives in this home. The most prominent was Alice Mabel Blood, who was an accomplished painter and had been Saint Barbara and the Festival Queen in the Flower Festival parades of the 1890s.

James A. Blood was in the real estate business and was co-owner with Francis H. Knight of the House-Furnishing Emporium on State Street near Ortega. The store sold furniture — everything from baby carriages to coffins. The company once caused a controversy, according to Walker A. Tompkins. In his newspaper column in 1971, he wrote that in the 1880s, the firm of Blood and Knight put a huge sign on the side of a building facing Stearns Wharf that read: “BLOOD AND KNIGHT, UNDERTAKERS. COFFINS AT LOW PRICES.” “Since many of Santa Barbara’s winter visitors in the 1880s were in their terminal illnesses, the advertising of Blood and Knight — not too euphonious a name in itself — was enough to chill the marrow. So vociferous were the civic protests, that the controversial sign was finally removed.”

 

History from Near and Far

 

It pays to network when you are curious about the history of your house. Chris learned from a neighbor that her home’s property had been much larger in the past and that the family had several farm animals. This was corroborated by a 1909 ad that I found in the local paper for a “milch” (milk) cow for sale at the 324 N. Soledad home.

A few months after the current owners moved into the home in 1990, a woman knocked on the door and explained that her grandfather had built the home. Along with some information about the home’s past, she had a 1920s photo of the Blood family posed on the porch. A porch post can be seen next to the family members — the same post that is there today. Also original to the home is the large pair of pocket doors separating the front parlor from the family room.

Chris Emanuel remembers falling in love with the house 30 years ago. “When I saw it, I knew this was the one. The house has a very welcoming feel to it. It has been very nicely redone and still retains a lot of the original character. There is a lot of very lovely woodwork throughout the house and a great old Mexican pepper tree in the back.”

Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is betsyjgreen.com.

A Classic Colonial Revival Home

A Classic Colonial Revival Home


Cherished Santa Barbara Street House Full of Memories Galore

While the stately home at 2405 Santa Barbara Street has been owned by the Graffy family for more than 55 years, it was built about 1923 for Harvey T. and Hazel Nielson. Nielson was a three-term mayor of Santa Barbara who had roots in Michigan, which probably explains the home’s style. Colonial Revival homes are more common in the Midwest and east of the Mississippi. The home was designed by Floyd E. Brewster, who worked with George Washington Smith and Lutah Maria Riggs. While Smith and his associates are best known for Spanish Colonial Revival–style architecture, they all designed other styles as well.

Brewster was from upstate New York where he had worked as an architect before moving to California. His background on the East Coast may have been why the Nielsons asked him to design their home. The Graffys are proud possessors of the original blueprints. In addition to this home, Brewster worked on designs for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Casa del Herrero, and Santa Barbara Middle School.

Colonial Revival’s Origin

C. 1940 photo of the home

The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia triggered the Colonial Revival style. Styles common prior to this time, such as Greek Revival, Italianate, and Gothic Revival, had used European styles as a starting point. But as our country celebrated its century mark, architects began to look back at our own past for inspiration. Colonial Revival was the most popular type of domestic architecture in the United States from 1910 to 1930. Here in Santa Barbara, however, the style was eclipsed by Spanish Colonial Revival, especially after the 1925 earthquake.

The home at 2405 Santa Barbara Street is a picture-book example of a Colonial Revival: a symmetrical facade with windows framed by shutters. The front door is topped with an elliptical fanlight window and flanked by sidelight windows. Four slender columns support a prominent entry porch.

When you walk in the front door, the main staircase rises grandly in front of you. Erin Graffy, who grew up in the house, told me that this staircase had been off limits for her and her siblings when they were kids. She led me through the kitchen and showed me the maid’s stairs in the back, which were the only ones the kids were allowed to use. The only exception was one time a year, when the children could use the main stairs to come down on Christmas morning.

