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Origins: John Henry

DigiTrad:
HENRY THE ACCOUNTANT
JOHN HENRY
JOHN HENRY 2


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Q (Frank Staplin) 10 Sep 06 - 01:45 PM
GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama 10 Sep 06 - 04:26 AM
Q (Frank Staplin) 01 Sep 05 - 03:21 PM
GUEST,coosa tunnel 01 Sep 05 - 02:10 PM
GUEST,Rebecca 02 Apr 03 - 08:29 PM
George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca 24 Aug 02 - 10:49 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 23 Aug 02 - 01:37 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 21 Aug 02 - 05:08 PM
GUEST 21 Aug 02 - 03:08 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 20 Aug 02 - 02:05 PM
RB Haynes 19 Aug 02 - 03:58 PM
NicoleC 19 Aug 02 - 03:21 PM
RB Haynes 19 Aug 02 - 02:34 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 19 Aug 02 - 10:38 AM
GUEST,RBH, sapengro@onebox.com 18 Aug 02 - 11:31 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 15 Aug 02 - 03:31 PM
NicoleC 14 Aug 02 - 05:21 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 14 Aug 02 - 03:56 PM
Blues=Life 12 Aug 02 - 08:14 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 11 Aug 02 - 01:57 PM
Art Thieme 16 Jul 02 - 12:51 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 15 Jul 02 - 04:30 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Jun 02 - 11:27 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 23 Apr 02 - 01:53 PM
Lonesome EJ 23 Apr 02 - 01:57 AM
Art Thieme 22 Apr 02 - 11:49 PM
Lonesome EJ 22 Apr 02 - 07:52 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 22 Apr 02 - 07:21 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 22 Apr 02 - 06:12 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 11 Apr 02 - 05:54 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 11 Apr 02 - 05:27 PM
George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca 18 Mar 02 - 05:54 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 22 Jan 02 - 04:41 PM
NicoleC 21 Jan 02 - 04:42 PM
GUEST 21 Jan 02 - 02:27 PM
NicoleC 17 Jan 02 - 06:38 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 17 Jan 02 - 05:14 PM
garst@chem.uga.edu 10 Jan 02 - 03:21 PM
NicoleC 10 Jan 02 - 01:58 PM
GUEST 10 Jan 02 - 11:24 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 09 Jan 02 - 10:40 AM
NicoleC 08 Jan 02 - 04:12 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 08 Jan 02 - 01:53 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 26 Dec 01 - 05:36 PM
Luke 26 Dec 01 - 08:46 AM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 25 Dec 01 - 09:03 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 25 Dec 01 - 01:18 AM
GUEST 24 Dec 01 - 10:38 PM
Dicho (Frank Staplin) 24 Dec 01 - 04:21 PM
GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu 24 Dec 01 - 03:21 PM
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Subject: RE: Origins: John Henry
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 01:45 PM

With Rummy, Chummy and Dummy providing the example, 'creative' history is becoming the norm.


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Subject: RE: Origins: John Henry
From: GUEST,Don C resident of Leeds, Alabama
Date: 10 Sep 06 - 04:26 AM

It's been a while (3 years), since I first expressed my opinions on this subject; but I see in some recent articles in the B'ham News (09/03/06) and the Leeds News (09/07/06) that the "alleged" Leeds connection to the legend of John Henry is making a return engagement. The subject of John Henry initially appeared to some wishful thinking folks in Leeds several years ago in the form of a potential movie, tourist moneymaker (Talcott, WV was making tourist $$$) and it was something that "would put the city of Leeds on the map."   The current John Henry in Leeds connection is to be portrayed as a future significant historical event (All-star movie to follow). Its interesting to note that contrary to modern thought, neither history nor truth have any direct relationship to the proposed "John Henry Days" event; or at least in Leeds they don't. It appears that in Leeds you are free to create your history as you need it; forget about any truth or facts, bring on the fiction. All you need to do is officially declare a historical occasion based on some half-truths, convoluted suppositions and hearsay; provide some entertainment and games, invite some vendors and you are in business…let the tourist money roll in. The bases for any particular historical event does not have to be real, factual or actually have ever existed.

Oh well, you create your fun however you can and I suspect the city needs all the revenue it can collect from whatever sources, after all it has been extremely successful at going into mega-debt in anticipation of the "sometime" in the future Bass Pro Shop. At this rate I would expect that there would be a grand opening of "John Henry Land" before the grand opening of the BPS. If you build it, they (the suckers) will come.


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Subject: RE: Origins: John Henry
From: Q (Frank Staplin)
Date: 01 Sep 05 - 03:21 PM

Shelby County, *Norfolk Southern RR, 15 miles east of Birmingham, built in 1895.
* old C & W


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Subject: RE: Origins: John Henry
From: GUEST,coosa tunnel
Date: 01 Sep 05 - 02:10 PM

i live in leeds alabama, where is this tunnel?


