I have recently realized that in Scott Nelson's work on John Henry (JH), he presents no specific evidence that his candidate, John William Henry (JWH), was ever *at* Lewis Tunnel, where Nelson supposes that he died.
Nelson cites documentation to the effect that JWH was leased to work for the C & O and taken from the VA penitentiary for that purpose on December 1, 1868. JWH could have been taken to any site along the route of the C & O under construction in VA. Eventually, Nelson seems to believe, all the C & O laborers wound up at Lewis Tunnel, where a big push was mounted in 1870. Well, maybe not *all* of them - there *were* those who escaped (a big problem, according to Nelson), died (not rare), or were returned to the VA pen on account of illness (many). Nelson assumes that JWH was not one of the escapees, dead, or sick.
Nelson assumes further that JWH died at Lewis Tunnel. The only evidence for this is that he disappeared from prison records after 1873 except for a pencilled notation, "Transferred."
Nelson assumes further that JWH's corpse was sent back to the VA pen for burial. The evidence for this is an interpretation of the lease contract that is, at best, ambiguous on this point. It seems to me that it would have been pretty expensive to ship dead bodies from Lewis Tunnel to the VA pen (time, fuel, casket, ice, etc.) - I think it highly improbable.
Nelson assumes further that JWH was a steel driver. For this, he presents no evidence at all.
Nelson assumes further that JWH was involved with some kind of contest with a steam drill (or with steam drills). For this, he presents no evidence at all.
Nelson also supposes that Cal Evans witnessed John Henry's work and death at Lewis Tunnel, that he brought stories of John Henry from Lewis to Big Bend Tunnel, and that the ballad was made at Big Bend (making it the scene of the action). However, Evans was never *at* Lewis Tunnel (according to the accounts of him given by Johnson and Chappell). Further, Evans himself denied knowing anything about John Henry except what he had heard from others (Johnson, Chappell).
Overall, Nelson's reasoning seems to go something like this:
(1) JH died on the C & O because part of tradition says so.
(2) JH died at a tunnel bored with steam drills because otherwise there could not have been a contest.
(3) Lewis Tunnel was the only C & O tunnel bored with steam drills, as far as we know.
(4) Therefore JH died at Lewis Tunnel.
(5) JWH was leased to work on the C & O.
(6) JWH died on the C & O because his name disappeared from records.
(7) JWH's corpse was taken back to the VA pen because a provision of the lease contract required it.
(8) Therefore JWH was JH because his name is right; the ballad sometimes says that JH was buried in sand at a white house near a RR; and a mass grave with sand put into it, a white house, and a RR were at the VA pen.
Please chew on this, logicians. I know what I think of it, but I could always use a little help.
Note, in connection with item (2), that there is testimony that a steam drill was brought to Big Bend Tunnel for a trial. This allowed Johnson and Chappell to support Big Bend as the John Henry site.