The maid’s room, in the back of the house on the second floor, has a nice view of the large backyard. The room is next to the laundry chute that was used to send laundry downstairs. According to Neal Graffy, who also spent his formative years here, the chute was occasionally used for other purposes!

Most of the floors are white or red oak, and there is a small brass plate in the center of the dining room floor. It formerly held a button that could be stepped on to discretely summon the maid. The maid’s room has a floor made of fir — a type of conifer with a straight grain that was commonly used in kitchens and porches. The closets are lined with fragrant cedar wood — a natural moth repellent. Cove molding tops the living and dining room ceilings.

 

Original blueprint created by Floyd E. Brewster, 1923

Dr. Edward J. Lamb and his wife, Louise, the second owners, bought the home in 1936. Lamb was the founder of the Santa Barbara Children’s Medical Clinic. He was also a member of the Rancheros Visitadores, and a large backyard barbecue was the gathering place for many of the group’s members, some of whom came on horseback.

The home’s next owners were attorneys Lawrence M. Parma and Elizabeth H. Parma. In 1963, Chuck and Jeanne Graffy bought the home and raised their family of five children. Chuck had been a test pilot and Jeanne played a prominent role in city and county government. Their children have fond memories of their years in this home on Santa Barbara’s Upper Eastside.

Victorian Home Under a Majestic Tree

Victorian Home Under a Majestic Tree

The c. 1884 home of Kay and Frank Stevens is clothed in soft shades of yellow and green and nestled in an award-winning garden (Santa Barbara Beautiful, March 2012). The Stevens have lived here under the shade of the ancient camphor tree on the corner of Valerio and Laguna streets since 1996. They are only the home’s sixth owners. This Victorian farmhouse constructed of redwood with its elaborate bay windows was built by Henry and Eliza Keller. Henry was a cabinetmaker, and the interior woodwork reflects his attention to detail.

According to an 1898 bird’s-eye-view pictorial map, this was the first house on the block. The home’s original property stretched 100 feet along Valerio and 225 feet along Laguna. I checked the Sanborn maps online at the Historical Museum’s Gledhill Library website which showed this home for the years 1907, 1930, and 1950. I could see how the home became surrounded by newer homes over the years. One interesting tidbit that I learned from the maps is that there was an outhouse in the home’s backyard as late as 1907. One wonders when the home first had an indoor bathroom.

                                                                       A Troubled Time

Another source of information about older homes is newspapers – many of which are online now. I discovered several articles in the 19-teens about William and Louise Pestor, the home’s third owners. Pestor was German born, and ran into trouble during World War I because of anti-German sentiment at that time.

In 1917, Pestor applied for U.S. citizenship. He stated that he was doing so to benefit his American wife who had lost her U.S. citizenship when she married him. (Before 1922, a woman who married a non-citizen lost her citizenship status.) When asked about his attitude toward U.S. involvement in World War I, he gave some responses that were deemed unsatisfactory.

His request for citizenship was denied. The Morning Pressannounced on September 8, 1917: “WILLIAM PESTOR ALLEGIANCE IN DOUBT . . . William Pestor has been denied admission to citizenship because . . . he is not willing to give entire allegiance to our country.” In 1920, Pestor and his wife left Santa Barbara, and rented the home until selling it in 1944.

           

                                                             History Came Knocking – Twice

Sometimes you have to look for history; sometimes it finds you. About 15 years ago, a couple of women knocked on the door of this home. They explained that they had grown up in the home in the 1940s and 50s. They mentioned that their family’s bedrooms were on the first floor of the home, and that the second-floor bedrooms had been rented to girls who were studying at the college on the Riviera. The Stevens were surprised to hear that as many as nine students had lived on the second floor, sharing four bedrooms and one bathroom.

One of the former students dropped by another time, and shared interesting tales of the students’ hijinks in the home. The students attended the University of California Santa Barbara College, which was located at what is now the Riviera Theater and the Riviera Park on Alameda Padre Serra.