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,Rebecca
Date: 02 Apr 03 - 08:29 PM

Hey you never answered my question on what kind of things sailors had to have and/or do on a boat.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca
Date: 24 Aug 02 - 10:49 AM

Part two started by Art at Origins of John Henry - Part 2


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 23 Aug 02 - 01:37 PM

A synopsis of my recent (2002) Tributaries article has been posted on the John Henry pages at

http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/index.html

It summarizes what I consider to be the most important evidence, but it is much less complete than the article itself.

An 1895 photograph of Coosa Mountain Tunnel is also posted (taken from my article) and a 1930 photograph of "John Henry's last steel drill," sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, will probably be posted there late next week, about August 30 or so, 2002.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 21 Aug 02 - 05:08 PM

RB Haynes

RB,

You should also contact wlb@vaix.net, who contributed at least one message to this forum. He knows something about a John Henry in the Big Bend area. It could be that your information matches up with his.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 21 Aug 02 - 03:08 PM

RB Haynes

RB,

If you have not already done so, I suggest that you contact Scott Nelson with your John Henry information. Scott is a history professor at the College of William and Mary. He has suggested that the "white house" of some versions of "John Henry" refers to a building at the Richmon Pen. He maintains a special interest in John Henry at Big Bend and continues to work on this subject. He might receive your information with more enthusiasm than me.

Contact information can be found at http://history.wm.edu/srnels.html

I find Scott's suggestion about the "white house" to be reasonable - I've seen such a reference in at least one other song text (not "John Henry") in which it is clear that a penitentiary is meant. However, I suspect that this is an intrusion into "John Henry" from that other song, or another one yet, and not something of historic significance in connection with John Henry.

As you can construe from my other posts here, I strongly suspect that the further pursuit of the legendary John Henry at Big Bend will not be fruitful. I believe that the data of Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell come close to ruling out the possibity that John Henry did his thing at Big Bend. This does not correspond, of course, to their conclusions, but my reading of the data in their books leads me to the position that their data do not support their conclusions, which represent wishful thinking.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 20 Aug 02 - 02:05 PM

"As a subset of all the John Henrys, I would think that a man of the right race, right age in the right place at the right time would be a very small subset, especially given that the population of the area was (at the time) and continues to be small...

"Nicole, I was just responding to what seemed an extraordinarily quick dismissal of this possibly relevant information, and was sensing (perhaps incorrectly) what seemed like an agenda overriding the natural scientific curiousity which I would have anticipated. In any case, I believe I have found professional interest elsewhere and will post again if anything comes of it." - RB Haynes

I do not rely, for information on the frequency of the name, "John Henry," on the quotation that I gave earlier, from Uncle Beverly Standard. However, Uncle Beverly lived in the Big Bend Community and was speaking largely of "John Henry"'s "of the right race, right age in the right place at the right time."

As I see it, the chances are slim that the particular John Henry for which RB has information is the legendary John Henry. Even so, it remains possible, and every lead that is followed up to some conclusion is a significant contribution to knowledge of the subject, even when the result is negative.

RB should follow his lead, and I would be as pleased as anyone if it should prove out.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: RB Haynes
Date: 19 Aug 02 - 03:58 PM

Nicole, I was just responding to what seemed an extraordinarily quick dismissal of this possibly relevant information, and was sensing (perhaps incorrectly) what seemed like an agenda overriding the natural scientific curiousity which I would have anticipated. In any case, I believe I have found professional interest elsewhere and will post again if anything comes of it.

Thanks for the feedback! RBH


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 19 Aug 02 - 03:21 PM

RB, John has been posting a considerable amount of research on this topic to this forum for over a year, and has published an article outlining his arguments in more detail. I'd consider his work "serious research," but you may want to review his published work before you make up your mind. (See above for details on how to get one.)

Personally, I'm rooting for WV :) But I really feel that the story of John Henry is probably fiction or mostly fiction, but a great song. Man/animal vs. machine was a common theme of the era, and it still resonates with us today.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: RB Haynes
Date: 19 Aug 02 - 02:34 PM

*******Information like this could be valuable, but until some further connection is made it is hard to know what to do with it. There is no shortage of men named "John Henry." As Uncle Beverly Standard put it to Guy Johnson (quoted from Johnson's book): "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henrys."*******

How much information is there about Afro-American men named John Henry of the correct age, living (and perhaps born) within "walking distance" of the C&0 tunnel project? What further connection needs to be "made" before something further is done with it?

Pardon me if I am wrong, but I don't think we are talking about "John Henrys" of Finnish extraction living in Nome, Alaska in 1923.

As a subset of all the John Henrys, I would think that a man of the right race, right age in the right place at the right time would be a very small subset, especially given that the population of the area was (at the time) and continues to be small.

