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GUEST,John Garst Origin Of John Henry--part TWO (240* d) RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO 25 Dec 08

On Monday, December 22, 2008, I visited the Manuscripts Department of the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I had asked them by e-mail to copy some items for me, but they had not been able to find all of them. In particular, the didn't find two letters from C. C. Spencer and one from F. P. Barker that I thought I had seen when I was there in 2001-02, and the couldn't find a letter from Guy Johnson to Louis Chappell on which I had made notes when I was there earlier. The purpose of my visit was to look for these "lost" items.

I found the two letters from Spencer and the letter from Johnson to Chappell. I did not find the letter from Barker - it appears that it is lost or badly misfiled.

Actually, if I had known that one had to be lost, I would have chosen Barker. I think the others are more important.

The letter from Johnson to Chappell explains how Johnson came to his search for John Henry at Big Bend Tunnel, independently of Chappell. This is important because it is, as far as I know, the only defense Johnson ever gave against Chappell's allegations that Johnson had gotten his Big Bend ideas from Chappell.

The Spencer letters are important because he is a self-proclaimed eyewitness to John Henry's death. He gives many details of his story, and of these many important ones turn out to be correct (by documentation).

I got a surprise, though, in reading Spencer's letters. Up front he says (in 1927) that he believes that he may be the only living person who witnessed the deaths of both John Henry and John Hardy. Because there was confusion between John Henry and John Hardy in the 1920s, arising from John H. Cox's earlier confusion of the two, Johnson made a point of asking, in the items he placed in newspapers, for information on both men. Spencer claimed to have been present at John Henry's death in Alabama in 1887 and at John Hardy's hanging in West Virginia in 1894. In his letters, Spencer gives accurate information about John Hardy. This was at a time when no one seemed to have accurate information about him. That he was accurate about John Hardy supports his reliability as a witness and indicates that he was accurate about John Henry as well.

I now have a mug shot of C. C. Spencer, and I now know that he was 5' 11' tall. Since there are two pretty good photographs of John Hardy standing on the scaffold, showing part of the assembled crowd, perhaps there is a chance that C. C. Spencer could be found standing there. It's a slim chance, since only part of the crowd is shown and since many of the people are distant from the camera, but it is worth a good try.

Strangely, Johnson did not include Spencer's John Hardy information in his book.

I got another surprise. Major Thomas G. Dabney wrote Johnson about Dabneys in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and John Henry - he said he knew nothing of either subject. No doubt he was thrown off by the request about Holly Springs, which had been named by Spencer as John Henry's home. Spencer erred in this - it should have been Crystal Springs. If Johnson had asked Major Dabney about Dabneys and ex-slaves at Crystal Springs, Mississippi, Major Dabney would have had intimate knowledge. He would have known that his older brother, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, had lived there, and that their father, Judge Augustine Dabney, had also lived there after the Civil War. He would have been able to name all the family's slaves, which included Henry, and he probably would have known that Henry had lived near Crystal Springs. He might even have known of Henry's death while working for Captain Dabney in Alabama in 1887!

We live in a strange universe of intricate connection and near misses.

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