After attending the public schools of Cincinnati John spent three years at Miami College, before his graduation with honors from Yale in 1851. The year following he received his law degree from the Cincinnati Law School but continued to study in the office of Henry Stanbery before his admission to the bar.
In 1855 Noble moved to St. Louis, but, shortly becoming convinced that, as a Free-Soiler and a Republican, he could not succeed in the pro-slavery atmosphere there, he moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where from 1856 to 1861 he acquired an extensive practice and shared with Samuel Freeman Miller the leadership of the state bar.
In August 1861 he enlisted in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry and during the Civil War served with distinction in every grade from lieutenant to colonel, seeing service in various western campaigns and in raids into the lower South. He also acted as judge-advocate-general of the Army of the Southwest. "For gallant and meritorious services" he was brevetted brigadier-general in 1865.
In 1865 Noble returned to St. Louis. His subsequent career was divided between professional and public interests.
At the instance of his former teacher, Stanbery, he was appointed in 1867 United States district attorney for the eastern district of Missouri. During three years of hard work and of harder fighting Noble prosecuted with intelligence and thoroughness numerous violaters of the internal-revenue laws. The chief offenders were certain of the whiskey and tobacco interests and their corrupt and entrenched governmental allies, a notorious combination which defrauded the government of huge sums. Against this group, the forerunner of the Whiskey Ring, Noble fought with some success and set in operation forces which eventually exposed the ramifications of the system.
In 1870 he resumed practice and won immediate success. His clients included large corporate and railroad interests of the Southwest. He was very effective both in trial and in appellate practice, despite a too frequent reliance upon oratory. He declined in 1872 the position of solicitor-general. He was considered well qualified for the secretaryship of the interior to which Harrison named him in 1889.
He absolutely refused to sanction the highly irregular and illegal administrative activities and rulings of "Corporal" James Tanner, the commissioner of pensions. A sharp difference arose over the policy of reratings, and the two men clashed frequently. Harrison supported Noble in the controversy, and Tanner, "insubordinate in the last degree, " finally resigned. The pension act of 1890 received Noble's cordial approval, although its administration was beset with fraudulent claimants, political sentimentalists, and astute claim attorneys whom he found impossible to control. With reference to the timber lands, his practice was to dispose of the thousands of cases in the Land Office by a more liberal interpretation of the land laws in favor of the settler. In this manner the cases were rapidly settled but probably many fraudulent claims received approval.
At his retirement from office in 1893, the general administrative functions of the department were efficiently conducted.
Upon his return to St. Louis he reentered his profession but found it difficult to regain his practice.
A mining interest provided him with necessary resources. He was not again active in political affairs but remained an interested and benevolent figure at veterans' gatherings and college reunions.
Politically, Noble was generally regarded as a follower of the president rather than of Blaine. He was austere and formal in his official relations but friendly and democratic in his personal contacts.
As an esteemed Grand Army man and as an exponent of the orthodox Republican view that the surplus collected largely under the tariff laws should properly be distributed in pensions, Noble favored a policy of great liberality.
In 1890 Noble strongly supported the views of the American Forestry Association and the Division of Forestry.
On February 8, 1864 Noble married Lisabeth Halsted, of Northampton, Massachussets, a woman of marked intellectual power and a leader in early socialwelfare movements.