The Will names other slaves who were likely family members. Again, many families of freed slaves remain in the area and may have knowledge through oral history, etc.

When I started family research in Monroe, I did not expect to find much, but again, so little has changed and so many peoples families have been there continuously since the 1700s, that I found an amazing amount of oral history, original documents, buildings, etc.

Again, any serious John Henry researchers out there?


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 19 Aug 02 - 10:38 AM

GUEST,RBH, sapengro@onebox.com, writes:

******* In a codicil to my great, great, great grandfather's will, dated November 22, 1854, he made the following bequest to one of his daughters: "Secondly I desire that JOHN HENRY my yellow boy go to ------- -------- my daughter in lieu of Charles who is now dead."

Given that this John Henry was a boy in 1854, putting him in the correct age range, and living about 7 miles from where the tunnel was to be built 16 years later, and that his name is "John Henry," (not Henry or John, or rumored to have been) I had expected that I would have found this information had been made available and its merits discussed. *******

Information like this could be valuable, but until some further connection is made it is hard to know what to do with it. There is no shortage of men named "John Henry." As Uncle Beverly Standard put it to Guy Johnson (quoted from Johnson's book): "Which John Henry do you want to know about? I've known so many John Henrys."


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,RBH, sapengro@onebox.com
Date: 18 Aug 02 - 11:31 PM

I am really not interested in analyzing the man, the song, etc. to death. I am, however, interested in knowing whether or not the story is true (if that can be known), and only because of certain information that I recently found in doing my family genealogy.

I came to this site in search of information on John Henry and what I have found is of interest. However, I hope that after I have been dead for a hundred years, people that are not even of my acquaintence don't decide to move me to Alabama (with all due respect to Alabama).

For the record, noting the above discussion re: "Eastern" Virginia, although the area where the C&O tunnel is located (Summers County) is in West Virginia, it is an area which was almost entirely allied with "Eastern" Virginia and the Confederacy. The original proposal for the State of WV did not include several border counties, including Monroe, Greenbrier and Pocahontas. Summers County was not created until 1780, out of parts of Monroe, Greenbrier, Fayette and Mercer Counties. I believe that where the tunnel lies was within Monroe Co. from the time of its formation in 1799 until Summers was formed in 1870. So the area in question was "Eastern" in its politics, plantation economy, customs and allegiance. It was different in that it was a "small" plantation style system and the slave-holders generally had fewer acres in production, fewer slaves and they often worked side by side. Apparently, after emancipation many ex-slaves stayed in the community. This may be because it had not been ravaged by war (although economically devastated), in the small plantation system there was often a personal relationship between the slaveholders and slaves that persisted after emancipation (I am aware of many instances of this in the area). My point is that after emmancipation there was not a general exodus of the black population as there was in certain parts of the South, rather, they stayed, lived and worked.

I have numerous family lines in Monroe County (including what is now Summers. My great, grandfather was from a Plantation, which spanned the Greenbrier 4 miles north of the tunnel opening at Pence Springs. My great-grandmother was from a Plantation in the Indian Creek Valley. The plantation house, a big "white house" was 7.5 miles from the tunnel opening but the lands once ran very close to the Greenbrier River and to the tunnel.

In a codicil to my great, great, great grandfather's will, dated November 22, 1854, he made the following bequest to one of his daughters: "Secondly I desire that JOHN HENRY my yellow boy go to ------- -------- my daughter in lieu of Charles who is now dead.

Given that this John Henry was a boy in 1854, putting him in the correct age range, and living about 7 miles from where the tunnel was to be built 16 years later, and that his name is "John Henry," (not Henry or John, or rumored to have been)I had expected that I would have found this information had been made available and its merits discussed.

I had also heard that John Henry was said to have been light skinned. Although it appears that he has been, it also appears he has been said to be dark, white, etc. I am not sure what anyones take of that issue is.

Pardon my not disclosing the family names and the name of the daughter to whom John Henry was bequeathed, but I would really initially like to give this information, copy of the Will, etc. only ot someone who is a serious researcher. In case there is someone appropriate who is interested I will be as helpful as possible.

I realize that this might not pan out (i.e., not "The" John Henry), but after reading all of the posts, I think it is more compelling than 99% of the information out there.

Oh, one last thing -- the "White House." I don't know if it was CALLED the "White House," but the plantation house was a big, white house. I also know that it was not unusual post-emancipation in Monroe County for free, ex-slaves to continue to have burial "rights" in the burial grounds of their former masters. Many old Monroe families, black and white, still reside in Monroe and many have the same surnames. It is a place changed little by time.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 15 Aug 02 - 03:31 PM

"All of those names are so common, as is John, that it's hard to use them as evidence, though." - Nicole

Yeah, it isn't, of itself, very strong evidence.

However, "Maggie D," if that what Neal sings, has special meaning, given that "Margaret Dabney" is the wife of record of Henry Dabney of Copiah County, MS.

