Over the weekend I read Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man, a book that ought to ring familiar to any reader of this blog in its methods and concerns. Nelson makes a case that he has found the historical original for the folk hero John Henry. I can’t pretend to evaluate his research with any authority, but it certainly sounds plausible. Read the book and see what you think.
I don’t want to give too much away, as it’s a genuine historical detective story. Stop reading if you don’t want even the slightest hint of a spoiler, though I don’t think this is much of one. Assuming Nelson is correct, then here is John Henry’s entry in the 1870 census, as a prisoner in the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond:
I just thought it would be cool to look it up. It’s kind of like seeing Paul Bunyan’s birth certificate or something.