The Truth About John Henry

May 1866: the first mixed-race jury in Virginia convenes to indict Jefferson Davis (the trial was never completed). On the same day, a man named John Henry stands trial for burglary.

There’s a song a sweetheart of mine used to sing:


John Henry was a little boy
Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee
Picked up a hammer in his little right hand
“This hammer’s gonna be the death of me.”

John Henry was a little boy
No bigger than the palm of your hand
By the time that boy was nine years old
He was drivin’ spike like a man.

John Henry said to his shaker,
“You oughta see me swing.
Twelve whole pounds from my hips on down,
And I love to hear that cold steel ring…”

You may have heard the story. John Henry—the Pyrrhic victory of man over machine. John Henry— a swashbuckling freelancer, a workaholic of prodigious size and strength, a flawed hero whose pride brought on his death when he bragged he could beat a steam drill through a mountain. That’s the story that’s been recorded more times than any other in American folk music. Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, you name it.

But it’s not the real story.

In Steel Drivin’ Man Scott Reynolds Nelson pulls off an extraordinary feat of historical detective work—in the Boss himself’s words, “at the crossroads where American myth and reality intersect.” Using song lyrics, census data and sealed prison records sweet-talked from a lady archivist, Nelson solved the ultimate cold case, and the reality is more fascinating than the myth.

Turns out John Henry was a 5’1” 19-year old from New Jersey. Like many northerners he came south in search of opportunity under the short-lived Radical Reconstruction, and like many others he was arrested (for an alleged burglary of one Wiseman’s grocery store) under the black codes, reactionary laws that made a mockery of his newfound citizenship and basically reestablished slavery:

“Enforcement efforts targeted [freed people], especially in and around cities. In some Virginia cities, like Petersburg, the downtown slave pens were reestablished to hold these black ‘vagrants’ until their trials. Men and women without labor contracts could be picked up by police and auctioned off to the highest bidder for three months of labor. Those who tried to escape during their three-month term could be used for an additional three months and be bound with ball and chain. Virginia enabled a ‘special police,’ a resurrection of the old slave patrol; if a white person reported that goods were stolen, [they] were authorized to raid and search black neighborhoods.” (p. 53)

Under the black codes “vagrancy” (not having a white employer; a charge used to arrest blacks well into the 20th century) and an “air of satisfaction” were punishable crimes. Being inside someone’s house without proof of an invitation was ruled evidence of burglary. Blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court—meaning John Henry could not defend himself in his own trial. And so on.

In the months following John Henry’s arrest there was tremendous dispute over jurisdiction in Southern states (that’s a whole ‘nother story). In 1866 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, but crafty racists at every level of the justice system found ways around such things:

“The rules of evidence under Virginia’s laws were now suspect, and capable of federal review…. John Henry’s alleged burglary could only be a felony if he had taken more than $20 worth of goods. The trouble was, no one could have walked out of Wiseman’s store with $20 worth of merchandise…. If the crime was a misdemeanor [the Judge] would have no business trying it in a circuit court…. To find John Henry guilty of a felony the prosecutor had to change the store into a house and charge John Henry with housebreaking. Thus, the prosecutor had the court clerk cross out ‘burglary’ on the indictment and replace the charge with ‘housebreaking and larceny’…. City directories, tax rolls, and census rolls show that Wiseman’s only building on his land was a grocery…. So the judge gave [the prosecutor] time to gather more evidence [and] ordered the trial ‘continued until the next term at the Defendant’s cost.’ ”  (p. 56)

After sitting in jail for six more months awaiting the circuit judge’s return, with no friends and no hope of a fair trial, John was sentenced to 10 years at the Virginia Penitentiary.

“The federal government had invalidated special police raids and limits to black testimony. But the whipping post and ten-year sentences for minor property crimes remained in force. In that sense the black codes in Virginia never ended.” (p. 63)

Meanwhile, a guy named C.P. Huntington convinced the military governor to hand over the incomplete railroads, while leaving all contracted debt to the state of Virginia, crippling state finances for years (sounds oddly familiar). The key to connecting the southeastern seaboard with the Ohio River Valley, and controlling the flow of goods between them, lay in blasting through the ancient Allegheny Mountains. Only problem? Labor. Major bottleneck in hammering through granite.