Also, "Mary Magdalene" and "Maggie D" occur very rarely in the "John Henry" tradition. You might think that this would argue against "Margaret" as the original name. However, the oral ballad tradition is, I believe, follow a law much like Gresham's, "bad money drives out good." The "'Gresham's' ballad law" would be something like "bad facts drive out good," meaning that incorrect facts tend to replace correct ones. Part of what happens is that facts from lots of cases, which are woven into good lines, spread themselves out over all of the ballads.

Anyhow, the implication is that rare occurrences may be more likely to be correct than common ones, once a ballad has been transmitted through oral tradition for a while.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 14 Aug 02 - 05:21 PM

On the name issue, common nicknames in the last century for Margaret include: Maggie, Marg, Margie, Peggy, Daisy, Meg, Midge, Peg, Peggy, Rita, Margery, Marge, Margie

"Magdalene" is another form of Margaret, and shares many of the same nicknames.

"Polly" was a common nickname for Mary

Someone named Mary Margaret or Mary Magdalene (both VERY common names for girls from about 1700 to 1950) could be referred to by most of those names listed above. Nor was it uncommon for record keepers to refer to the same person by different nicknames names on different documents. (And different spellings are ubiquitous.)

All of those names are so common, as is John, that it's hard to use them as evidence, though.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 14 Aug 02 - 03:56 PM

I agree with "Blues=Life" that knowledge of the historical John Henry "will not change the power of the song one iota" and I appreciate the sentiment, "Just sing the damn song." I can't tell how many times I've seen some long-winded person get up to lead at a Sacred Harp singing and have their remarks terminated by a polite version of "Shut up and sing!"

John Henry is a powerful legend that stands on its on and will keep going no matter what. I've done quite a bit of wondering what the impact of firmly documenting John Henry in Alabama would be on the West Virginia people. In a way, it would rain on their parade, sort of. But if we recall that their investment is in the *legend,* not the facts, then finding John Henry in Alabama would be irrelevant to their celebrations. If that day comes, I surely hope they will see it that way. Also, as I've noted earlier, I suspect that they really did have their own John Henry, John Henry Martin, a noted steel driver at Big Bend. I don't think that he raced a steam drill, however.

None of these considerations deter me from pursuing the historical John Henry. It is a real challenge, and an interesting one, just the kind of thing you might design for a retired chemist to do.

Are you ready for some wholesale speculation?

Here're some facts.

I've known of Neal Pattman since about 1970, when he worked as a one-armed janitor at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education here on the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens. I didn't know then that he was a bluesman. When Art Rosenbaum joined our faculty in 1976 or '77, he started immediately digging up local traditional musicians, and he found Neal, blowing his harmonica and singing. Since then Neal has become pretty well known on the international blues scene.

I attended a Neal Pattman concert last night. As he said, he usually includes "John Henry" because it was the first song he ever learned from his father. As usual, his version is flexible. The weight of John Henry's hammer can vary from singing to singing as can the selection of verses. Neal always sings about driving "them steels" and not letting "another man beat my time" (rather than the "steam drill"). Anyhow, last night he included the verse about John Henry's woman/wife who "drove steel like a man" when John Henry was sick.

In most versions you hear nowadays, John Henry's woman/wife is "Polly Ann." In about 1927, however, Leon Harris, a collector of John Henryana from Moline, Illinois, stated that "Lucy" was the only name for John Henry's woman/wife that he had never heard in a "John Henry" song.

Both "Polly Ann" and "Lucy" strike me as likely commonplace replacements for an earlier, perhaps less "romantic" or singable name.

In addition to these, one finds among the 59 versions of the "John Henry" ballad collected and published by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell the following names: Julie Ann, Mary Magdalene, Mary Ann, Ida Red, Sary Ann, Martha Ann. Last night Neal Pattman sang something like "Maggadee," maybe "Maggie D," perhaps? I'll try to find out from him what he thinks he sings.

Anyhow, if it's not "Maggie D" its something much like it.

Henry Dabney, black, b 1850 in Mississippi, married Margaret Foston on November 4, 1869, in Copiah County, Mississippi.

Speculation: "Maggie" was Margaret's nickname. To distinguish her from other "Maggies," she was called "Maggie D."

"Maggie D" appeared in the earliest versions of the "John Henry" ballad. Neal Pattman preserves it. Oral tradition led to changes like the following.

Maggie D -> Magdalene -> Mary Magdalene -> Mary Ann -> Polly Ann -> Julie Ann, Sary Ann, Martha Ann

"Ida Red" is likely a transfer from the song/fiddle tune of that name.

