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Bell Witch Character Biography

James Johnston (1759-1851)

 

No person was closer to John Bell’s family than James Johnston and his two sons, John and Calvin.  James Johnston was the first person outside the Bell family that John Bell shared the "family secret" of Kate’s disturbances with.  Also, Johnston and his wife were the first people outside the Bell family who had an encounter with Kate -- which is only logical, considering the families were next-door neighbors.

The first question that Johnston asked Kate, “In the name of the Lord, who and what are you, and what do you want?” would be asked time and time again over the next several years by people who traveled great distances to see what the hoopla was about.  Johnston first thought the disturbances were a practical joke being played by the Bell children or others in the community; however, his mind quickly changed after spending sleeping over at the Bell home.

James Johnston was a devout Christian.  Despite his inability to read or write, many considered him an expert on Christianity and the Bible.  Because the Bible says that both good and bad spirits exist, and that trafficking with the evil supernatural is possible, Johnston often expressed his belief that the disturbances were caused by “an evil Spirit, a demon, just like in the Bible!”  His sons also shared this belief.

The Johnstons had the most commonly misspelled surname in the entire “Bell Witch” legend, “Johnson.”  The correct spelling is “Johnston,” with the Scottish pronunciation silencing the “t.”  The first Johnstons to settle in America came from Annandale, Scotland by way of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, settling in Pennsylvania before moving southward to Virginia and the Carolinas as land grants became available.  Born in Pennsylvania, James Johnston was the youngest child of John and Mary Patterson Johnston.

After spending his early childhood in Pennsylvania, he moved to Caswell County, North Carolina with his parents and siblings.  After reaching a suitable age, Johnston joined the North Carolina Continental Line and fought in the Revolutionary War.  He married Rebecca Porter in July of 1780, and they had nine children before her death in 1802.  In 1800, Johnston and his family migrated to the Red River Settlement in Tennessee as his brother, William Johnston, had done some twenty years earlier.

Because of the treacherous terrain and Native American conflicts in the Cumberland Gap and Tennessee River areas at the time, Johnston decided to bring his family and belongings to Tennessee by way of Georgia, essentially flanking around the trouble areas. In addition to his family, Johnston was also concerned about protecting a priceless china cabinet he was carrying.  Because of his efforts to avert danger along the way, a very old and priceless china cabinet sits in the dining room of a private residence near Adams, Tennessee -- today.

James Johnston and his family settled on 1,000 acres of land he was granted for serving in the Continental Army.  Their farm was situated along the Red River just east of present-day Adams, Tennessee, and encompassed both sides of Sturgeon Creek.  About two years after the death of his first wife, Johnston married Jane Marvlin Greer.  Having no children of their own, they adopted Jane’s niece, Parthenia “Theny” Thorn, of Stewart County (Dover), Tennessee.  Born on Christmas of 1804, “Theny” Thorn lost her parents at an early age and had been placed in the care of her aunt, Jane Greer. [1]  She always considered here parents to be James and Jane Johnston, and was best childhood friends with Elizabeth "Betsy" Bell.

Gravestone of James Johnston

 

James and Jane Johnston subscribed to the doctrine of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  Because there was no Cumberland Presbyterian Church in the area, they joined the Methodist Church because they felt part of their Christian duty was to be active members of a church. James Johnston died in April of 1850 at the advanced age of 91 years, and is buried along with his two wives and many relatives near Adams, Tennessee. [2]

 

 

 


[1] Theny Thorn’s birth date obtained from her gravestone.

[2] Correspondence with direct descendants of the Johnston family.

 

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Last Update: March 31, 2021


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