The True Story – The Ballad of John Henry Documentary (2023)

Was John Henry a Real Person?

John Henry’s name was a common one and historians have had a tough time uncovering his true story. Few would have thought to look for him in Virginia State Penitentiary’s records. But one man recognized a nickname for the penitentiary in a lyric from one of the songs:






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Many thought that the “White House” from these lyrics refers to the United States White House in Washington D.C. However, the postcard on the left shows there was another lesser known white house located at the Virginia State Penitentiary. The lyrics also mention nearby locomotives passing by which is clearly visible in the image. This one clue led historian, Scott Reynolds Nelson, to look for John Henry’s name in the penitentiary records.

The Commonwealth of Virginia against John William Henry

On May 17th, 1866, John William Henry was on trial for housebreaking and larceny. Not much is known about his trial, but in that same year, the year after the Civil War, Virginia passed a series of laws called the Black Codes, which included a vagrancy law that made it a crime for black people to be without employers. Prisons quickly filled with African American men and women.

Even at the time, some people found John Henry’s trial disturbing. J. Arnold Yeckley, an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau, came to make sure the trial was fair. He wrote, “John W. Henry, a freed boy, was found guilty of having committed burglary, and sentenced to the penitentiary for ten years. The sentence seems a long one.” It was long – the most the law allowed.

On November 15, 1866, John Henry was sent to the Virginia State Penitentiary to serve his sentence. He was prisoner #497, a 19-year-old black man far from his hometown of New Jersey. John Henry’s height (5’13/4”) was shorter than most of the convicts, but his short size would have been perfect for tunnel work.

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John Henry and the Railroad

In 1866, the same year John Henry was arrested, the state of Virginia was suffering underneath the debt of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The line promised to link the south to the north, from eastern Virginia to the Ohio River. There were many setbacks during construction and the commonwealth was left crippled under millions of dollars of debt. One man believed he could change all that.

Collis Potter Huntington was a famous railroad man. He was one of the big four who linked America’s coasts on the Transcontinental Railroad. Huntington promised he could finish the C&O in six years.

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He had recently discovered a new way to blast through mountains. The old method required steel drivers to drill mouse-sized pilot holes a foot deep into the mountain. These pilot holes would be filled with gunpowder and blasted. Progress was measured in inches per day. His secret weapon was a new explosive called nitroglycerine. It promised to speed up production and reduce the costs of railroad construction. Now, the only thing that could slow down construction was the drilling process. The job did not require a lot of skill and could be outsourced to cheap laborers but hammering into hard rock would take days. Huntington needed to drill these pilot holes much faster, and a brand-new invention called a steam drill, promised to do just that.

The Steam Drill

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One of the earliest John Henry historians, Guy Johnson, traced the origins of the legend to the Big Bend Tunnel, which is often referred to in the song. But before he could prove this was the actual tunnel of the competition, Johnson needed to answer a few questions:

“Were steam drills in use in 1870?
Could a man excel a steam drill at that time?
How far could a man drill in one day?
Was a steam drill used at Big Bend Tunnel?”

— Guy Benton Johnson

The answer to his first question is pretty simple, yes, steam drills were in use in 1870. The first steam drill patents were filed in 1849 and by the 1870s, steam drills were being used successfully on the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts. But despite their success, steam drills were complex devices that often broke down. It’s not unreasonable to believe a man could defeat a steam drill during that time.

Guy Johnson began a correspondence with C&O officials to help answer his last question about a steam drill being used at Big Bend. He managed to obtain a list of the railroad tunnels built along the C&O and where steam drills were put into use. It indicates that a steam drill was used nearby at the Lewis Tunnel, not Big Bend.

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C&O records discovered later indicate not only was a steam drill put into use at Lewis Tunnel, men had also worked alongside the steam drills to help speed up construction. If John William Henry worked on the Lewis Tunnel and not Big Bend, this would be the likely site of the steam drill competition.

John Henry vs. the Machine

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The Virginia State Penitentiary was in serious debt. On November 25, 1868, the warden, Burnham Wardwell, signed a contract allowing inmates to be leased year-round to the C&O Railroad. Convicts would earn a rate of 25 cents per day helping improve the penitentiary’s massive debt.

The day after this contract was signed, John William Henry was sent out to work on the C&O Railroad. He was twenty-one at the time. His name was recorded among twenty-seven other convicts sent to work on the railroad. Between 1868 and 1869, Wardwell signed over 225 men to the C&O.

Construction on Lewis Tunnel consumed Collis Potter Huntington’s attention between 1868 and 1872. The rock was particularly difficult at this tunnel and progress was moving much slower than usual. He employed an old associate to take over construction named J.J. Gordon. Gordon had been using Burleigh steam drills for nine months, but they were not speeding up the process.

In a letter, he mentioned that if a boiler for the steam drill at Lewis Tunnel could not be replaced soon, he would need to “double on it with hammers.” If the steam drill broke down, the work would need to be finished by hammer men. This means both men and steam drills worked side by side at Lewis Tunnel. John William Henry disappeared from prison records after he was sent out to work on the C&O. With no mention of pardon, parole, or release, it’s safe to assume he never returned from his work contract on the railroad.

How Did John Henry Really Die?

In 1872, consumption among prisoners was becoming an increasing concern for the Virginia State Penitentiary. There was a large mortality rate that year and many of the inmates contracted the disease “while at work on the railroad.”

Consumption was a term used to describe numerous lung diseases. Acute silicosis is one such disease that was not well known at that time, but common among tunnel construction workers. Cutting into rock produces tiny bits of crystalline that when inhaled, would cut up into the lung tissue. It was considered a death sentence.

Before John Henry received his work orders, the penitentiary’s contract with the C&O had changed. “For each escaped convict not recaptured and returned to the penitentiary, [the C&O] shall pay one hundred dollars damages.” Since the cost for prison laborers was only 25 cents per day, a $100 fine would be a major loss for the C&O.

The result of this contract forced the C&O to send every dead prison worker back to the Virginia State Penitentiary to be buried in front of the ‘White House’ at the Virginia State Penitentiary.

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Download the Archival Guide

Learn more by reviewing 30 high resolution primary sources that were used to track down the true story of John Henry’s life.

Witness the complete story in this 50-minute documentary which includes never-before-seen expert testimonials and archival sources.

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