Mudcat Café message #1822910 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #45408   Message #1822910
Posted By: GUEST
30-Aug-06 - 03:20 PM
Thread Name: JOHN HENRY solved????
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
A while back (June 2004) Nerd wrote, speaking of what we then knew of Scott Nelson's evidence for John Henry:

>However, having worked with many turn of the century
>postcards, I can testify that there's no guarantee that a house >that looks "red" or "white" on a period postcard actually was
>that color! A gray house would look white, and indeed a truly
>red house might paradoxically be too dark for the artists to tint
>it red!

>If you could verify that

>(1)the house was white
>(2)it was commonly referred to as "the white house,"
>(3)the "white house" verse is one of the oldest parts of the
>(4)there was a guy named John Henry who WAS a convict
>(5)he WAS buried there

>then this outlandish tissue of supposition might get taken
>seriously by someone in academia. Until then, it's just a
>publicity stunt for him to get what looks like a legitimate book
>about convict labor and the Klan mentioned in the newspapers.
>Looks to me like our assistant professor was hoping to make
>a publicity splash to aid in his search for tenure. Hope it didn't

Now we know a lot more of Nelson's evidence. I think he is on firm ground on points 1 and 4 of Nerd's list, and I'm willing to accept the liklihood of point 2, especially since I found a traditional verse in another song in which the "white house" is clearly a prison (sorry - I'm not sure which song and where I found it - I'll look some more).

"White house" was in a version of the song as early as 1915 (and probably 1913), reported by John A. Lomax. If "John Henry" dates from 1871 or 1887, then this is at least 26 years later. My conclusion is that there are *no* versions that we can call "early" by virtue of their date of recovery. Of three long versions from 1910-1915, only one includes "white house."

Point 5 is very weak in Nelson's case. He found documentation that John William Henry was leased out, presumably to work on Lewis Tunnel, but he found no other prison or contractor's record of JWH. He *supposes*, as an explanation, that he died at Lewis Tunnel and that his body was sent back to the VA pen for burial "in the sand." A mass graveyard with coffins separated by layers of sand has been excavated at a site adjacent to the old white house. A railroad ran by there as well.

Nerd doesn't mention them, but there are some other points of weakness in Nelson's evidence.

(1) No evidence that JWH was a steel driver.
(2) No evidence that he was a notable steel driver. (Another man was said to have been the "best" steel driver at Lewis Tunnel.)
(3) No evidence of a contest between JWH and a steam drill, not even a local legend.
(4) No explanation of how a non-entity and non-event at Lewis Tunnel could have given rise to a legend at many other places (but not Lewis Tunnel).

I also think that finding a convict laborer named John Henry is weak evidence. I'm surpised he didn't find several.

As far as promotion goes, he made it. He is now, according to the back cover of "Steel Drivin' Man," Associate Professor of History.