This adds a little bit to the plausibility that Henry Dabney was the historic John Henry.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Blues=Life
Date: 12 Aug 02 - 08:14 AM

Fascinating thread. Totally useless, but fascinating. You can "ivory tower" a song to death, you know. Did John Henry really exist? WHO CARES? It will not change the power of the song one iota. This song has lasted for years because it touches the listeners with true power, on a primal level. NOT because JH was a myth or a real person. Because we can identify with the good fight, and the underdog, and the victory, and the cost. Now I remember why I left academe:

"A man ain't nothing but a man." (I wish I had written that.)

"I am trying to find a fundamental difference between my speculation and other, more legitimate kinds of interpretation. The only distinction I can come up with is that the units/objects of analysis are, in my case, more abstract than in other cases." (Thank God, I didn't write this.)

Just sing the damn song.

Peace,

Blues


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 11 Aug 02 - 01:57 PM

I have just read in Letitia Dabney Miller's memoirs (found in several libraries, but I consulted them at the McCain Library at the University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg) that a slave named Henry was a boy in their family during the Civil War. Letitia was Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney's youngest sibling. Thus, Henry belonged to Philip Augustine Lee Dabney, their father. This Henry could be the John Henry of legend. If so, Captain Dabney would have known him when he was a child. Captain Dabney would have been about 15 years older.

John Garst


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Art Thieme
Date: 16 Jul 02 - 12:51 AM

Mr. Garst,

This is fascinating.

Art


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 15 Jul 02 - 04:30 PM

I've just learned that Tributaries, Vol V, containing my article, "Chasing John Henry," is not yet out. It is expected to be shipped from Canada to the Alabama Folklife Association on July 17, 2002. Assuming that this takes no more than a week, it should be available by the end of July.

Art Rosembaum pointed out to me a song published by Dorothy Scarborough in "On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs" (Harvard, 1925), p 221.

John Henry's Dead

John Henry's dead, And de las' words he said, "Never let your honey Have her way."

'Way back, 'way back, 'Way back in Alabama, 'way back.

(The two other verses are not about John Henry.)

This verse is often found as "Georgia Buck" (The Georgia buck is dead, And the last words he said....) Even so, the association here of John Henry with Alabama could be significant.

The version of "John Henry" published by Zora Neale Hurston in Mules and Men contains a reference to "Georgy skin." This points to the deep south (not West Virginia).

Individually, these are very weak points. Even so, they add to the dozen or so other features of various versions of "John Henry" that support Alabama over West Virginia as the scene of John Henry's race with a steam drill.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Jun 02 - 11:27 AM

I think that my article,

"Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi"

has now appeared. It presents evidence and arguments supporting the hypothesis that John Henry raced a steam drill in Alabama, near Leeds, in 1887.

I haven't seen the journal itself, but I have received off-prints. It is in

Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association Issue No. 5 2002

The price printed on the back cover is $10, and the WWW site says there is a $2.50 postage and handling charge.

The Alabama Folklife Association 410 North Hull Street Montgomery, AL 36104 (334) 242-3601 FAX (334) 269-9098

Ordering instructions are given at

http://www.alabamafolklife.org/AFApublication.htm

and there appears to be an on-line, credit-card option. However, Issue No. 5 of Tributaries is not yet listed on this web page.

This issue also contains

The Life and Death of Pioneer Bluesman Butler "String Beans" May (Doug Seroff and Lynn Abbott)

Butler County Blues (Kevin Nutt)

Tracking Down a Legend: The "Jaybird" Coleman Story (James Patrick Cather)

A Life of the Blues (Willie Earl King, with photo essay by Axel Kustner)

Livingston, Alabama, Blues: The Significance of Vera Ward Hall (Jerrilyn McGregory)


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 23 Apr 02 - 01:53 PM

The question arises, "What is speculation?" Is it anything that isn't documented? What type of documentation is necessary?

Suppose a witness says "xyz." Suppose that "yz" is independently documented. Is "x" then speculation?

I consider "x" in this case to be supported by evidence, albeit indirect.

This is the nature of the evidence that places John Henry in AL in 1887.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Lonesome EJ
Date: 23 Apr 02 - 01:57 AM

Art...LOL!


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Art Thieme
Date: 22 Apr 02 - 11:49 PM

When John H. was around they didn't have cholesterol, but if they'd had it, they would've fried it.

Art


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Lonesome EJ
Date: 22 Apr 02 - 07:52 PM

This really points out how John Henry and others like him might have benefitted from a diet low in cholesterol, and a regular exercise regimen that included both high and low impact aerobic exercising. No doubt swinging his hammer gave JH enormous upper-body strength and high lung capacity, but had he taken advantage of the dietary information readily at hand from the many asian railworkers who no doubt worked in close proximity to him and adopted a diet high in vegetables, protein, and long-chain sugars, his longevity could have extended his life well into his fifties or sixties. Then we might be singing

"Ah cain't give the grandkids no piggyback ride
'Cause dat hammer put arthritis in my back Lawd, Lawd
Dat hammer done put an achin' in my back"


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 22 Apr 02 - 07:21 PM

You, too.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 22 Apr 02 - 06:12 PM

*From: Dicho *Date: 11-Apr-02 - 05:54 PM

*Still piling speculation on speculation.

