The Legend |
Facts, Fiction and Themes |
John Henry in Alabama? | Contest at Lewis Tunnel? |
Dr. Garst Responds to Dr. Nelson's new book
Scott Nelson's book, "Steel Drivin' Man" (SDM) Oxford University
Press, 2006, is now available.
I don't find the evidence presented in SDM to be any more persuasive
than that found in Nelson's paper, "Who Was John Henry" (Labor,
2005). It is essentially the same.
Nelson's candidate is John William Henry, who probably worked at
Lewis Tunnel, Virginia, and may have died there.
Nelson posits that John W. Henry's body was brought back to the
Virginia Penitentiary and buried in a mass grave beside a white
workhouse, which was near a railroad, thus accounting for the stanza
of "John Henry," found occasionally, "They took John Henry to the
White House / And buried him in the san' / And every locomotive come
roarin' by / Says there lays that steel drivin' man."
There are several problems with taking this as evidence that John W.
Henry was the legendary figure.
Finding a man named "John Henry" among more than 200 convicts working
at Lewis Tunnel doesn't mean much. "John Henry" was a very common
pair of given names during the nineteenth century. What is
surprising is that Nelson didn't find more than one! It is
insignificant that he found a man with the surname "Henry." Nothing
in the ballad or legend requires or indicates that "Henry" is a
There is no evidence that John W. Henry was a steel driver. He could
have been a shaker, mucker, water boy, tool carrier or sharpener,
If he was a steel driver, his small stature (5' 1-1/4" tall) makes it
unlikely that he was noted as such. According to testimony, Bob
Jones was the best steel driver at Lewis Tunnel.
There is no evidence of an individual contest between a man and a
machine at Lewis Tunnel. Nelson's evidence for a collective contest
is weak. Indeed, it seems most likely that hand drilling was used in
the heading, where horizontal holes are required, and steam drilling
on the bench, where holes are vertical. This would be no competition
at all. (According to testimony, the steam drills at Lewis Tunnel
could be used only on the bench, implying that they could not drill
Nelson almost certainly misinterprets a contractor's request to be
provided a boiler to operate a steam drill, "If you have done
anything in regards to furnishing it, please inform me, if not I will
have to double on it with hammers" (SDM 87). Nelson imagines two
adjacent rows of holes, one row drilled by a steam drill and the
other by hand. Thus, he takes "will have to double on it with
hammers" to mean that both rows will have to be drilled manually.
This is a strained interpretation. Two-man hand drilling is called
"double-jack" drilling, which was probably frequently shortened to
"double-jack," or simply "double," and made a verb. I think "double
on it" simply means "do it with hand drilling."
The evidence that John W. Henry died at Lewis Tunnel is not
conclusive. He could have escaped, as many convicts did.
The evidence that the bodies of dead convicts were taken back to the
Virginia Penitentiary for burial is weak. Nelson describes a
provision in the contract between the Penitentiary and the C & O that
calls for a hundred-dollar penalty for convicts not returned. In the
preceding sentence (SDM 78) it is stated that contractors "would have
to post a bond that guaranteed the safe return of prisoners." Nelson
appears to consider returning a corpse a "safe return," so he thinks
corpses were sent back to avoid the hundred-dollar penalty. It seems
more likely that dead convicts were buried in the graveyard at Lewis
Tunnel. There is testimony suggesting this, and it certainly seems
The mass grave in which Nelson thinks John W. Henry was buried was
found a few years ago at the site of the old Virginia Penitentiary.
According to the excavating archaeologist, the soil in which the
grave was dug is not sandy. Nelson states (SDM 38) that boxes in the
grave were separated by "a small layer of sand." Evidently the sand
was placed there at the time of the burials. Would a ballad maker
consider this being "buried in the sand"? I'm skeptical.
"White House" is an attractive oddity in the ballad. It is odd
because it is not a usual or expected place of burial. It is
attractive because it calls to mind the White House in Washington,
DC. John Henry's burial there would make him a very important person
indeed. It is easy to see why "White House," once it appeared in the
ballad, would propagate in tradition. It would be very attractive to
singers, who would want their hero to be very important. This is the
stuff of which ballads are made! Even so, many versions of "John
Henry" don't mention the "White House." Instead, John Henry is
buried in the "(new) buryin' ground" or some other place.
Attractive oddities in ballads are unlikely to have appeared in the
original version. The fact that many versions of "John Henry" have
him buried elsewhere reinforces that "White House" is most likely an
artifact of mutation during ballad transmission.
"White House" may stem from an earlier "white road," found in one
version of "John Henry." "White road" could describe the sandy road
leading to Sand Ridge Cemetery, Dunnavant, Alabama. That cemetery is
in sandy soil and is in sight of the C & W tracks. An unmarked grave
lies just outside the fence enclosing the cemetery, perhaps where a
black man might have been buried in 1887, when only whites would have
been buried in the cemetery proper. This could be the grave of John
Henry Dabney, who may have raced a steam drill at Dunnavant, perhaps
outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel, in 1887, perhaps on Tuesday,
No ballad or legend associates John Henry with Lewis Tunnel.
Nelson's explanation that Cal Evans moved from Lewis to Big Bend
Tunnel and spread John Henry stories (SDM 89) is almost certainly
wrong. According to his itinerary as a worker for the C & O, as
given by Chappell, Evans was never at Lewis Tunnel. Evans is quoted
by Johnson as saying that he never saw John Henry and only told
stories he had heard from others. He placed John Henry at Big Bend
Despite all this, in SDM Nelson claims to present "the true story
behind the legend of John Henry" (p 197). Oxford University Press
makes similar claims: "the real life...of John Henry" and "the true
story of the man behind the iconic American hero" (both from the back
cover of SDM). I see this as hubris.
In addition, SDM does not give a coherent, comprehensive review of
prior literature on its subject. It does not address the arguments
of Johnson and Chappell in favor of Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia,
as the John Henry site, and it does not even mention my paper,
"Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi" (Tributaries: Journal
of the Alabama Folklife Association, 2002), which argues in favor of
Oak and Coosa Tunnels, Alabama.
My estimates of the probabilities of the various scenarios that have
been put forth are as follows.
Oak/Coosa Tunnels, Alabama 90%
Lewis Tunnel, Virginia 2%
Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia 1%
Elsewhere or not a historic person 7%
john garst firstname.lastname@example.org
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