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Finding John Henry: Nelson reveals where the bodies are buried

The ubiquitous “hammer” songs involving the legendary John Henry that were born in the hardened hills of West Virginia during the late 19th century do not point to a broad-shouldered, freelancing laborer who could name his price as he helped pound through mountains to open the West to railroad lines in the early 1870s. Instead, they point to a barely five-foot tall New Jersey native who ended up in the Virginia penitentiary on a felony charge involving what probably was petty larcency, according to a new book, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Nelson, associate professor of history at the College. As a convict, Henry was forced into labor on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad. It killed him.

“The standard line is that the John Henry song is about the tenacity and hard work and plight of black men under a white power structure,” Nelson said. “It’s also a story about where the bodies are buried. It’s a story about murder.”

Until a few years ago, most historians had written off John Henry as a mythical construction. Following lyrical clues from among the more than 50 versions of the song, they had been led down blind alleys. Common to the various versions were lyrics that claimed the contest between John Henry and the steam-powered machine he outdrilled occurred at the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. Other lyrics suggested that after Henry won the contest and died, his body was taken to the “white house” and buried in the “sand.”

During his research, Nelson discovered that the actual site where men and steam drills worked side by side was the Lewis Tunnel, a short distance east of the Big Bend but one in which the rock was substantially harder. He also determined that the white house was actually a prison building in Richmond and not the seat of executive power in the nation’s capital. In 1992, when nearly 300 skeletons were discovered as the old penitentiary was being torn down, Nelson believed he had found the resting place of John Henry. Subsequently he was granted access to penitentiary records, where he found documentation for prisoner John William Henry, incarcerated on Nov. 16, 1866, for a term of 10 years for “housebreaking and larceny.” The prisoner was 19 years of age.

“The terror of Southern justice was the terror John Henry actually faced,” Nelson said. “It was that a sentence in prison was a sentence of death.”

The full ambiguity of post-Civil War Reconstruction is presented in the book. Nelson provides details of the transition from the “black codes” enforced under the Freedmen’s Bureau at the time of Henry’s arrest and of those codes being challenged by the federal government, resulting in cases being turned over to the county courts, where Henry would be tried. Nelson writes, “The evidence in Prince George County’s records suggests that John Henry broke into William Wiseman’s store and stole something of value. A misdemeanor in 1864 was a felony in 1865 and afterward, now that Virginia’s white legislature had rewritten the law to punish what they preceived as black crime.”

Imprisoned, Henry was contracted to the newly formed C&O Railroad as part of an effort to ease overcrowding at the state penitentiary. Railroad officials, unable to get freedmen to do the harsh work of boring through the Allegheny Mountains, leased the prisoners at a rate of 25 cents per day. In truth, men worked beside the mechanical drills for only about a year. Most of the prison laborers died not from the physical exertions involved but from breathing the silica released by the driving of metal into the hard rock of the mountain, according to Nelson.

The railroads eventually opened up the West. John Henry and the hundreds of convict-laborers who worked on the tunnels made possible the post-Civil War economic recovery. Yet, they did not live to benefit from it. At one point, John Henry becomes, Nelson asserts, “a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West but could not live to see it.”

After John Henry’s death, the song about him was popularized at a pace that complemented the accelerating industrial advance.The proliferation of coal-fired factories, the beginning of viable transnational commerce and the rise of megacities incorporating newly acquired steel resulted in population dispersal. In addition, workers in the new economy found themselves competing side by side with ever faster and more efficient machines. At each stage, Nelson points out, the story of John Henry was appropriated. He credits Carl Sandburg, the Gatesburg, Ill.-native, poet and folk singer, with making “John Henry” a folk song that resonated with the Midwestern intellengentsia; a few years later, Fiddlin’ John Carson popularized it as a country music song that spoke to factory workers who had left their Southern homes for lucrative jobs in industrial centers. Eventually, Charles Seeger made the song a recruitment tool for unionization efforts led by the Communist Party in America.

“John Henry just morphs,” Nelson said. “It goes from being a sort of haunting song about death to a song of pride in the South to a song about missing the country for white workers to being an icon of pride for the Communist Party.” Ultimately John Henry becomes Superman and Captain America, as the creators of those images borrowed from the visual vocabulary of recruiting posters that represented the iconic laborer as an extremely muscular figure in tight work clothes. They created a person of lighter pigment in red and blue nylon tights who would defend against capitalist corruption: “The steel-drivin’ man sort of becomes the man of steel,” Nelson explained.

Nelson’s book reads like a historical mystery, chronicling the author’s pursuit of the legendary hero as he writes about driving his wife’s red Ford Escort along with the family dog, Riley, as he flew down Interstate 64, about talking himself out of a ticket for speeding from a state trooper and about scavenging the junk stores of Ronceverte, W.Va., after spying a cherrywood fiddle in one of the windows. When he arrives at and enters the Big Bend Tunnel, he picks up a piece of rock, which he pockets, as he explained in his book, “I couldn’t resist the urge to grab a fragment that John Henry might have chipped at. … I do not need for that object to be authentic, just a memento.”

In the final chapter, Nelson describes learning the words to “John Henry” as a member of a fifth-grade chorus in Sanford, Fla., where, he writes in his book, “John Henry was more familiar to my classmates in Southside Elementary School than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver or Abrham Lincoln.” One reason was that a history teacher at the school, Mr. Haynes, whom Nelson describes as “a tall and barrel-chested African-American man,” supported the May Day festivities during which the boy who ran the fastest in the 100-yard dash was named May Day John Henry. Ending his book, Nelson informs the reader that Mr. Haynes died of a stroke on the last day of the spring 1975 semester. At the same time, he seems to ponder how the John Henry icon will influence succeeding generations of both adults and children.

Nelson’s indulgence in making himself a part of the story, while anathema to historians—“I will be pilloried by academics,” he admits—serves well to bring the John Henry saga into 21st-century consciousness. Such license—the book is being published under the popular division of Oxford University Press—may ensure that the legend of John Henry not only will be carried onward but that its core relevance also will be extended.