What do the Stevens like about their home? The home’s history is at the top of their list. Kay told me, “We are so fortunate to have good detail . . .  it was one of the earlier homes in this neighborhood and, to us, it has a lot of personality. When people see it for the first time, they are pretty impressed.”

“Also, we like the proximity to downtown. Ordinarily, that means walking to restaurants and movies. Hopefully that will happen again! Especially now . . . when we don’t have much to do, we take walks every day and have many choices of places to explore.”

What’s her advice for people considering buying an older home? “The obvious thing is to be aware of . . . the upkeep they will face in the future. Be prepared financially and with some energy to do what will be necessary.”

Please do not disturb the residents.

All photos by Betsy J. Green

335 E VALERIO - BAY WINDOW

Queen Anne Cottage on the Streetcar Line

Queen Anne Cottage on the Streetcar Line

Built in 1905 for $2,000

Address: 223 East Victoria Street

Status: Not on the market

Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent

Link to published article here: https://www.independent.com/category/real-estate/the-great-house-detective/

The streetcar no longer runs along Victoria Street, but it did in 1905 when widow Ella Stockton Hunter built her home at 223 East Victoria Street for $2,000. Ella and her husband had owned a lemon orchard in Montecito, but after he passed away, she relocated closer to town. Her decision was likely influenced by the presence of the streetcar line and other conveniences. Today, the house at 223 East Victoria Street is the home of Phil and Maureen Mayes.

In 1905, the streetcars in Santa Barbara had been electrified for a decade, and the tracks stretched from West Cabrillo Boulevard near the Potter Hotel, up State Street to Victoria Street near the Arlington Hotel, where the line split into two branches.

                    223 E. Victoria Streetcar.                                                Photo: Courtesy John Woodward

The western branch ran up Bath Street to Pueblo and Castillo Streets, near Cottage Hospital. The other branch ran east along Victoria Street, passing right by the house standing at 223 East Victoria Street. At Garden Street, the streetcar turned and ran uphill to the Santa Barbara Mission.

By hopping on the streetcar at the nearby stop, Ella Hunter could either travel to the stores, restaurants, and theaters downtown, or ride up to the Mission. The streetcars operated along this network until 1929.

The home at 223 East Victoria Street was built during a time period when Queen Anne–style cottages were gradually being replaced by Craftsman-style bungalows. Its large bay window in the living room and charming leafy cutouts in the trim under the eaves are features that hark back to the Victorian era.

Pre-dating Sears Catalog homes and Pacific Ready-Cut homes, this house appears to have been based instead upon a design in a national pattern book or architectural magazine. A photo of an almost identical house in Mississippi (pictured right), found in the book A Field Guide to American Houses, furthers that theory.

223 E. Victoria Street lookalike house.

Photo: A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia and Lee McAlester, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1985

                   

Pattern books have been around for centuries. They contain drawings or photos of homes, along with floor plans. People could order the plans and give them to a local builder. Lumberyards often supplied these books in the hopes that customers would order the plans and then buy the materials for the house from the lumberyard.

Like many older homes, this house has some mysteries. A patch in the hardwood floor on the second story may indicate the position of a missing chimney. Chimneys in many local homes were toppled in the 1925 earthquake.

On the staircase leading up to the second story, the current owners discovered the outline of a doorway. The Mayes speculate that the second floor was originally accessed by a pull-down ladder and that the stairway was a later addition.

The home originally had a wraparound porch that is now enclosed. The 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shows the original footprint of the house. These maps are available on the Gledhill Library pages of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum’s website and can be useful when researching the history of older homes.

Phil and Maureen Mayes are keeping close to home these days because of the COVID-19 virus, but they shared that they appreciate living just a few blocks from State Street. Fortunately, they are very good at keeping company with each other since they are the authors of How Two: Have a Successful Relationship.