Informed speculation, though.

When you get the real answers, let us know.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 11 Apr 02 - 05:54 PM

Still piling speculation on speculation.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 11 Apr 02 - 05:27 PM

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.

and

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.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: George Seto - af221@chebucto.ns.ca
Date: 18 Mar 02 - 05:54 AM

Here's a new thread adding fuel to the theories about John Henry

John Henry's Origin Solved?


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 22 Jan 02 - 04:41 PM

For the record, the Leeds family does not claim to be descended from "John." They are descended from "John"'s mucker co-worker.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 21 Jan 02 - 04:42 PM

""...the late-1800's are pretty easy to document." Wow! Have you tried finding documentation of particular ex-slaves in Alabama or Mississippi at that time? If you know how, please give me some tips. "

To document the lineage of a particular family to that time period would be fairly easy, however to document a particular person out of the blue would be MUCH harder. In this case, documenting the genealogy of this family might point to clues as to their John's identity. I think it unlikely that their John is THE John Henry -- family tales are rarely accurate, but it's a lead and it might offer some light on the subject. Maybe it's not really their ancestor, but someone who lived nearby and later got claimed or confused to be their ancestor.

I'd be very careful to go backwards from the existing family to look for clues. The census' from 1880 onward are MUCH more useful, and it will help develop a pattern of the neighboring familes and who might be allied to whom. The 1880 census was pretty thorough, and didn't miss as many people as some of the earlier ones did. However, I think your best bet in researching a former-slave population is to dig into church records, which are more likely to be carefully kept and recorded than the official ones. Providing, of course, that their church kept records; not all of them had reliable access to a literate person to keep those records.

I haven't done any research in Alabama, but I have done a lot of research in rural farming communities, and they present a unique set of challenges, mostly because of the lack of reliable official records. I understand Alabama is particularly poor in this department. You really have to understand the whole local history and the ways families intermingled to nail down some of the harder subjects, simply researching one family doesn't seem to work.

I'd be happy to spare the other Catters the boredom of a genealogy research how-to discussion :) I may not know Alabama, but I do know a lot of places to look for info. Feel free to email me with specific research questions, and I will see what I can dig up as possible sources for you. Eventually, you may need to refer the question to a professional genealogist who specializes in the area and in African-American ancestry, but you should cover as many bases as you can before going that route, and keep it well documented so that nothing gets repeated. It's a tough field, but not impossible.

-Nicole nicolecastle@NOSPAM.prodigy.net (Take the "NOSPAM." out, of course.)


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 21 Jan 02 - 02:27 PM

I'm sure you're correct about muckers' and drivers' relative pay scales. "John" didn't work as a mucker, he was a steel driver. The ancestor of the family recalling "John" worked as a mucker.

There is no other evidence that their "John" is John Henry, but how many different men can win all of the steel-driving contests in a particular locale? F. P. Barker, of Birmingham, AL, writing in in the late '20s, place John Henry at Coosa Mountain, AL, in the 1880s and said that John Henry was the "champion of the world with a hammer." This fits with the story about "John."

"...the late-1800's are pretty easy to document." Wow! Have you tried finding documentation of particular ex-slaves in Alabama or Mississippi at that time? If you know how, please give me some tips.

The closest I've gotten is to find a Henry Dabney in Copiah County, MS, in the 1870 U.S. census. That's the right county, where Crystal Springs is. He was born in 1850, making him 37 years old in 1887. I think it possible that he could have been John Henry, but that's as far as I've gotten. I've also found from the 1860 U.S. census slave schedules that there were a number of John-Henry candidates (right sex, age) at Burleigh plantation, owned by Captain Frederick Dabney's uncle Thomas, and two more at Raymond, owned by Captain Dabney's father Augustine, but these records don't give names. I need to find the records of Burleigh Plantation itself and the papers of Thomas, Augustine, and Frederick Dabney, but I suspect that these no longer exist.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 17 Jan 02 - 06:38 PM

Just playing devil's advocate --

Question: Would a man who wins all the local steel driving contests work as a mucker? Isn't the mucker a less-skilled, lower paying position? (Honestly, I don't know, and couldn't find the answer, but it makes some sense.)

Is there any genealogical proof that their John is John Henry Dabney? John is a very common name, but the late-1800's are pretty easy to document.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 17 Jan 02 - 05:14 PM

I've recently learned of a Leeds, AL, family that preserves stories of steel-driving contests at the time of the construction of the C&W there, 1887-88. Their ancestor, the original source of the stories, worked on the C&W construction as a mucker, whose job it is to haul off the rock debris after blasting. Steel-driving contests were recreational and, I would guess, betting events, similar to the contests of lumberjacks, log rolling, sawing, chopping, etc.

