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Originally published Friday, December 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Steel Drivin' Man": Probing origins of America's first man of steel

In almost 200 folk songs, John Henry drives steel into the Allegheny Mountains for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in a race against a...

The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend"
by Scott Reynolds Nelson
Oxford University Press,
214 pp., $25

In almost 200 folk songs, John Henry drives steel into the Allegheny Mountains for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in a race against a steam drill: "John Henry, O John Henry, Blood am runnin' red! Falls right down with his hammah to th' groun', Says, 'I've beat him to the bottom but I'm dead.' "

Originally a cautionary tale about hard work, suffering and death, the ballad turned heroic in the 20th century. Bigger and more boastful, John Henry represented the powerful potential of the working class. In the 1930s, the "steel-drivin' man" may have been the model for the man of steel: Superman.

John Henry has remained an icon, especially among young blacks. But until now, no one knew whether a real man was a model for the myth. A professor of history at the College of William & Mary, Scott Reynolds Nelson has found a John William Henry in the manuscript census for 1870. Nineteen years old, with a scar on each arm, John Henry was serving a 10-year sentence in the Virginia State Penitentiary. Contracted out to work for the C&O Railroad in 1868, prisoner No. 497 disappeared from the records in 1874 — around the time the legend came to life.

Nelson acknowledges that he likes to collect physical links to the past, including "a thing that could have been there, even if it wasn't." In "Steel Drivin' Man," he can make only a circumstantial case that his John Henry — who was 5-foot-1 ¼ — was "the man." But his deft detective work, in effect, serves as a search warrant, authorizing him, as he traces the evolution of the song, to drill deep down into the scorched earth of the South in the years after the Civil War to lay bare the lives of blacks under the notorious Black Codes.

Nelson demonstrates that John Henry was railroaded by the racists who ran the criminal-justice system. A native of New Jersey, who may have come to Virginia to work for the Union Army, John Henry was arrested in 1866 for a theft at Wiseman's grocery store. He was charged with a felony (stealing property worth $20 or more), even though an auditor had estimated the total value of goods at Wiseman's at about $50. Although Wiseman did not reside at his grocery store, prosecutors indicted John Henry for housebreaking, as well.

Since black convicts could be forced to do contract labor, John Henry was assigned to the C&O, which could not attract workers at $1 a day to blast through rock and kick up lethal clouds of silica dust. He probably began as a "mucker," loading debris onto railway cars before graduating to a hammer team of "gandy dancers," who remained more efficient than the bulky, balky percussive drills.

John Henry died at the Lewis Tunnel, Nelson speculates, and because the contract stipulated "damages of one hundred dollars for each prisoner not returned," his body was shipped back to the penitentiary for burial. There he lay until 1992, when a wrecking crew tearing down the old penitentiary buildings disinterred the skeletons of 300 black men.

Along with Scott Nelson, we can imagine that this John Henry, short and slight, ornery and proud, with a premonition of his early death, "balled the jack" too hard and fast, despite the pleas of his fellow trackliners to slow down. And raced the steam drill to the bottom. No more or less than a man, this John Henry chose as his last words a simple plea for justice and common decency: "Cool drink of water 'fore I die, Cool drink of water 'fore I die."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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