 

223 E VIC 3 - PHIL & MAUREEN

                                            Phil and Maureen Mayes.                   Photo: Betsy J. Green

               

What do the Mayes like about their home? Maureen says, “Old houses have quirks just
like I do and this one has lots of little nooks and crannies so that it feels like there is always a new way to be in it.” Phil says, “I like old houses. I think one reason that people are subconsciously taken with antiques and old things in general is precisely because they (the antiques) have existed unchanged for a long time and hence have a feeling of constancy, a comforting feeling in an uncertain, changing world.” That’s something we can all appreciate in these strange times.

Please do not disturb the residents.

Details of the house:

                                                                                                 CREDIT: Betsy J. Green

Resources for our Community

A Note From Board President on COVID-19’s Impact to AFSB

A Letter From Our Board President, Selinda Tuttle

Dear AFSB Community,

I’d like to start by thanking you for taking a moment to read this note. I think we’re all struggling to find the right thing to say right now, AFSB is no exception. During the unprecedented health crisis of COVID-19, AFSB has been temporarily closed and events indefinitely paused or delayed. But in chaos, there is an opportunity. Above all, the mission of AFSB is to build community.

Historically, we have done so through social gatherings and public events. Now we must find new ways to connect, engage, and support each other as we seek outlets that will fortify us in our time of need. I invite all our members, sponsors, subscribers, and supporters to stay engaged with AFSB as we explore different venues and platforms to build and strengthen our community.

After some time to adjust and reflect on our new reality, we are ready to move forward and work on how to best serve you, our AFSB community. The first program to be affected by cancellations and quarantine directives was our annual High School Design Competition. In the middle of their weeklong event, they adjusted and changed course without almost missing a beat, in support of our mission of education. And that is the spirit of perseverance we are adopting.

KDA and our Art Gallery were the next to be affected. KDA is currently finalizing a “KDA From Home” version to spark your kids’ creativity while home. For our current art gallery exhibition, “Meandering the Edges” by Nathan Huff, there are more photos and videos on our Instagram and on Nathan Huff’s website. Stay tuned for an interview by Board Member and Art Gallery Chair, Bay Halloway, with Nathan to be posted on our website. Following this email will be a recap of this year’s High School Design Competition.

Thank you to all who support AFSB. On behalf of the entire AFSB Board of Directors, please stay safe and well. Together we will come through this. We look forward to celebrating with you in person again soon. 

Kind Regards,

Selinda Tuttle, Associate AIA
Board President
Architectural Foundation of Santa Barbara

Learn. Experience. Give.

Enchanting French Regency Villa​

Enchanting French Regency Villa

Montecito Gem Designed by Lutah Maria Riggs

Address: 818 Hot Springs Road

Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent

Link to published article here: https://bit.ly/2yHXn0U

 

It was 1934 — the middle of the Great Depression — and the world’s economy was on its knees. Jobs were scarce, money was tight, and the building industry was cut to the bone. Santa Barbara architect Lutah Maria Riggs must have been very happy to land the assignment to design a French Regency villa in Montecito. Located at 818 Hot Springs Road, a short distance down the hill from Mountain Drive, the home was her only major project of that year. 

The original address of the residence was 1028 Hot Springs Road, but it was changed to 818 Hot Springs in the 1950s. The practice of changing a house number or name is not uncommon and is a factor that house historians keep in mind when doing research.

 

 

                                                        Lutah Maria Riggs         Photo: Santa Barbara Historical Museum

At just over two acres, the property that the home occupies was carved out of a larger estate. At the time, the home was known as Les Chênes, meaning “The Oaks” in French. The name does not seem to be in use currently.

According to an article about the home in Architectural Forum in July 1937, the oak trees on the property were instrumental in the positioning of the house: “The character of this house was set by the owner’s requirements and its layout by the character of the site. The owner wanted a modernized French design… A natural alley of live oaks determined the placement of the living room, and the strung-out plan was dictated by the contours and the view of the sea below.”

