Also posted to BALLAD-L and PRE-WAR-BLUES:
At the risk of sounding something like the Jesus'-tomb people who have been getting a lot of television exposure the last couple of days, I pose some John Henry statistics. Archaeologists have pointed out that the names found in the tomb were very common at that place and time. The Jesus people have countered with probabilities from statisticians that make it sound very unlikely that this particular cluster of names would have appeared more than once. I'm skeptical of the Jesus people's claims but I find it hard to dismiss their statitics (if they are correct).
(1) C. C. Spencer, a self-proclaimed eye-witness to John Henry's death, wrote (ca 1927) to Guy Johnson that he had died on September 20, 1882. His year has to be wrong - the only year the railroad through Dunnavant, AL, was under construction in September was 1887, the year of John Henry's death given by Glendora Cannon Cummings, who claimed (ca 1927) that her had uncle witnessed John Henry's death. Harvey Hicks (Evington, VA, ca 1930) gave Louis Chappell a version of "John Henry" containing the line, "John Henry died on a Tuesday." September 20, 1887, *was* a Tuesday.
For a particular date, the probability matching the day of the week with a random guess is 1/7, 14%. Thus, the probability that the match that is found is not accidental is 86%.
If it is not accidental, what scenario, other than that it is truth, could account for the agreement. The only such scenario I can think of is that an untrue story including the date and day of the week made the rounds. It is hard for me to imagine how an untrue story could have originated. It is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such a detail.
My conclusion: From this, it is 86% probable that the historic John Henry died on Tuesday, September 20, 1887.
(2) Testifying some 40 years or so after the alleged events, Spencer (Salt Lake City, Utah), Cummings (Lansing, Michigan), and C. S. Farquharson (Jamaica) all gave the names of two of John Henry's bosses as "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay." In fact, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western in 1886-88. As such he was in charge of the construction of the extension from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham.
What is the probability that these agreements are accidental? I can only place it at 0%.
What is the probability that an untrue story about John Henry, containing the names "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay," made the rounds? Again, it is hard for me to imagine how such an untrue story would originate. Also again, it is even harder for me to imagine why an untrue story would include such details as these names.
My conclusion: It is nearly 100% probable that the association of John Henry with "Dabner"/"Dabney" and "Shea"/"Shay" is historically correct. (I have not identified "Shea"/"Shay." There is, however, a candidate in the Birmingham City Directory.)
Two of the three people giving these names also place John Henry at Dunnavant, AL, at the time of his death. One of them gives John Henry's surname as "Dabner" and states that he was a slave to a "Dabner" and that he was from Holly Springs, Mississippi. In fact, Captain Dabney lived in Crystal Springs, Mississippi, and his father had owned a slave, Henry, who was a teenager during the Civil War. A Henry Dabney/Dabner, born 1850, appears in the 1870 and 1880 censuses for Copiah County (Crystal Springs), MS, as farming. Consistent with an 1887 death, he is not found in later censuses (the 1890 census is not available because it burned).
None of the above is new - it is all in my 2002 paper, along with other evidence.
My present question is
To what extent am I fooling myself in thinking that this evidence makes it highly probable that the Alabama scenario is correct?
In the Chronicle article by Jennifer Howard, Nelson is quoted as likening the Alabama scenario to Intelligent Design. What do you think?