John Johnston’s Counterfeit Will, 29 May 1857

While searching for John Johnston Senior’s will in Davidson County probate records I ran across a slip of paper, filed out of order, from John Junior’s probate. The file “shuck,” or envelope, states that it was “not admitted as part of will.” And it’s pretty clear why.

The document, dated several months after John’s death some time in 1856, certainly appears to have been fabricated by one of John’s heirs. Not only is it incomplete, and written using very different language than the original, it completely contradicts the terms of the original 1849 will, ordering that his entire estate be sold and divided equally among the heirs.

Who was the culprit? My prime suspect would be John’s son-in-law, Stephen Saunders, who was specifically excluded from the original will. The new version gives a share to his wife, with no stipulation that Saunders cannot control the inheritance. Without that caveat, a husband effectively owned anything his wife inherited. It was clear from the original will that John did not like Stephen, and interestingly, the entire Saunders family disappears from any Tennessee records after 1860. Either Elizabeth got shut of Stephen and remarried, or perhaps the whole family moved out West, possibly to escape debt.

Whoever the fraudster was, I am thankful to him/her, because this “will” lists heirs that were not specifically mentioned in the first will. I was able to identify and trace all of John’s children and some of his grandchildren thanks to this discovery.

May 29 1857
State of Tennessee, Davidson County

In the name of God amen, I John Johnston of the state and County above written knowing the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death Being in common health both in mind and body doth make this my last will and testament hereby making all other wills void

First my body to the dust and my soul to that god who gave it

Secondly my just debts to be paid out of any moneys I may die possessed of or that may come into the hands of my Exrs whom I will hereafter appoint

Thirdly it is my will that as soon as possible after my death all my property be sold to the highest bidder on a credit of twelve month and the proceeds thereof Equally divided amongst my children and grandchildren to wit

William Johnston (dec’d) and his heirs, Nancy Peay (dec’d) , Sarah Ozment, (dec’d), Melinda Mies, Matilda Vaughn, Elizabeth Saunders, Guilford Johnston, John Johnston, Albert Johnston + Lucinda Austin, (Elizabeth L Austin), Albert Johnston, Lucinda Frances, Nancy, Caroline the names of Mrs. Peay’s daughters, Mrs Mies children, John Henry + William,

Nancy A Eastwood daughter of Mrs Vaughn is to share Equally with the rest of her heirs

Tennessee Probate Court Files, 1795-1955; Will records, 1784-1920 — James, M. – McIntos, M.B., at Family Search.

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