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On the Trail of the Real John Henry

According to an old newspaper account (it was in the Atlanta Constitution) granite cutter Bill Hendricks appeared in court on September 1, 1913, to face charges of disturbing the neighborhood.  He had drunkenly "shouted and sung bad songs."  Bill admitted to one song, an inoffensive stanza of "John Henry" he had known since childhood.  He recited that stanza and said you sing it again if you want a longer song.  Convicted and fined $21.50, he "put the court on notice that it was a piece of malice on the part of the neighbors and not their objection to 'John Henry' that caused his arrest."

Bill was right.  "John Henry" is not a bad song.  To folklorists it is a "ballad," a story told in song.  Collections and recordings number in the many hundreds.  Aaron Copeland used the melody in his composition, "John Henry," for symphony orchestra.

John Henry is a hero to everyone, especially African Americans and labor-union members.  He is celebrated in novels, poems, cartoons, comics, paintings, sculptures, movies, etc., and he is reinvented.  He obviously inspired the creation of Steel, aka John Henry Irons, one of Superman's comic-book successors.

Why is so much made of a poor black laborer?  Because his mighty effort represents the best of the human spirit.

John Henry was a steel driver, a man who used a sledge hammer to pound steel drills to make holes in rock.  In tunnel boring the rock was blasted away by explosives packed into drilled holes.  John Henry said, "Before I'll let that steam drill beat me down / I'll die with my hammer in my hand."  With human skill, muscle, endurance, and determination, he drilled faster than a new-fangled, steam-powered machine.  "John Henry made fourteen feet / While the steam drill only made nine."  Then he died.  "He drove so hard that he broke his heart / He laid down his hammer and he died."

Is any of this true?  If so, or if the legend sprang from some other event involving a real person, who and where was he?

By 1933 Guy Johnson, Louis Chappell, and a few others had obtained over sixty versions of "John Henry" and a great deal of personal testimony.  Nothing in this mass of data can be assumed to be reliable.  Testimony and ballad versions vary wildly and are rife with contradictions. He died in at least ten states and Jamaica!  Received wisdom, from Johnson and Chappell, says he passed away in West Virginia.  MacEdward Leach writing some thirty years later said Jamaica. In this decade Scott Nelson has asserted death occurred in Virginia. I say Alabama.

In my opinion, West Virginia and Jamaica are no longer serious contenders.  Virginia and Alabama must duke it out over the historicity of "America's greatest single piece of folklore" (John A. and Alan Lomax).

In the Virginia story, the legendary steel driver was John William Henry, a convict at the old Virginia Penitentiary, Richmond.  He was leased in 1868 to work on the construction of the C & O railroad, 1868-72, at Lewis Tunnel, where he raced a steam drill and died.  His body was sent back to the penitentiary and he was buried in a mass grave by a white workhouse near a railroad.  A stanza of the ballad says that John Henry is taken to "the white house" and buried "in the sand" near a railroad.

There are just a few problems with the John W. Henry story.

First, "John Henry Something" was a very common name, much more common than "John Something Henry."  Accordingly, the historic person is more likely to have been "John Henry Something" than "John W. Henry."

Second, John W. Henry was 5' 1-1/4" tall.  How many little guys were famous steel drivers?  Probably none.

Third, because "John Henry" is so common, finding it among the more than two hundred convicts at Lewis Tunnel in 1870 is not unexpected and carries little logical force.

In the ballad, having John Henry buried at the "white house" is too good to be true.  Who could resist the idea that he was so important that he was put where our President, when he faced a difficult problem, could stroll out to visit his grave for inspiration?  If "white house" had been part of the original ballad, versions in which John Henry is buried elsewhere would not exist.  In fact, there are many.

There is no evidence at all that John W. Henry was a steel driver.  There is no evidence that anyone at Lewis Tunnel raced a steam drill.  Lewis Tunnel had its own graveyard.  Convicts who died there were probably buried there, not at the penitentiary.  Finally, no legend, testimony, or ballad version explicitly places John Henry at Lewis Tunnel.

If Virginia is not the right place, Alabama is.

In the Alabama story, John Henry was John Henry Dabney, an ex-slave from Copiah County, Mississippi, who followed Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney to Dunnavant, Alabama, to bore tunnels through Oak and Coosa Mountains during the extension of the C & W (Columbus & Western) Railway from Goodwater to Birmingham, in 1887-88.  Dunnavant is just south of Leeds and about fifteen miles east of Birmingham and Red Mountain.  As Chief Engineer of the C & W, Captain Dabney was in charge of construction.  His father was John Henry's former owner.  When a steam-drill salesman came calling one day, Captain Dabney bet him that John Henry could beat his machine.  On September 20, 1887, he raced the steam drill outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel.  He won, fell out, revived, said he was blind and dying, called for his wife, and died by bleeding out from ventricular rupture as she cradled his head.  As the ballad says, "He drove so hard that he broke his heart."

The Alabama story derives mostly from testimony.  Unlike most John Henry testimony, that which places him in Alabama is, within reason, coherent.  Three informants said that he worked for a Dabney, two that both he and Dabney were from Mississippi, three that he worked at Coosa and Oak Mountains, and two that Red Mountain was nearby.  C. C. Spencer, who claimed to have been an eyewitness to John Henry's race and death, gave many details, some of which have been verified.

Spencer's description of John Henry's death led Steven Harris, M.D., to offer ventricular rupture as a likely cause of death: "No, strokes don't do this. You can get blindness with a posterior vertebral stroke, but it shouldn't kill you right off -- or make you unconscious.  And unconsciousness which reverses when the person is laid down is classic for blood loss shock.  As is blindness and a roaring in the ears (all low blood pressure things) .... And chest pain would precede, from the ischemia of the heart attack itself ...."  Versions of the ballad mention that John Henry had chest pain, blindness, and roaring in the ears.

