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On the Track of Railroad Folk Hero John Henry

Music: A clue found on the Internet leads to a professor's conclusion that the legendary steel driver was a prisoner, buried at a Virginia penitentiary.


WASHINGTON — A century-old riddle in the ballad of John Henry, the legendary black railroad man who was so strong he could work faster than a machine, may have been solved by a College of William and Mary history professor who stumbled upon a clue on the Internet.

A reference in the song to the "White House" had puzzled historians and folklorists for years because they thought it meant the presidential White House. An early version ends with this verse:

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,

Says there lays that steel drivin' man.

Scott Nelson, an assistant professor of history at William and Mary, said he often hummed the ballad while researching Civil War-era railroad companies, which used forced labor. The steel-driving men, who drove rods into rock to create dynamite pockets, were an integral part of the process.

Nelson knew that prisoners from the Virginia state penitentiary had been used to blast tunnels through the Appalachian mountains, and he searched the Internet for a picture of the Richmond prison, which was built before the Civil War. In early November, he found a hand-colored postcard of the prison that showed a white machine shop or barracks nearby.

"The lyrics were going off in my head, and then, there in the middle of my screen, is a big white house," he said. "It all clicked together. It wasn't my plan to talk about John Henry as a convict, but it came together. It all made sense.

"Local knowledge among prisoners was [that it was] not the White House in Washington, but the white house at the penitentiary," he said. "When they said someone was going to the white house, they meant someone was going to get buried."

In 1990, the state closed the penitentiary and sold the property. Three years later, construction workers digging a drainage field found skulls and bones at the rear of the property near what had been a railroad bed.

Katharine Beidleman, the archeologist on the project, was amazed: Her research had not indicated any burial grounds on the penitentiary property. But excavation over a three-month period turned up the remains of about 300 men, women and children.

Records were found that listed women, as well as children as young as 10, as prisoners, she said. Among the bones were pieces of jewelry similar to those made by Civil War prisoners, who melted hard rubber buttons and combs to create rings and brooches.

The remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Doug Owsley, head of the forensic anthropology division in the National Museum of Natural History, said that while staff shortages have delayed a final report, preliminary findings indicate that black and white men were buried in the unmarked graves, along with a few women, infants and children. Among them were "very robust individuals," Owsley said, but without a physical description or a picture, it's unlikely anyone will ever know if John Henry was in the mass grave.

Nelson said he believes John Henry was one of the hundreds of black prisoners whose services were rented to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1871 to build the Big Bend Tunnel at Talcott, in southern West Virginia. Talcott has long claimed the title of the birthplace of the John Henry legend, and atop Big Bend Mountain is a hulking statue of the steel-driving man, a hammer in his hand.

There are many versions of the ballad. Nelson used what is believed to be the earliest published version, which says John Henry died when he accidentally struck himself with his hammer after he had bested a steam drill in a contest to see whether man or machine was faster.

If so, Nelson said, John Henry was among the 10% of railroad workers who were horribly injured or killed on the Big Bend job that year. The dead were sent, along with the injured, back to prison for burial. Newspapers at the time reported a scandal: burying prisoners at the jail instead of in a "decent" burial ground. The city council moved to end the practice, forcing penal authorities to buy land for a cemetery outside the city in 1877.

Nelson presented his findings Nov. 21 to the Social Science History Assn. at a Chicago meeting.

West Virginia historian Ed Cabbell has spent years studying John Henry, whom he calls "a great black American hero." He is convinced John Henry was a former slave, probably from Richmond, who worked on the Big Bend Tunnel and who did win a contest with the steam drill that made him famous among railroad workers. And while he doesn't agree that John Henry was a prisoner, Cabbell said, he hasn't discounted the theory.

"With the lack of records on blacks in general, and particularly during that time period, anything you can get, even with the slightest possible development of a truth, is worth listening to and checking out," he said. "When dealing with African Americans, our history is oral, and you have to track down every possible source and give it serious consideration."

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