LOCAL HISTORY SCRAPBOOK John Shell Oldest Man in the World

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 27: Scrapbooks, Albums, Gathered Notes
Old John Shell

LOCAL HISTORY SCRAPBOOK: John Shell. "Latest Study of Oldest Man in the World ... "

“John Shell, Oldest Man in the World, 131 years old.” [Vl_36_1160b .jpg]

John Shell  – Oldest Man in the World

TAGS: John Shell, oldest man in the world, Old John Shell, Greasy Creek National Geographic, John Shell family, Sherman Ludington, John C. Eversole, Rufus Roberts, John Asher, Henry Chappell, Stewart Shell, William C. Shell, Noah Raby

A scrapbook of local history in the PMSS Archives holds two news articles about John Shell, who at one time was said to be the oldest man in the world.

A 1920 article reports that “Official Records Cut ‘Uncle John’ Shell’s Age From 132 to 97 Years.”  See the original clipping in images 28a, 28b, 28c, 28d and full transcription below. In this article the reporter debunks the purported age of “Oldest Man in the World.” The article states that Shell was

… born in Knox County, Tennessee, and came to southeastern Kentucky when he was about eighteen and traveled about the country for four years, hunting and trapping, married when he was twenty-two or twenty-three and settled down on Laurel Creek about three miles from his present home. Official census records indicate John Shell’s age was 97 or 98 years in 1916, not the 131 or 116 he and his exploiters claimed him to be.

The second article, headlined “Latest Study of Oldest Man in the World,” was also from the Lexington Herald. According to handwritten notation on the clipping, the date of this article was July 1919 and it also appeared in The New-Church League Journal in December 1921. This newspaper article is an example of many that promoted the idea that John Shell was the oldest man in the world. See the original clipping in image 28e and its full transcription below.

Note: This John Shell is not the same person as John D. Shell (1847-1942), whose family also lived in the Pine Mountain Valley community.  

John Shell – Oldest Man in the World

John Shell ; Greasy Creek, Kentucky ; oldest man in the world ; claims 131 years of age on 3rd of September, 1921; remembers George Washington ; remembers when Napoleon, Lincoln, Darwin, Longfellow, Whittier, Edgar Allen Poe, Daniel Boone and others were alive ; investigated by National Geographic ; Uncle John believes his age to be 116 ; tax duplicates signed by John Shell in 1809 ; must be 21 years old to pay taxes ; Shell came from Scioto valley in Ohio ; shooting matches on Greasy Creek ; 25 to 30 miles per day walking ; fine eyesight ; Baptist ; religious ; descendants in hundreds ; father of 11 children, youngest is 4 years old ; New York scientist proves age is wrong ; Mr. Chappell, lumberman, could not vouch for age ; 5 feet 2 inches tall and 103 pounds when visited by New York scientist ; wife died 5 years ago ; eats possum, corn, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins ; shoots fish in Greasy Creek for food ; broke his ribs in fall sixty years ago ;  daily dram of liquor ; drinks herb tea ; mentally susceptible ; insanity suggested by Judge Faulkner in 1892 but cleared by 1897 ; hallucinations ; dementia ; wife displayed tax receipts for 1848, 1849, and Confederate bills ; William C. Shell is eldest son ; Allen H. Shell, William’s only child ; Mary (Polly) Huff, daughter of John Shell ; Stewart Shell, son of Allen and grandson of William Shell ; Shell claimed to be born in same year as Lincoln ; Shell claimed he married present wife in 1916 ; researcher checked the Census records and cleared up dates ; Robert Ray ; John C. Eversole, Circuit Court Judge ; 11 children of John Shell is most accurate count ; Sherman Ludington, caretaker for Shell ; Rufus Roberts, Prosecuting Attorney of Leslie exploited John Shell’s age by exhibiting him at fairs ; John Asher exploited Shell according to researcher ; Henry M. Campbell ; 

John Shell – Oldest Man in the World

[Note: The following transcriptions are slightly edited for clarity.]

Official Records Cut “Uncle John” Shell’s Age From 132 to 97 Years
Lexington Herald, April 11, 1920.

[029a] Somebody is always taking the joy out of life. Just when Eastern Kentucky had attained country wide fame as the home of the “oldest man in the world,” a New York scientist, following an investigation, declares that official records disclose that “Uncle John” Shell, alleged to be 132 years old, was only a mere child of 97.