The family stories are not about "John Henry," and the members of the family have never connected the hero of their stories with John Henry, nor do they preserve any lore about a contest with a steam drill or the steel drivers' death.

They tell about "John." John was such a good steel driver that he won every contest he entered.

I think that this is valuable information because it shows no signs of being tainted by John Henry legends external to the family's experience.

I identify their "John" with John Henry Dabney, the legendary John Henry, and I regard their family lore as support for this identification.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 10 Jan 02 - 03:21 PM

"East Virginia" and "eastern Virginia" are a little bit different. For the post-Civil-War period, I'd bet on "East Virginia" as the designation of a state and "eastern Virginia" as pointing to a region within a state.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 10 Jan 02 - 01:58 PM

Guest,

I'm a Virginian, with lots of family WV, so I'm well aware of the history of the states :) Although I do meet a lot of folks with some very strange ideas about it!

I have seen pre-C.W. diaries and such that refer to people from the eastern mountains as being from "eastern Virginia." I can only guess at the reasons for such a distinction, but the concept of being from eastern VA definately predates the secession of WV, doesn't necessarily mean that portion of the country we now call Virginia, and is probably a very subjective distinction.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, a lot of people -- especially rural mountain people along the border -- didn't know which state they were in according to a legal map. The 1870 census very markedly shows this confusion.

Of course, none of this really pinpoints where JH was born or even where the event took place. I think the MS/AL arguments are pretty good. But I also think it's a mistake to assume that people were as aware of arbitrary political boundaries then as we are now in an era of free maps and "Welcome to West Virginia" signs. This is not to presume a lack of interest or intelligence, but a reflection of a time when "where" was defined by your neighbors, your church, this or that side of the mountain, and the most convenient county courthouse.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 10 Jan 02 - 11:24 AM

"A couple of different versions I've heard call him an 'East Virginian man' (Eastern West Virginia?)" - NicoleCastle

No. East Virginia is what we now call Virginia. Before the Civil War Virginia included what we now call West Virginia, but there was tension between the western mountain region and the eastern lowlanders. The latter made laws to suit their own interests and not those of the mountaineers. This came to a head during the Civil War, when many mountaineers were opposed to secession. West Virginia was formed, as a state, during the Civil War. For some time thereafter, the residue, which we now call Virginia, was spoken of as East Virginia, to distinguish it from West Virginia.

John Henry Dabney was a Mississippi man. John Henry Martin is said, by a man who claimed to have been his grandnephew, to have been from (East) Virginia.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 09 Jan 02 - 10:40 AM

"It seems possible to me that the WV locale would be more popular or more believable from a legendary point of view, and therefore better fodder for storytelling, regardless of his true origin." - Nicole Castle

I agree, and further Big Bend is a much longer, and much more famous, tunnel than Oak or Coosa.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: NicoleC
Date: 08 Jan 02 - 04:12 PM

What a fascinating discussion. Just to throw in something purely speculative:

The countryside surrounding Birmingham, AL was not very impressive to me when I was there just recently -- mostly rolling hills. The mountains of WV make a very impressive locale for stories about backbreaking work, all steep slopes and small valleys. A couple of different versions I've heard call him an "East Virginian man" (Eastern West Virginia?) It seems possible to me that the WV locale would be more popular or more believable from a legendary point of view, and therefore better fodder for storytelling, regardless of his true origin.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 08 Jan 02 - 01:53 PM

The "two John Henrys" theory, which I believe is highly likely to be correct:

John Henry Martin was a highly reputed steel driver at Big Bend Tunnel, C & O RR, between Talcott and Hinton, WV, during its construction in 1870-72. He did not race a steam drill and his death was from "natural causes" many years later.

John Henry Dabney was a steel driver working on Coosa and Oak Tunnels, C & W RR, Dunnavant, AL in 1887. Steel-driving contests were popular recreational and betting events, and John Henry won all of those he entered. He raced a steam drill at Oak Tunnel, and won, but collapsed thereafter and died.

A ballad about JHD, which did not give his last name, was being sung in Georgia by 1888 and it was soon known in the Big Bend area. When it arrived there, people still remembered John Henry Martin and they began to associate him with the John Henry of the song, assigning to JH Martin the deeds of JH Dabney and localizing the ballad to "Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road."


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 26 Dec 01 - 05:36 PM

FWIW:

From Chappell, John Henry, p 25.

Lee Holley, Tazewell, VA, reported in 1925:

"I've lived 'round here all my life. I've been acquainted with the camps in this section for forty or fifty years. I remember seeing John Hardy pretty often, and know all about him.

"He was ... 27 or 8 when he was hung at Welch over in McDowell County. He was with a gang of gamblers 'round the camps ... loafers and gamblers, [who] robbed the camps at night often after pay-day ... most of the gang got killed sooner or later.

