Mudcat Café message #670813 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #45408   Message #670813
Posted By: katlaughing
17-Mar-02 - 02:30 PM
Thread Name: JOHN HENRY solved????
Subject: RE: JOHN HENRY solved????
I found it fascinating, too, Art. Thanks so much. Here 'tis:

From the Wm. & Mary News,
December 10, 1998 edition

History Professor Locates Gravesite Of Folk Hero
Postcard yields clues about John Henry's final days

Caption: Whitewashed barracks, train tracks and sand pictured in this 1912 postcard of the Virginia State Penitentiary led Scott Nelson to identify folk hero John Henry as a convict laborer.

Like so many good things, Scott Nelson's discovery of the identity and fate of folk hero John Henry was serendipitous.

If the assistant professor of history hadn't been humming the folk ballad John Henry" while studying a 1912 postcard of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, he may never have connected several important clues to determine that the folk hero was probably a convict who died while working on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad line in the 1870s and was buried on the grounds of the penitentiary.

Nelson, a labor historian, presented his findings at the Social Science History Association Meeting in Chicago on Nov. 21. Henry was the railroad worker who inspired the ballad "John Henry," a song which reflects the brutality of railroad tunnel construction in the 1870s.

After the Civil War, thousands of African-American men performed the backbreaking work of tunneling through mountains, connecting the American South to the West. Many workers lost their lives in tunnel cave-ins, dynamite explosions and drilling accidents. Others died from easily preventable diseases such as scurvy, consumption and dysentery.

"This is one of the uglier stories of civil engineering, of modern corporate systems built from the dead," Nelson said.

For decades, the final stanza of "John Henry" has stumped historians: "They took John Henry to the white house and they buried him in the sand/Now every locomotive that come roarin' by says there lies a steel-driving man."

"Folklorists have not known what to make of this passage," Nelson said, "and have wondered how John Henry's body might have ended up at the Oval Office, where there is no railroad and no sand."

Caption: Scott Nelson hopes his discovery about John Henry will shed light on the fate of thousands of other railroad workers in the new South.

But as Nelson was researching his soon-to-be-released book, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence and Reconstruction, he came across the postcard and realized he may have found the mysterious "white house" of the ballad's last stanza.

Folklorists long ago concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked as a "hammer man," digging his way through railway tunnels of the South. The lyrics in the ballad date his death to the early 1870s, while he worked on the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. This passage through the Allegheny Mountains was built between 1870 and 1873. The ballad describes a competition between John Henry and the modern steam drill, which was introduced to the South in 1870. The African-American folk hero won the contest but died in the process. Like many hammer men, John Henry was literally worked to death.

"Horrible, disfiguring deaths were regular features of railroad construction," Nelson said.

While most folklorists have believed that John Henry was a paid laborer, Nelson knew from his previous research into Southern railroad history that most railroad workers on the C&O line in the 1870s were convicts.

"Most accounts of John Henry claim he was a high-priced railroad worker," Nelson said. "This seems unlikely, however, given that the Chesapeake & Ohio had a near-monopoly on Virginia's convicts in 1871 and 1872."

Digging deeper, he learned that convict workers on the C&O were buried on the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary until 1877, when Richmond city officials ordered more suitable burials off-site.

While Nelson's knowledge of convict railroad workers put him one step closer to identifying John Henry as a convict laborer, he needed one more link to make the final connection.

The 1912 postcard, mirroring the setting of the ballad's puzzling last stanza, was that missing link.

"The Virginia State Penitentiary had a red house for administration and a white house as a barracks and workshop," Nelson said. "Sand borders the perimeter. Nearby were the tracks of the Richmond & Petersburg and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads."

While the prison was being torn down when the land was sold to the Ethyl Corp. in the early 1990s, construction workers, digging behind where the white house had been located, discovered scores of bodies, buried together in large boxes. Galvanized rubber jewelry found on the skeletons helped archaeologists to date the site to the second half of the 19th century. The remains were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where they are being studied.

While Nelson's theory may never be proven, he has made perhaps the strongest possible case for the fate of an American legend.

And his speculations have brought attention to the fates of the thousands of nameless and faceless "John Henrys who died on behalf of the railroad corridor and the new South."

by Amy Ruth