Dr. I.L. Nascher, a physician, states the reasons for his belief in a recent issue of the New York Sun and Herald, which follows:

“‘See John Shell, the oldest living person in the world. Age 131 years. Admission 10 cents.’ That tells the story. An enterprising lawyer came across a decrepit, weak minded old man who had no idea how old he was, and [?] the promise of ‘bushels of money,’ induced the old man to accompany him to fairs to be exhibited as the oldest man on earth. Knowing that it was impossible to obtain exact data as to John Shell’s birth owing to the lack of official records, and the difficulty in reaching persons who might throw some light upon the matter, his exploiters found it a simple matter to fool a gullible public and a keenly receptive press. For several months past, newspapers throughout the country have been publishing lengthy accounts of the ancient Kentucky mountaineer, his mode of life, his views, and other interesting facts concerning him.

Being especially interested in longevity I visited the old man recently for the purpose of making a medical examination of him and also to obtain from him such facts as to his live and mode of living as might enable others to reach the great age of 131 years that he was said to have attained. The ride of 20 miles from Hazard to Hyden, the county seat of Leslie county, Ky., partly on a springless mail wagon and partly on a razorback mule took a whole day.

From Hyden to Greasy Creek, where old John Shell lives, is another 20 miles, but I could cover only 16 miles, to Henry Chappell’s, in a day, riding a blind mare, the best I could get in Hyden. It is four miles from Chappell’s to old John’s house, 13 miles from Shell’s to Gatun on the other side of Pine mountain, and five miles from Gatun to Harlan, where I could get a train to Cincinnati. It is impossible to make the trip without a guide and guides are not very anxious to conduct strangers through the country.

Who is the Centenarian Shell? 

The exploiters of John Shell evidently figured upon these difficulties to discourage inquisitive investigators. John Shell is an old illiterate, mental defective, whose statements about his age and his life are utterly unreliable. He is suffering from a garrulous form of senile dementia, with hallucinations and delusions, and the age, 131 years, has been so thoroughly drilled into him that he insists upon its correctness in spite of the most obvious discrepancies in age [?] and periods of time.  At my interview with him, there were present his [?] and 4-year-old child, my guide, Cad [?]ins, who has been range rider for the Peabody Coal Company for the last 14 years, and Lee R. Dixon, surveyor and engineer of Hyden. Before visiting Shell I interviewed a number of persons in Hazard and Hyden, who knew the old man. Among these were former circuit Judge Faulkner, who had been Shell’s lawyer at one time; former Circuit Judge Henry C. Eversole, and his youngest brother, John C. Eversole, the present Circuit Court Justice of Kentucky. Judge Faulkner has known Shell for over 30 years and was his attorney 20 years ago. Judge Faulkner [?] was insane about 1892 and several years afterward, but his mind cleared up sufficiently in 1897 for him to discuss land boundaries [?] boundary posts.

[?] Judge Faulkner was on the bench, [?] was called as witness [?] a land suit, and he then said he thought he was born the same year as Lincoln (1809). [029b] That would make him 11 years of age. At his marriage in 1916 he said he was 107 years old, but he was not certain in what year he was born. Shell has a remarkable memory for names and locations, but when numbers, dates, and duration of time are involved his statements are wild guesses. He told Judge Faulkner that his father fought in the second war with England, but the only definite statement that I could get from the old man concerning his father was that he and his father voted on opposite sides on the second constitution of Kentucky (adopted in 1850).

In Hyden I was lodged in the home of Robert Ray, one of the principal citizens of the town and there I found Judge John C. Eversole, the Circuit Court Judge who stopped at Mr. Ray’s house during the court session. I also met there his brother, Henry C. Eversole, who had been Circuit Court Judge a number of years ago. Both brothers spoke freely about John Shell and the deception that had been practiced in the exploitation of the old man. The former judge, who is now 68 years old, knows Shell since 1870, and spent a night in Shell’s house in company with Judge Finlay in 1884. Shell was then between 60 and 65 years old. Shell then told the two men that his wife was a year younger than himself and that she was about 60. From the younger Eversole I learned the names of the children and their ages, and he also named the men who had induced the old man to go with them to the fairs. There were eleven children in all, nine of whom are still living. The oldest, Mary Huff is now about 75 years old, and the next is William C. Shell, whom I saw later and who is about 72 years old. The youngest of the children, Emily, now dead, would be about 52 years old if she were still alive. The newspapers state that he had twenty-two children, that the oldest was about 100 and the youngest was 4. The youngest child is the child of his second wife, born before he married her.

Exploiters of the Old Man’s Age.

