What caused the death of John Henry?
Here are some possible clues.
************** C. C. Spencer, who claimed to have been an eyewitness, said that JH collapsed at the end of the day (it was an all-day event) and was revived by throwing water on him, at which point he said, "Send for my wife. I am blind and dying." At least one collected version of "John Henry" (from Burl McPeak, Fords Branch, KY, obtained by Chappell) speaks of "the place where John Henry went blind."
Leon R. Harris' version (Johnson, 90-95) says
Sun shined hot an' burnin,' Wer'n't no breeze at-tall, Sweat ran down like watah down a hill, That day John Henry let his hammah fall.
John Henry, O, John Henry! Blood am runnin' red! Fall right down with his hammah to th' ground, Says, "I've beat him to th' bottom but I'm dead."
Onah L. Spencer's version (Johnson, 95-99) says
He broke a rib in his lef' han' side, And his intrels fell on the groun'.
J. D. Williams' version (Johnson, 103-105) says
He stretched out on the ground And said to his friends around, "And I was the best, but I am going home to rest, That steam hammer is done broke me down."
Several versions have John Henry saying, before he died, "I've got a mighty roaring in my head." Or something similar.
Many versions have JH saying, "Give me a cool drink of water 'fo I die."
W. A. Bates (Johnson, 118-119):
Till that hot summer day he died
Thomas Watkins (Johnson, 121-122):
W'en de sun commence to shine and de steam fall down
Jesse Sparks (Chappell, 111):
The rock it was so tall and John Henry so small He fell from his hammer and he died.
Sam Jones (Chappell, 112-113): "I'm going to my shanty number nine to take a lie down, Please take good care of my wife and child, Brother Bill, I did beat the steam drill down."
J. P. Jumper (Chappell, 113):
"I feel a pain in my heart, Before this steel drill shall beat me down, I'll hammer my poor self to death."
Sallie Flannery (Chappell, 113):
"I can feel my muscles giving way."
W. S. Barnett (Chappell, 114):
He drove so hard that he broke his heart, He laid down his hammer and he died.
Lubie Freeman (Chappell, 126):
But when the poor boy laid down and died
A few versions have JH being killed by his partner. One story says his captain killed him after they got back to Mississippi. ***************
I found a physician, Dr. Harris, who was willing to look over these items and comment. His finding: Most likely ventricular rupture - as the Barnett version says, "he broke his heart."
This came as a surprise to me. I had assumed that heat stroke was most likely. Dr. Harris thinks that ventricular rupture fits better, although it could have been the rupture of some other "great vessel." Ventricular rupture can follow a heart attack. As far as I can tell, it usually occurs in older people, and I think that John Henry was probably under 40, but perhaps the hard life of a black southern laborer and his likely grease-laden diet could have predisposed him. Further, many versions of the ballad tell how "Polly Ann drove steel like a man" while John Henry was sick. I'd always taken that to be a commentary on Polly Ann, or on John Henry's preferences in women, but now I wonder if the more significant aspect might be that John Henry had been sick. Perhaps he had had an earlier heart attack, from which he recovered, but with some dead tissue and a weakened heart. Then, perhaps days or a few weeks later, his great effort doomed him.
According to Dr. Harris, blindness could be a consequence of low blood pressure. A ventricular rupture could have put John Henry into "instant hypovolemic shock." Lying down could have partially restored his blood pressure, enough for him to speak. Dr. Harris thinks that John Henry bled out.
Barnett's version, quoted above, says John Henry "broke his heart." Jumper's version says he felt a pain in his heart - perhaps this was an earlier heart attack. Flannery's "I can feel my muscles giving way" describes weakness that could result. A perceived roaring sound is another symptom of low blood pressure.
Dr. Harris does not think that the story that "his intrels fell on the groun'" is realistic.