A Dabney family memoir mentions a slave boy named Henry who was a teenager during the Civil War.  Consistent with this, Henry Dabney, age 20, married, "works on farm," is enumerated in the 1870 federal census for Copiah County.

A strong legend around Dunnavant makes the east portal of Oak Tunnel the site of John Henry's contest.  For years a steel drill stuck up from the rock there.  It was said to have been John Henry's last "steel," a memorial to him.

This comes close to nailing John Henry down in Alabama, but there are some loose ends.  We may have to drive a stake through his heart to stop his perambulating and get rid of his ghost at Big Bend Tunnel and those other places.

That might be possible.  A candidate for John Henry's grave lies just outside the fence (whites only inside, I suppose) enclosing Sand Ridge Cemetery ("buried him in the sand"), Dunnavant.  This cemetery is within sight of the C & W tracks about a mile across a valley and is on a "white road" (mentioned in one version of the ballad).

According to some versions of "John Henry," his hammer was buried with him.  Ground-penetrating radar might reveal it (nine-, twelve-, twenty-pound?)  Exhumation might permit medical and genetic examinations as well as provide an opportunity for staking.  Perhaps he has living relatives in Mississippi with whom DNA samples could be compared.

The Georgia Historical Society owns massive records of the Central of Georgia system, to which the C & W belonged.  They are uncataloged, in need of conservation, and inaccessible.  They might contain C & W records that mention John Henry, steam drills, or the contest.

I invite historians, the more the merrier, to join the search for John Henry in Alabama.  The application of your talents could lead to paydirt.

(For more Alabama information, see Tributaries 2002 and online "John Henry" discussions at Mudcat Cafe, Ballad-L, and Pre-War Blues, Yahoo group.)

Response by Scott Nelson (William & Mary)

John Garst would like to believe that John Henry is from his town in Alabama, as would the Alabama Folklife Association, but there is simply no coherent evidence to prove it. What he largely does is poke holes in my own work – Steel Drivin’ Man, published last month by Oxford University Press – rather than doing the archival work that historians do to prove their point. His latest attack on me was posted on History News Network. He has also attacked me and my work on websites, on amazon.com, and on numerous blogs.

Let me rebut his criticisms of my work point by point.

Name: “John Henry” was actually an uncommon name among black men in the South in the 1870s. There were fewer than a score of black John Henry’s in the 1870 census, most too young or too old to be candidates. John W. Henry of Virginia who I discuss in my book Steel Drivin’ Man is listed both in penitentiary records and in the Virginia census as John Henry. Professor Garst would like to believe that John Henry is “John Henry Something Else”, but there is no direct evidence that suggests this.

Height: In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, tunnel workers – particularly the men who drilled holes for tunnel blasts and in hard rock mines – were very small men. This was a necessity because the holes produced by nitroglycerin rock blasts were quite small. These holes were only widened to man-sized holes after the initial drilling was completed. We should not be surprised to find that John Henry was short in stature; we should expect it if he were a tunnel driller.

Commonness: As I said above, John Henry was an uncommon name for a black man in the 1870s. By the 1880s, after the events that I describe in my book, it had become a much more common name.

White House: Professor Garst suggests that it was irresistible to put John Henry at the President’s “White House” and that my explanation for this version of the song – that the white house refers to a building at the Virginia Penitentiary – is “too good to be true.” In fact, the discussion of the white house in the song is peculiar. Both Johnson and Chappell noted it and found it confusing. In fact, the use of the term “White House” to describe the President’s residence became common only after Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901. If the song was composed before 1901, and it certainly was, then we must explain why many versions of the song end with a discussion of the white house. My book explains this.

Lewis Tunnel: Professor Garst plays fast and loose here, arguing that no one “raced” a steam drill at Lewis Tunnel and that Henry was not a steel driller. I have presented considerable evidence that two different steam drills were used at this tunnel in the 1870s. My book demonstrates how and when John Henry came to Lewis Tunnel. I demonstrate why, contractually, all convicts had to be returned to the penitentiary dead or alive so that the contractors avoided a one-hundred dollar fine. I show how the penitentiary surgeon attributed many of the deaths of the convicts to work on the Lewis Tunnel. I quote from two different contemporary sources that describe workers and steam drills working side-by-side. I do not have a photograph of John Henry fighting the steam drill, but I am sure that even then Professor Garst would dispute it.

Burial: Yes, Lewis Tunnel has its own graveyard. The nineteenth century headstones refer only to white men and women in it. It is improbable that black convicts would have been buried in a white cemetery near Lewis Tunnel. To avoid the fine discussed above, all prisoners had to be returned dead or alive to the penitentiary. This is attested to by the surgeon’s report at the Virginia Penitentiary.

The remainder of Professor Garst’s work, like his article in Tributaries, gives no evidence of steam drills used near his home in Alabama, or even a description of the tunneling work that took place. He has no evidence that John Henry Dabney worked for any contractor on this road. He has oral testimony that was provided by and then dismissed by Chappell and Johnson more than 60 years ago. Chappell and Johnson received only two witnesses that placed the conflict in Alabama and dozens and dozens that placed the conflict on the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad. Beyond these quotations reproduced from the two books, Garst provides a link to the census that proves that a black man named Henry Dabney is listed as working on a farm near the site. The rest is supposition. Professor Garst has done no archival research to make his case, and there are numerous materials available including company reports of the C&W, engineering reports, and local newspapers available to him.

It is wonderful that scholars of all stripes are interested in the legend of John Henry, and would never knock down someone who has an interest in the topic. But as Professor Garst knows, we can not simply will a chemical reaction to take place, and hope alone does not make Alabama the place where John Henry died.