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Sorting out the real from the unreal, however, is no simple task. Stories and songs about John Henry have been in circulation since the last decades of the nineteenth century (the first published version was released in 1900), and the details within these multiple renditions vary. The good news, however, is that they all tell the same basic story.
The main ingredient required for any story or song about John Henry is the fact that he worked on a railroad as a “steel-driving man.” Steel drivers worked in teams to carve railroad tunnels through mountains. The driver would pound a steel spike into the mountain’s rocky surface while his partner, a “shaker,” would hold the spike in place and turn it between strikes until they produced a sizable hole. The “blaster” would come next to insert explosives into the hole. Once the explosives ripped a chunk out of the mountain, the driver and shaker would go back to work.
According to the legend and the songs that record it, John Henry agreed to race a new piece of technology, a steam-powered drill, to prove that he was better, faster, and stronger than new-fangled piece of machinery. The contest between man and machine raged for hours, but in the end, John Henry won. Unfortunately the contest took a deadly toll on his body, and he died immediately after. From here the details vary from rendition to rendition. In some versions, Henry’s boss or “captain” makes a bet that his best steel driving man can outperform the machine, while in other versions John Henry initiates the contest in order to demonstrate his superiority over the drill. In some renditions, the color of his skin is not mentioned; in others, he is black, and his race is an important aspect of the battle.
But was John Henry real? Did this larger than life steel-driving man exist, and did he fight a battle to the death with a machine?
Some sources provide tantalizing but imprecise clues. For example, his birth-state is identified separately as Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. One version of the story has Henry working on the “Georgia Line;” another has him driving steel on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad. For many, the most important clue is the reference in some renditions to “Big Ben” Tunnel. In 1870, construction crews for the C&O Railroad came to a halt at the base of Big Bend Mountain near Talcott, West Virginia. The best path lay straight through the mountain, so the C&O invested 1,000 men and three years into digging a tunnel through its rocky mass. Scores of workers were killed during the dangerous project, and the people of Talcott are convinced that John Henry was one of them; a giant statue of the steel driving man stands outside the town.
But at least one historian is not so certain. Scott Reynolds Nelson is convinced that the man and the race were real, but he places the historic episode a bit further east of Big Bend Mountain, at the Lewis Tunnel. And the most important biographical fact about Henry, according to Nelson, is that he was a prisoner incarcerated at the Virginia State Penitentiary, leased out to the C&O for 25₵ a day.
Nelson has plenty of documentary evidence to support his argument. A New Jersey-born prisoner named John Henry was sentenced to ten-years at the Virginia Pen after stealing some groceries in 1868. This prisoner was among those leased out to the C&O, but by 1874 he had disappeared from the prison books. It was too soon for his release, fitting Nelson’s theory that this is the man who died in a race against a machine.
And there’s more, Nelson adds. A line from one popular rendition of the song says, “They took John Henry to the white house, and buried him in the sand.” Old photos of the prison reveal that a whitewashed building sat in the center of the prison complex, and sandy-white soil surrounded the prison walls. Moreover, says Nelson, when the old prison was demolished in 1992, thousands of bones were found beneath the white building, including, quite possibly, those of John Henry.
Nelson’s argument is compelling, but not everyone is convinced. Another scholar, John Garst, argues that the John Henry of the Virginia Penitentiary is an unlikely candidate for a faster-than-machine steel-driving man. First of all, prison records show that the man was only 5’1” tall. In addition, says Garst, interviews collected during the 1920s and 1930s point to a site further south in Alabama for the epic contest. Men who had worked on the C&O line in Virginia did not remember Henry or any battle against the steam drill. On the other hand, individuals who had worked on Alabama’s railroads during the 1880s did remember Henry and the race. One man claimed to have witnessed Henry’s death at the end of the daylong contest. Others said that the race took place while cutting tunnels for the Columbus and Western Railway through Alabama’s Oak and Coosa Mountains in 1887. And these sources further explained that John Henry was a former slave, owned before the Civil War by the family of the tunnel project’s engineer, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney.
In other words, while it seems likely that John Henry and his competition were real, the details surrounding the legend are far from certain. Even if we could fix the time and place of Henry’s race against the machine, another set of questions would remain: why did this story become so important? What did people find so compelling in this event that they turned it into song?
Perhaps laborers and union organizers embraced the story because they found in it something that resonated with the plight of the workingman. Henry and steel drivers like him sacrificed their bodies and risked their lives building railroads that made other men rich, yet when their employers found a piece of machinery that might be more efficient, they were ready to cast these workers aside. John Henry refused to accept this decision. He stood up to the machine—and the boss behind it—and vowed to die before surrendering his job.
John Henry’s legend grew, in fact, during the early years of the American labor movement, and some of the most violent labor battles during those years occurred on the railroads. In 1877, a cut in pay led thousands of railroad workers to march out in protest. By the time the strike ended, hundreds of railroad cars had been destroyed, and 25 people had been killed. In 1894, another violent battle took place outside the Pullman railroad car plants in Illinois. Workers fought federal troops in a three-day battle that left 30 dead. That railroad workers would celebrate a man who, in effect, beat the industry that they believed took advantage of them would make sense. They didn’t care if he had died as a result, as they were prepared to do the same to secure their own livelihoods.
For African Americans, the song may have made an equally powerful statement. The Civil War had led to their emancipation from slavery, but their social and economic conditions improved little in the South. Jim Crow laws stripped them of their political and civil rights, and economically, most freedmen were forced into the cycle of debt that was sharecropping, sometimes on the same land where they had been slaves all their lives. Some found work in the South’s growing industrial sector, some on the railroads. But whether sharecropping or driving steel, most former slaves faced dreary economic futures. That these freedmen would celebrate a man who beat a machine—and the white boss behind the machine—would make sense.
For industrial workers and African Americans alike, John Henry’s story was inspirational, but this inspiration was coupled with a warning: Henry won his race, but he lost life. Workers who celebrated his memory may also have heeded the corresponding warning. In fact, historian Nelson argues that the double-message of the song was recognized from the beginning. It began, he says as a work song. Railroad workers sang it as they laid track and pounded through mountains, but they sang it slowly. Henry’s success inspired them as they worked away, but his death reminded them that fighting the machine was dangerous work.