"... I know John Hardy didn't drive steel in Big Bend Tunnel; he couldn't have because he wasn't old enough when it was built, and he didn't work anyway. He got his living gambling and robbing 'round the camps."


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Luke
Date: 26 Dec 01 - 08:46 AM

I wonder if he just had a broken heart. He saw his world changing and knew it was gonna be time to find some other means of employment. I think it's interesting that some of the greatest prime figures in mythology somehow die of a broken heart. What could be more tragic and romantic. Also it's a death that cannot be treated by medicine but only cured by one's own soul. This allows that it was a very personl matter going beyond the realm of mortal fixing. I believe that if he lived and died and did so in the course of events as told in the tale here. he has done so because of the repeated telling and building of the lore needed to inrich the listeners. That is good enough for a romantic non-scholar such as myself. I am thankful for either his life or non-so.

Luke


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 25 Dec 01 - 09:03 PM

My belief that Dunnavant, AL, has a better claim on the historic John Henry than any other location is based on documented facts that agree with the story C. C. Spencer told Guy Johnson in the late 1920s. Here are some of Spencer's claims.

(1) He was a teenager working in Alabama on the construction of the Alabama Great Southern line in 1880-82. He carried water and tools for the laborers.

(2) He knew John Henry personally.

(3) He was an eye-witness to John Henry's contest with a steam drill, which occurred on September 20, 1882.

(4) John Henry drove steel at Cruzee Mountain.

(5) John Henry's last name was Dabner.

(6) He was born a slave on a Dabner plantation in Mississippi. He took the Dabner name from his slavery-time owners.

(7) He was from Holly Springs, MS.

(8) One of the contractors for whom he worked was named Dabner.

Two other "Alabama" informants placed John Henry at Cursey Mountain and Oak Mountain. One of these said that John Herny worked for a contractor named Dabney and a "Jamaica" informant said that he worked for a man named Dabner.

Here are some of the documented facts. As the man said, draw your own conclusions.

Oak and Coosa Mountains are about 16 miles east of Birmingham. They are parallel soutwest-to-northeast ridges, with Oak being north of Coosa by 2-3 miles. In 1887-88 the Columbus and Western (C & W) RR line was put through from Goodwater, AL, to Birmingham. Tunnels were put through Oak and Coosa mountains. Portal-to-portal the distance between Oak and Coosa Tunnels is almost exactly two miles.

The Chief Engineer, and the man in charge of construction, for the C & W was Captain (Civil War rank) Frederick Yeamans Dabney, born in VA but raised in Raymond, MS. Frederick's uncle Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney had owned a plantation, Burleigh, between Crystal Springs and Raymond, MS, with 154 slaves in 1860, several of whom are candidates to have been John Henry (right sex and approximate age, names not known). Captain Dabney maintained his family and official residence in Crystal Springs, MS, while he took temporary accomodations wherever his work in RR construction led him. In 1887-88 he stayed at the Florence Hotel in Birmingham.

Coosa Tunnel was a problem. In mid-1887 the tunnelers encountered a layer of rock that was very hard to drill and blast. The completion of the line was delayed by this difficulty by about 6 months (to July 1, 1888, instead of some time in late 1887).


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 25 Dec 01 - 01:18 AM

All of this depends on which informants and what locale. The fact remains that there is no solid evidence to support either story.
John Hardy and "John Henry" may be two different people. (Some think there may be two John Hardys!)
More and more, I incline to the idea that the songs in all of their variants are composite, glorifying all of the the old steel drivers. I prefer the West Virginia origin, but that is only a personal inclination.
See post by Norm Cohen, author of "Long Steel Rail." Also posts by Barry Finn and Bruce O.
A folk song is generally legend, but based on some event or group of events, with a hero or heros increased to mythic proportions.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST
Date: 24 Dec 01 - 10:38 PM

"John Hardy was hanged in 1894, long after his steel-driving days in the 1870s. Not pertinent to the story."

Then he didn't die after beating a steam drill before 1894, did he?

There have always been a few informants who claimed that he beat a steam drill but did not then die. Such opinions, however, belong to a small minority. That doesn't make them wrong, but if JH didn't die from his effort in beating the steam drill, then what is the point of the legend?

C. C. Spencer claims to have seen him die. Another "Alabama" informant claims that her uncle was by his side when he died.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)
Date: 24 Dec 01 - 04:21 PM

John Hardy was hanged in 1894, long after his steel-driving days in the 1870s. Not pertinent to the story.


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Subject: RE: The origins of John Henry
From: GUEST,garst@chem.uga.edu
Date: 24 Dec 01 - 03:21 PM

"appears to have been extant before"

Yes. Persistent and consistent testimony places "John Henry" around 1888, although a few informants claim it is older. I'm not at my office now, where I could check the date of John Hardy's hanging, but, as I recall, it was in the 1890s.


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