[029b] In Hazard I learned that Rufus Roberts, the Prosecuting Attorney of Leslie county, was the man who had taken to old man to the fairs, and in Hyden I learned of three other men who were connected with the scheme. These were John Asher, a court clerk, who was associated with Roberts; one Marshall, secretary of an agricultural society, who arranged for the exhibition of the old man at the fairs, and Sherman Ludington, a relative of Shell, who urged the old man to accept Roberts’ offer and who accompanied Shell as his caretaker.

Henry M. Campbell–“Uncle Henry” [029] as he is known in the neighborhood–is one of the richest and most influential citizens in this part of the State. He is 65 years old, the great-grandson of the first settler in this section, and has known John Shell since Shell moved to Greasy Creek in 1866. Chappell said he did not know how old Shell was; in fact, never gave a thought to his neighbor’s age until he heard that  the old man had been exhibited at fairs as the old man on earth. Roberts and Asher claimed that as evidence of old Shell’s age there was a tax receipt showing that he had paid poll tax in 1809 and that Chappell had also seen the tax receipt. Chappell denied having seen any such receipt, but heard of some old receipt, since publicity had been given to the old man’s age. 

As he was but 10 or 12 years old when Shell moved to his present home and Shell was then a man with ten children, he took no special interest in his new neighbors, and in more recent years the difference in their stations and education kept them apart. Shell was a poor, illiterate, ignorant mountaineer, who depended mainly upon his gun and his little garden patch for his existence, while Chappell was a fairly well educated and fairly well to do farmer and lumberman.

Description of John Shell.

The next morning we rode over to John Shell’s shack. It was a miserable one room hovel, having one small window closed by a board, and the only light in the room came from the open door. In one corner of the room stood an old bed on which the aged mountaineer lay, huddled up and covered by a ragged crazy quilt and a coat. My guide introduced me as a man who had come to take him to New York, and he consented to get up and pose for a picture. He was so feeble that he had to be helped from the bed in a low chair before a log fire, and he sat there for nearly half an hour, getting warm. John Shell is the oldest individual I ever saw. He is decrepit, weazened, shriveled up, stooped, with bent back and knees, and unable to stand without the aid of a cane. If he could stand erect he would be 5 feet 6 inches tall, but in his bent posture he is 5 feet 2, and weighs 103 pounds. His body is wasted, skin dry; he has long, bony fingers, with cracked nails, and large flat feet. He has a massive head of white hair, scrawny white beard, but no eyebrows or eyelashes. His eyes are gray, dull, and bleary, and the eyelids are inflamed. He said he has had trouble with his eyes for the last twenty years, but he can still see well enough to kill a squirrel at 200 yards. His nose is large but thin, the cheeks are wasted and the skin is sallow, with dark brown freckle spots on the hands and chest.

It was stated that he has now his fourth set of teeth. The two broken fangs and three flat stumps in the lower jaw belong to his first adult set and the teeth in the upper jaw disappeared many years ago. The physical examination revealed no more that we would expect to find in a man of ninety or a hundred. There was hardening of the arteries but low blood pressure, as the heart action was very weak. His respiration was shallow, twenty a minute, his pulse was weak and irregular and beating sixty a minute.

Mentally he is a garrulous, senile dement, having hallucinations of sight and hearing and some delusions, is incapable of riveting his attention or drawing logical conclusions. His memory is poor, the recollection of early events coming spontaneously but rarely through an effort of the will. When asked who was the first President he voted for he said he did not know. A few minutes later, while speaking of something else, he recalled his vote on the second constitution of Kentucky. The only approximate date that he could give was the time he moved from Laurel Creek to Greasy Creek, a couple of years after the war. He began talking as soon as we had him seated in a chair by the log fire. He told us about voices he heard but no one else could hear, calling out “Holy Roller,” “Holy Roller,” and “Pt Rack.” He saw “haints” in the room and sometimes outside his window. At another time three “Holy Rollers” came to his door, but he recognized them as devils in disguise and he chased them away with his gun. During this recital I could not secure his attention long enough to answer a single question.

The Old Man Sure He Is 131.

I afterward asked him how old he was and he said “131 years,” but a moment later he said, “maybe 200 years; I don’t know.” His wife brought a paper box in which we found tax receipts for 1848 and 1849, the latter quite legible, and a few receipts of later date, a receipt for payment of legal fees to Judge Faulkner, and a number of Confederate bills. There was no paper antedating 1848. I [029b] asked him why he went with Roberts. He said “Rufus Roberts and John Asher promised me $200 if I would go to the fairs, and they said they would take care of me and pay all expenses and give me ‘bushels of money’ that they would get for me.” “Who took care of you?” “Sherman Ludington, a relative, took care of me, and he got a lot of money from them.” “Did you get the $200?” “Roberts gave me $199 but he kept all the other money he collected and in Louisville somebody took $20 out of my pocket while I was asleep.”

