S.R. Nelson's Steel Drivin' Man Reviewed

Topics: Prison, Black people, Theft Pages: 6 (1606 words) Published: March 5, 2013

S.R. Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man – John Henry,
The Untold Story of an American Legend Reviewed
Caroline M. Smith
University of Houston – Downtown




Scott Reynolds Nelson examined the life and death of a Mr. John William Henry in the insightful book titled, Steel Drivin’ Man – John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend. According to Nelson, John Henry was from Elizabeth City, New Jersey, turned 18 in 1865 and stood five feet one and a quarter inches when he first appeared in Prince Georg e County, Virginia in April of 1866 (44). Here, as Nelson began his journey to the truth behind the real John Henry, he encountered many mysteries. Based upon my understanding of Nelson’s research compiled in his book, Steel Drivin’ Man, this paper will explore only three mysteries that Nelson encountered along the way and how he confronted them.

I will examine the

circumstances surrounding John Henry’s incarceration, the events that led him to drive steel and finally, the cause of his death. In doing so, I hope to gain a deeper awareness of the life and times of John Henry, whether he be fact or fiction, which can qualify a deeper appreciation of the triviality of some of today’s commonplace woes.



Nelson was unable to find any earlier recordings of John Henry until his arrival in Prince George County after the Civil War when the land was still in upheaval (41). John Henry was introduced by way of the criminal justice system. What crime had John Henry committed to deserve this ill fate? In April of 1866 John Henry was arrested for stealing from a grocery store (46). He was arrested for “housebreaking and larceny” and later sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary. How and why was John Henry’s crime of petty theft enhanced to such a degree?

The Freedman’s Bureau was established in 1865 to protect the rights of the newly freed blacks in the South and oversee prosecution on criminal matters. Although this seems like it would have been ideal for the former slaves, an invariable hunger for power created a less than favorable outcome (47). At this time, there were virtually no courts or law. The Freedman’s Bureau became the rule of the land for a period. (47). To make matters worse, John Henry was convicted in 1865 when politics were at a peak with regard to race relations. In attempt to maintain control over Blacks, a new set of laws were written known as the Black Codes which limited the rights of the black people and segregated them from the Whites. There were many punishments that freedmen were subjected to if they didn't follow the harsh codes that were stacked up against them. The Black Codes were essentially created as tools for the Whites so they could maintain control over the Blacks. Nelson notes that “sentencing was especially harsh” (53).

While John Henry awaited trial, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed over President Johnson’s veto, which prohibited black laws. Yet still, the final decision of one’s fate is always narrowed down to only one person—the judge. Nelson described John Henry’s Judge, Justice Edward Chambers, as angry and a vivid supporter Johnson (55). Judge Chambers was known



for his elaborate speeches where he would denounce the radicals of the North and perhaps criticize the Civil Rights Act. Judge Chambers would then proceed to open the Court for John Henry (56). The prosecutor was no stranger to the political games either. He knew a charge of burglary was undemanding on its face. Nelson explains how the prosecutor “had the court clerk cross out “burglary” on the indictment and replace the charge with “housebreaking and larceny” thus allowing a more severe sentence (56).

In 1866 John Henry had committed petty theft and was sentence to ten years in Virginia State...
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