A writer for the Los Angeles Times described her visit to the home on June 21, 1939: “This is an enchanting French pavilion, a part of the French Riviera hidden away on Hot Springs Road in Montecito… There is so much that is wonderful. A two-mile view to the ocean — fireplaces in every room — marble floors throughout the house… Quite as lovely as the house are the many gardens of the estate. A formal French garden is laid out at clipped right-angles, while an adjoining camellia garden overflows informally into the patio where breakfast is served on summer mornings.” The home’s gardens are said to have been designed by Lockwood de Forest Jr. of Santa Barbara.

Dr. Volker M. Welter at the Department of History of Art & Architecture at UCSB is working on a book about Riggs. Welter visited the home and called it “one of the best houses Riggs designed in the early 1930s.” He added, “The floorplan of the originally one-story tall … home strings together a masterly sequence of a central, rectangular living room with an oval-shaped, most beautifully proportioned dining room and service spaces to one side, and an octagonal, wood-paneled library to the other side from where also to access three bedrooms.”

Welter also discovered a secret room in the home. He commented, “Riggs calls that ‘secret’ room a ‘radio room’ but from my study of the surviving drawings, I was not able to establish how one could access that room, other than squeezing an impossible thin person through a storage space inside the walls.”

        Santa Barbara Historical Museum.                       Photo: courtesy Santa Barbara Historical Museum

The home’s first owners — Allen Breed Walker and his wife, Katherine Frisbee Walker — had connections in show business. Walker was in the hotel industry, and the couple lived in La Quinta, near Palm Springs. The Walkers became close friends with actress Marie Dressler, a famous stage comedian who also worked in silent movies and sound films. She costarred with Charlie Chaplin in the 1914 film Tillie’s Punctured Romance

In 1934, Dressler fell ill and spent the last months of her life in a cottage on a Montecito estate owned by CKG Billings. The Walkers stayed and took care of her there until she passed away. The following year, they built their home under the oaks.

818 Hot Springs Road was sold at auction on February 24, 2020. The escrow is still pending. The sales price will be disclosed within 30 days of close of escrow. For more information, visit conciergeauctions.com. Please do not disturb the current residents.


Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is betsyjgreen.com.

Architect’s Ideal Craftsman Home

Architect’s Ideal Craftsman Home

Craftsman Home Has Been Loved Through the Years​

Address: 212 West Valerio Street
Status: Not on the market

Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent

Link to the original publication here : https://bit.ly/34gCNQY

 

Architect Adam Sharkey and his wife, Jill, had lived in Santa Barbara’s upper downtown neighborhood for years and had long admired the home at 212 West Valerio Street. “I imagined that one day we would live there,” said Adam. “We loved the large front porch, the architectural character of the house, the large cut-sandstone walls, and the front rose garden. So, when it was listed for sale in 2015, I told my wife that we had to buy it.”

The home at 212 West Valerio Street is a large Craftsman home, constructed in approximately 1908. The Craftsman style, popular from 1905 to 1930, typically features classic, clean lines in contrast with the ornate style of the earlier Victorian era. 

Much larger than most other Craftsman homes found in Santa Barbara, this particular home is also noticeable for its hipped roof. The classic reference book A Field Guide to American Houses, by Virginia Savage McAlester, notes that only about five percent of Craftsman homes are of the two-story, hipped-roof variety.

Nevertheless, this home has many defining characteristics of the Craftsman style: a low-pitched roof with wide eaves supported by exposed rafters, square porch posts, and clapboard and shingle siding. The slightly flared roofline and elegant curved line on the second-floor porch give it an extra dash of curb appeal.

The city’s Historic Landmarks Commission has listed this home on its Structures of Merit list, and notes that this house “is characteristic of the type of houses built for Santa Barbara’s prosperous tradesmen and middle class during the early 20th century.” Fittingly, the first resident of 212 West Valerio Street owned a jewelry store, and the second owned an automotive business, both of which were located on State Street.