Luckily for Huntington, at the same time he needed cheap labor, his friends running the penal system faced prison overcrowding from years of converting misdemeanors to felonies and throwing free black people in jail (still sounding oddly familiar).

Thus began the convict leasing system that in many respects survives to this day. Thousands of men were leased to the railroads and other projects. John Henry, prisoner #497, was leased out to the C&O in 1868, on December 1. 25 cents per prisoner, per day.

There was, in fact, a short period of time when hammer teams and steam drills worked side by side. Nelson uses company records to show the Lewis tunnel in Virginia is the one where John Henry must have met his death, not the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia, as is commonly believed.


“Despite the seemingly heroic tale of John Henry’s death, he was just one of many convicts who died with their hammers in their hands. The Virginia Penitentiary workers died at the rate of approximately 10 percent per year through the entire decade of the 1870s. Even after the survivors were transferred back to the relatively safer work of constructing the James River and Kanawha Canal near Richmond, they continued to die, their lungs still filled with the silica dust they had inhaled in the tunnel. As early as 1880 most of the convicts who worked on the tunnel would have been gone.” (p. 89)

Did you know track-liners were the first to use the term “rock and roll?” They always worked in pairs. Rock was for the hammer blow, roll was for the man who adjusted the drill between blows. Track-liners built on the tradition of enslaved people in singing work songs that were literally tools of survival: keep the rhythm or be worked to death.

So the real song of John Henry was no lively ballad at all. The line about “sitting on his mammy’s knee” comes from Welsh miners. The real song of John Henry was a work song—a warning. It was a way of remembering the truth, of mourning and hoping at once.


This old hammer, huh
Killed John Henry
Killed my brother, huh
Won’t kill me

Take this hammer, huh
Hammer to the captain
Tell him I’m gone, huh
Tell him I’m gone

This old hammer, huh
Killed John Henry
Killed my brother, huh
Won’t kill me.

The real life of John Henry embodies so much of what’s shoved under the rug in our collective memory—the ghost of slavery, the backlash to progress, the bloody trail of money, labor and law. It’s not a pretty story, like the myth, but it’s ours.

“Radical Reconstruction had briefly promised to make the South into something other than a plantation society dominated by planters. While John Henry worked…[at] the Lewis Tunnel, his brothers and sisters had made dramatic plans to change the South. For the first time, black men had elected their own representatives to the state legislature and to Congress….

For former slaves, in and out of the legislature, the convict lease system held a particular terror. Workers in chains, abused by guards, threatened with rifles: All were chilling reminders of slavery days. In the Virginia Assembly one afternoon in 1873 William Gilliam, a black legislator from Prince George County [where John Henry was arrested] stood up to describe the terrors of the whipping post and asked if the commonwealth could stand such a stain on its reputation. The entire hall grew quiet. Reconstruction was a revolutionary time. Black men served on juries, voted, built their own churches, made their marriages legal, used the court system, and lived their lives as national citizens. They held onto some of these rights, but were stripped of others before John Henry had even entered the Lewis Tunnel.

In 1867 a group of capitalist adventurers like C.P. Huntington, men with tight connections to the War Department, acquired, for nearly nothing, most of the state-supported railway systems in the South…. White Democrats took over the statehouses from black and white Unionists, calling the trade a fair one: loss of all Southern state railroads for planters’ return to power.

….Traces of the bargain were visible everywhere. A newly Redeemed South became home to the first national, multidivisional corporations in the world: the Southern Railway, the Norfolk & Western, and the Chesapeake & Ohio…. The new corporations lay at the spine of the South, serving the region’s imperial centers. Critics called the new railway system “the Octopus.”

At first, Democrats praised the railways, but every trade costs something: While the railway systems blossomed, Southern states withered on the vine…. Public schools, most erected after the war, were quickly impoverished…. Every state institution shrank to pay the railroad debt and keep state taxes low, pulling black and white Southerners in a downward spiral. Penitentiaries filled to the bursting point.

…While the C&O board told investors and bondholders that the line would increase through traffic to the West, Huntington, his board members and railway contractors quietly bought up coal lands to resell at a steep markup to private mining companies. With the mountains punctured, West Virginia could be mined for its burnable wealth. As early as 1875, little chunks of the state entered coal cars, bit by bit. They were bound, like the railway passengers who heard about John Henry’s death, for the East and the West.” (pp. 99-101)

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