“I don’t remember how long I was away. We went to a lot of fairs, and when I got sick they brought me home. They got bushels of money for me but they didn’t give me any.”

By suggestion and leading questions he could be made to give almost any desired reply, but I avoided this method of questioning. His wife was present during the interview, and occasionally made a comment or corrected some statement of the old man. Shell’s relations with Roberts and Asher seemed to be so firmly impressed upon his mind that he answered questions relating to them without a moment’s hesitation. I asked him questions about himself, family, mode of living, &c. He knew nothing about the second war with England; could not remember anything about the Mexican war, and took no part in the civil war, as he broke three ribs shortly before the war started, and these gave him trouble for several years. Judging from the Confederate bills in his box, to which he attached great value, he was probably a Southern sympathizer.

Arranging his statements in their proper order, he was born in Knox county, Tenn., came to southeastern Kentucky when he was about eighteen, traveled about the country for four years, hunting and trapping, married when he was twenty-two or twenty-three and settled down on Laurel Creek, about three miles from his present home. Official census records indicate John Shell’s age was 97 or 98 years in 1916, not the 131 or 116 he and his exploiters claimed him to be.

[MISSING TEXT]… were no papers in his box that threw any light upon this. There were no books in his house, not even a Bible, and he learned what little information about the outside world that reached the valley from his children. Like all mountaineers of this section he learned to ride when a child and began to use a gun as soon as he was able to lift one to his shoulder.

In order to secure the old man’s attention it was necessary to remind him repeatedly that I might take him to New York. He would then answer questions rationally for a few minutes until something would recall some fixed delusion and he would wander off until again reminded of New York. A simple test of his susceptibility to suggestion was made. I asked him if President Polk was the first President he voted for in these words: “Polk was the first President you voted for, wasn’t he?” He said, “Yes, I voted for Polk.” A few minutes later I said. “You didn’t vote for Polk, did you?” He said, “No, I did not vote for Polk.”

Secret of Shell’s Longevity.

The secret of John Shell’s longevity is undoubtedly his extraordinary constitution. He could not explain why he lived longer than any of his early friends, but thought it was because they did not use the right kind of “yarbs.”

Leaving John Shell’s house I went four miles up the creek to see his eldest son, William C. Shell. On the way we met Allen H. Shell, William’s only child, and his wife riding mule back to see the old man. Allen is 47 years old, has nine children and lives with his father and married son. William C. Shell is a tall, white haired mountaineer, but unlike the other people of this section, he is stout and inactive. He was evidently annoyed by the notoriety his father had received but he answered questions that might clear up his father’s age. He said he was 72 or 73 years old and his eldest sister, Polly Huff, was two or three years older. His mother was about 23 when he married and thus was about 100, maybe a year or two older. He said he never heard of any records of his father’s birth or marriage

Stewart Shell, the son of Allen and grandson of William, answered most of the questions relating to his great-grandfather. Stewart is a bright, educated man of 23, the father of two children. Stewart said the press reports about the old man were a pack of lies throughout. One statement, probably a guess, might be true–that there were about two hundred descendants. Speaking of the tax receipt upon which Roberts and Asher based their estimate of the old man’s age, Stewart said he never heard of a receipt dated 1809, but Asher claimed to have seen a receipt showing that John Shell paid taxes in Tennessee in 1829.

Official Records of Shell’s Age.

The only official records of his age that I could find that might throw some light upon his real age were his statements when a witness in a land suit in 1911 that he was born in the same year that Lincoln was born (1809), and the age he gave (107) when he married his present wife in 1916. Upon my return I corresponded with the Director of the Bureau of the Census, the Hon. S. L. Rogers. Through his courtesy I obtained the official date which clears the [029b] matter up as far as official records can clear it up. According to these reports John Shell is 97 or 98 years old.

This case is similar to the famous case of Noah Raby, who died in Piscatawney Almshouse, New Jersey, a few years ago. Raby was supposed to be 137 years old, “The oldest man on earth.” No attempt was made during his life to certify this age, but after his death the Bureau of the Census made an investigation which resulted in showing that Raby was less than 100 years old. Here, too, the census reports for several decades gave his age at nearly 40 years less than he claimed during the last years of his life and this age was found to correspond with the age of the only Noah Raby in the navy records upon his enlistment in the navy nearly forty years after Noah claimed to have joined it.


[Note: The following images show different parts of the same newspaper page in order to include the entire article.]

