Larger than life, the mythic John Henry and his giant hammer were to railroad men what John Bunyan and his giant blue ox were to American lumberjacks and Pecos Bill and his rattlesnake whip were to cowboys. The first half of this slim but enlightening monograph records a dogged historian’s search for the true source of the legend. The song begins with these two verses:
The Captain said to John Henry“Gonna bring that steam drill ’roundGonna bring that steam drill out on the jobGonna whop that steel on downWhop that steel on down.”John Henry told his captain“A man ain’t nothin’ but a manBefore I let your steam drill beat me downI’ll die with this hammer in my handI’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”
Seizing upon the last verse of the folk song, in particular the lines “They took John Henry to the white house/ and buried him in the sand,” Nelson traced the hero’s final resting place to the Virginia State Penitentiary burial grounds. A cooperative archivist unsealed prison records to reveal pertinent information on a nineteen-year-old African American from New Jersey, barely five feet tall, who had been convicted in 1866 of theft at William H. Wiseman’s grocery in Virginia’s Prince George County, not far from where the siege of Petersburg had taken place. The sentence was ten yearsfor all practical purposes a death penalty for convicts subsequently leased to predatory business interests. Ironically, the black codes under whose auspices Henry had been charged were later declared to be unconstitutional, but Brigadier General Henry Horatio Wells, who controlled Virginia during Republican Reconstruction, neglected to aid one who may in fact have been framed. What historians know for sure is that Wells was not unsympathetic toward white Southerners who resented the presence of the many African Americans seeking work in the area in the aftermath of the Civil War. Two labor disputes were in progress at the time of his apprehension, and John Henry may simply have been trying to get something to eat. The record is foggy on the particulars, but justice, it may safely be assumed, was not color-blind.
Warden Burnham Wardwell, who struck a monetary deal with Collis P. Huntington’s Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, may have viewed leasing out inmates as a palatable alternative to the existing pestiferous prison quarters. It was not; fully 10 percent of the involuntary laborers died annually, and virtually all succumbed within ten years from inhaling deadly silica dust produced from drilling (especially with steam-powered devices) into the mountains of West Virginia. Thus, the song was in one sense an indictment of government-tolerated murder:
They placed John Henry on the right sideThe steam drill on the leftHe said “Before I let that steam drill beat me downI’ll hammer my fool self to deathI’ll hammer my fool self to death.”John Henry told his shaker“Shaker you had better prayFor if I miss this six-foot steelTomorrow will be your buryin’ dayTomorrow will be your buryin’ day.”
John Henry labored under the whip of notorious overseer Claiborne Mason, a former Union officer who had allegedly executed numerous Confederate deserters. His initial task was probably working as a mucker,...
(The entire section is 1607 words.)