Friday, July 27, 2018

John Rentfro and the Mysterious Katherine

© Kathy Duncan, 2018

When John Rentfro (also spelled Renfro) died in Gibson County, Tennessee in 1860, he left a brief will naming his children: Joseph D Rentfro, Elizabeth Yarbrough, John N Rentfro, NEH Witherspoon, Mary Ann Harrison, Elan B Rentfro, and Jasper N Rentfro. His will was proven in the July Term 1860 and was recorded in Gibson County, Tennessee will book volume F, page 391.

His will named one additional heir who has been a mystery for many years: Katharine Long aka Henley. His bequest to her included one bedstead, four quilts, one blanket, two sheets, two pillows, undercurtains, one cow, one calf, and $75. In addition, she was to remain in possession of his house and property until it was legally disposed of. John Rentfro had gone to great lengths to ensure that Katherine Long is cared for to some extent. The question is why? At the very least, John Renfro was in need of assistance as of 14 August 1858. It's hard to say if he just needed a housekeeper or if he was ill at this point.

Who was Katharine Long aka Katharine Henley? Theories have ranged from a daughter to a mistress to a housekeeper. John Rentfro's probate case file in Gibson County, Tennessee reveals a great deal about Katharine and about his last days.

In November of 1860, Catherine Smith sued the John Rentfro estate to recover $500 for her labor and for her $75 inheritance:

The following sheet in the probate case file details that Catherine was attending to and nursing John Renfro in the late 1850s. Regrettably, there are no specific dates. 

In August of 1864, Dr. R. M. West sued the estate for medical care for John Renfro. His visits began in September 1859 and increased in frequency in the spring of 1860. His last billable visit was 23 June 1860. It is reasonable to think that John Renfro was in declining health and in need of a caregiver, which is the role Catherine Smith aka Katherine Long aka Katherine Henley filled.

Even John's son John D. Renfro filed an invoice against the estate to be compensated for the care he gave John Renfro. This does not seem outrageous. Instead, he is attempting to recoup some of the estate. J.D. Renfro's invoice, however, adds one important tidbit of information. He attended his father from 4 May 1860 to 12 July 1860. His claim was filed 16 July 1860. I think it is reasonable to say that J.D. Rentfro attended his father until the day of his death - 12 July 1860.

The following is a bill for merchandise from a local merchant. The purchases of shoes and a hat for an ill man seem unusual. The calico seems like it might have been purchased for a woman. The June 28, 1860 charges for burying clothes and coffin linings are telling. It would seem that by June 28, the family had given up hope that John Rentfro would improve. In his spare moments, J. D. Rentfro was probably building his father's coffin while the old man lingered until July 12th. He was about 75 years old when he died.

Jincey (Bryant) Rentfro is not mentioned in either John Rentfro will's or his probate case file. She has evidently predeceased him. 

The following is a promissory note from John Renfro. It show him still able to attend to his own business in late 1858 and contains his signature.

Catherine Long aka Henley aka Smith has been difficult to identify in the records. In 1860 there is Catherine Smith living with a six year old male named James on the Gibson County, Tennessee census. She is living next door to several Henley families. At this point, she is probably still living in John Renfro's house.

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