When looking into the origin of the house, it appears that a couple from Calistoga, California, named Oscar and Katherine Fitch bought a house on the large lot on the northwest corner of Valerio and De la Vina Streets in 1906. Later that year, they applied for a building permit to build another house on the west side of their property. The second home’s estimated construction cost was $4,000, according to the building permit. The home does not appear on the 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, so it must have been built shortly after that. While the Fitches’ original home no longer exists, this second home is the home now standing at 212 West Valerio Street.

                       Eaves Jewelry

 

According to the 1908 Santa Barbara City Directory, the Eaves family were the first residents of the home. Old city directories, available at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, the Central Library, and the Genealogical Society library, provide great research tools.

The head of the family was Leonora Eaves, the owner of a jewelry and watch store established in Santa Barbara in 1883. Residing with Leonora were her daughter, also named Leonora, and her son, Albert T. Eaves, the deputy county clerk.

A few years later, the Eaves family moved out, and the Fitch family moved in. Yes, they moved from almost next door into their other house at 212 West Valerio Street. Oscar Fitch owned an automobile dealership downtown that sold REO cars, named for manufacturer Ransom Eli Olds, whose surname later morphed into Oldsmobile.

                     Vintage Newspaper Ad

 

After the Fitches moved out, the house had several subsequent owners until 1947. In that year, Harry S. Wilson, a teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High School, and his wife, Myrtle W. Wilson, bought the home. They and their descendants owned the home for an amazing 68 years, up until 2015, when it was purchased by the Sharkeys. Clearly, the Wilsons’ tenure indicates that they also considered it an ideal house.

The Sharkeys have remained true to the home’s architectural style with the updates they have made. Experts agree, since one of their bathroom makeovers was featured in Old House Journal magazine. 

Adam gives the following advice to owners of older homes: “Look to preserve and enhance the character of the best qualities of the house. Bring interior items up-to-date in ways that work with the original house.” Ideal advice, indeed!

Please do not disturb this home’s residents.

 

Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian, and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is betsyjgreen.com.

 

1875 Second Empire Home​

The dark histories behind these architectural gems are as spooky as they are beautiful… Take a tour with me as I explore stunning structures and spooky locations to discover why visitors to these haunts never want to leave – even after death.

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Southern U.S Folklore and the Bell Witch Haunting

 

The Bell Witch or Bell Witch Haunting is a legend from Southern United States folklore, centered on the 19th-century Bell family of northwest Robertson County, Tennessee. John Bell Sr., who made his living as a farmer, resided with his family along the Red River in an area currently near the town of Adams. According to legend, from 1817-1821, his family and the local area came under attack by a mostly invisible entity that was able to speak, affect the physical environment, and shapeshift. Some accounts record the spirit also to have been clairvoyant and capable of crossing long distances with superhuman speed (and/or of being in more than one place at a time).

In 1894, newspaper editor Martin V. Ingram published his Authenticated History of the Bell Witch. The book is widely regarded as the first full-length record of the legend and a primary source for subsequent treatments. The individuals recorded in the work were known historical personalities. In modern times, some skeptics have regarded Ingram’s efforts as a work of historical fiction or fraud. Other researchers consider Ingram’s work a nascent folklore study and an accurate reflection of belief in the region during the 19th century.

While not a fundamental element of the original recorded legend, the Bell Witch Cave in the 20th century became a source of continuing interest, belief, and generation of lore. Contemporary artistic interpretations such as in film and music have expanded the reach of the legend beyond the regional confines of the Southern United States.

An artist’s sketching of the Bell home, originally published in 1894 (shown below). In his book An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, author Martin Van Buren Ingram published that the poltergeist’s name was Kate, after the entity claimed at one point to be “Old Kate Batts’ witch,” and continued to respond favorably to the name. The physical activity centered on the Bells’ youngest daughter, Betsy, and her father, and ‘Kate’ expressed particular displeasure when Betsy became engaged to a local named Joshua Gardner.

