The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 10

John Henry in Alabama
by John Garst

Was John Henry a real person who raced a steam drill? If so, where?

My conclusion is that it is beyond reasonable doubt that John Henry was an ex-slave from Mississippi who died at Dunnavant, Alabama, in 1887 or ‘88, probably on September 20, 1887.

I choose the wording “beyond reasonable doubt” carefully.  This is the standard of evidence for conviction in a criminal case.  Direct evidence is not required – circumstantial evidence is sufficient.  The evidence for John Henry at Dunnavant is circumstantial.  “Beyond reasonable doubt” does not mean that there can be no doubt at all; it means that doubt is not reasonable.
A ballad is a story told in song.  John Henry is best known through his ballad.

Its first notice in print was in 1909.  The earliest known text was collected in 1905.  The 1920s brought sound recordings and intensive study by rivals Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell.  Each spent at least eight years studying John Henry.  Johnson published his findings in a book in 1929 and Chappell followed with his book in 1933.

Together they gathered nearly sixty versions of the ballad and a great deal of testimony.  Johnson cast a wide net by placing requests for information about John Henry in the nation’s African American newspapers.  He was rewarded with many responses.The data gathered by Johnson and Chappell form the primary basis for any serious consideration of John Henry. 

At least eight scholars have looked seriously at John Henry.  Every one of them has concluded that John Henry was probably a real person.  However, this is a biased sample.  It seems likely that the only people who would take the effort to study John Henry would be those who were inclined at the outset to think he was a historic person.

We need evidence, not opinion polls.

What counts as evidence?  All relevant items … ballad texts, testimony, news accounts, archival records … anything and everything.

Unfortunately, neither a news account nor an archival record has been found to document John Henry’s race with a steam drill.  We are left with ballad texts, testimony, indirectly relevant documentation, and other items.


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