TRANSCRIPTION: “Latest Study of Oldest Man in The World”

[Handwritten notations: (Top of photo) “Lexington Herald, July 28[?], 1919.” [Bottom margin) “The New-Church League Journal, Dec. 1921.”)

[Caption under photo of Shell with walking stick, in front of his house: “John Shell, who claims to be the oldest person in the world, in front of his house at Greasy Creek, Leslie county, Kentucky.”]

Is John Shell the oldest man in the world? He claims he will be 131 years old on the third day of September.

For this event more than 200 of his immediate descendants will come from all parts of the mountain country to Shell’s little cabin at Greasy Creek to celebrate an event the like of which has never been known in this country, so far as known.

This man can remember when George Washington was alive; when Napoleon held Europe in his grasp; is of the same generation as Lincoln, Darwin, Longfellow, Whittier, Edgar Allen Poe, and countless other notables of America for the past century when wild Indians still roamed in the Kentucky hills, and can recall when Daniel Boone was helping to clear up the “Dark and Bloody Ground.”

The National Geographic Society has been asked to investigate and report on Shell’s claims of being the oldest person alive in all the world.

Although “Uncle John” believes his age is 116 in September, other old men in the vicinity insist that Uncle John certainly must be about 130 years old. They base their reasons upon the good authority of a tax duplicate signed by John Shell in 1809, when he would have had to be 21 year old in order to have to pay taxes.

The above picture is one of Uncle John’s first ventures with the camera man, and it was a real treat, as he expressed it. His posing was unlike any amateur’s. He posed as if he were an adept at the business.

The old man is an interesting talker, retaining his mental qualities extremely well, and can relate things that occurred nearly a century ago. He came to Kentucky from Southern Ohio–the Scioto valley–blazing the trail through the primeval forests, setting in the foothills of the Cumberlands in seclusion.

For years, years, and years he lived the simple life, interrupted occasionally by the wild bear, the deer that roamed the mountains at will.

“There were lots of game in those days,” recalls the old man, “and you bet I made the most of it. Why, I’ve carried in three deer on my back at one hunt; three bears at others. I rarely ever let one escape me–my trusty old rifle (referring to the time-worn weapon up in the rack) rarely ever failed me. It is the same to this day.”

It was here that Uncle John got off on the neighborhood shooting matches in the Greasy Creek vicinage, still in vogue, and how he would beat the boys and carry away the prizes. Today he is able to do a considerable amount of work–actual labor on his little hillside mountain farm.

And as a pedestrian he is a real marvel, frequently walking 25 to 30 miles a day over rough mountain roads. 

With eyesight the very best, he is able to read the finest of Bible print. Uncle John actually spends considerable of his time reading–reading the Book of Books. He is a believer in the Baptist–and is a frequent church-goer. 

His descendants, numbering far into the hundreds, are frequently visitors in the old Shell home, and they are preparing for a great home-coming on the date of his birthday, next September 3. It will be a great day in the old Shell home.

He is the father of eleven children, the youngest of which is four year of age. His grandchildren are numerous, and his great grandchildren go into the hundreds, while his great-great-grandchildren are named by the score. Some of these are grown. They look upon him as the grand old man.

There is little question that Uncle John Shell is the oldest white man living in the United States. He also bids fair to live years and years longer. 

LOCAL HISTORY SCRAPBOOK: John Shell. "Latest Study of Oldest Man in the World ... "

John Shell. “Latest Study of Oldest Man in the World.” Lexington Herald, page 28, July 1919. [local_hist_album_028.jpg]


Lexington Herald-Leader, July 1919 and April 11, 1920, Lexington, KY.

Wallace, L. E. T., & Wright State University (Dayton, Ohio). University Library. Department of Archives and Special Collections. (1993). John Shell of Leslie County, Kentucky: (a compilation of papers useful to researching John Shell). Salt Lake City, Utah: Filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah.

FILM – 1919 MIRSC  Moving Image Research, University of South Carolina  https://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A29537
Title  John Shell–outtakes
Item Title  Fox News Story 0021
Temporal Coverage  Filmed on September 1, 1919.
Description  Oldest man in the world, Uncle Joe Shell, who will be 131 years old on Sept. 15, 1919, lives in the mountains of Kentucky. Shell is seen walking with his four-year-old son, riding a horse, and sharpening an axe on a grindstone.
Silent or Sound   Silent

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Local History Scrapbook GUIDE 1920 – 1980

See Also:

JOHN D. SHELL Community – Biography
JOHN SHELL (Old John Shell) Community – Biography 

SHELL Family