The haunting began sometime in 1817 when John Bell witnessed the apparition of a strange creature resembling a dog. Bell fired at the animal but it disappeared. John’s son Drew Bell approached an unknown bird perched on a fence that flew off and was of “extraordinary size.” The daughter Betsy observed a girl in green dress swinging from the limb of an oak tree. Dean, a slave of the Bell family, reported being followed by a large black dog on evenings he visited his wife. Activity moved to the Bell household with knocking heard along the door and walls. The family heard sounds of gnawing on the beds, invisible dogs fighting, and chains along the floor. About this time John Bell began experiencing paralysis in his mouth. The phenomena grew in intensity as sheets were pulled from beds when the children slept. Soon the entity pulled hair and scratched the children with particular emphasis on Betsy who was slapped, pinched and stuck with pins.

The Bells turned to a family friend James Johnston for help. After retiring for the evening at the Bell home, Johnston was awakened that night by the same phenomena. That morning he told John Bell it was a “spirit, just like in the Bible.” Soon word of the haunting spread with some traveling great distances to see the witch. The apparition began to speak out loud and was asked, “Who are you and what do you want?” and the voice answered feebly, “I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed.” The spirit offered diverse explanations of why it had appeared, tying its origin to the disturbance of a Native American burial mound located on the property, and sent Drew Bell and Bennett Porter on an unproductive search for buried treasure. With the emergence of full conversations, the spirit repeated word for word two sermons given 13 miles apart at the same time. The entity was well acquainted with Biblical text and appeared to enjoy religious arguments. As another amusement, the witch shared gossip about activities in other households, and at times appeared to leave for brief moments to visit homes after an inquiry.

John Johnston, a son of James, devised a test for the witch, something no one outside his family would know, asking the entity what his Dutch step-grandmother in North Carolina would say to the slaves if she thought they did something wrong. The witch replied with his grandmother’s accent, “Hut tut, what has happened now?” In another account, an Englishman stopped to visit and offered to investigate. On remarking on his family overseas, the witch suddenly began to mimic his English parents. Again at early morning, the witch woke him to voices of his parents worried as they had heard his voice as well. The Englishman quickly left that morning and later wrote to the Bell family that the entity had visited his family in England. He apologized for his skepticism.

At times, the spirit displayed a form of kindness, especially towards Lucy, John Bell’s wife, “the most perfect woman to walk to earth.” The witch would give Lucy fresh fruit and sing hymns to her, and showed John Bell Jr. a measure of respect.

Referring to John Bell Sr. as “Old Jack,” the witch claimed she intended to kill him and signaled this intention through curses, threats and afflictions. The story climaxes with the Bell patriarch being poisoned by the witch. Afterward the entity interrupted the mourners by singing drinking songs. In 1821, as a result of the witch’s entreatment, Betsy Bell called off her engagement to Joshua Gardner. Subsequently, the entity told the family it was going to leave, but return in seven years in 1828. The witch returned on time to Lucy and her sons Richard and Joel with similar activities as before, but they chose not to encourage it, and the witch appeared to leave again.

Several accounts say that during his military career, Andrew Jackson was intrigued with the story and his men were frightened away after traveling to investigate. In an independent oral tradition recorded in the vicinity of Panola County, Mississippi, the witch was the ghost of an unpleasant overseer John Bell murdered in North Carolina. In this tradition, the spirit falls in love with the central character ‘Mary’, leading to her death.

In the manuscript attributed to Richard Williams Bell, he wrote that the spirit remained a mystery.

“Whether it was witchery, such as afflicted people in past centuries and the darker ages, whether some gifted fiend of hellish nature, practicing sorcery for selfish enjoyment, or some more modern science akin to that of mesmerism, or some hobgoblin native to the wilds of the country, or a disembodied soul shut out from heaven, or an evil spirit like those Paul drove out of the man into the swine, setting them mad; or a demon let loose from hell, I am unable to decide; nor has any one yet divined its nature or cause for appearing, and I trust this description of the monster in all forms and shapes, and of many tongues, will lead experts who may come with a wiser generation, to a correct conclusion and satisfactory explanation.”

— Williams Bell, An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch