In song and story, John Henry was a larger-than-life hero who laid down his life in the long struggle between man and machine. Emerging from enslavement at the end of the Civil War, he was working on the railroad as a ‘steel-driving man’ — swinging a sledgehammer against a chisel-like tool to drill holes in the rock. These holes would be filled with explosives, which would blast tunnels through the mountains that stood in the path of the railroads.
One day John Henry heard that workers like himself were to be replaced by steam-powered mechanical drill. He scoffed at the idea, and challenged the operators of the steam drill to a contest to see which of them could drill further in a day. Through strength, skill, teamwork, and determination, John Henry and his trusty ‘shaker’ (the man holding the steel drill against the rock) defeated the balky steam drill! But it was a Pyrrhic victory — John Henry’s superhuman exertion so strained his heart that it burst, and he collapsed and died.
My Jack o’ Lantern illustrates the climactic moment of the legend: John Henry has just won his race against the steam drill, which is shown at left the image above. But just then, his heart gives out — and he grimaces as pain shoots through his chest and left arm.
The left side of the image on the pumpkin shows the steam drill — a locomotive-like arrangement with a coal-fired boiler to feed steam to a primitive jackhammer. A man is stoking the glowing firebox, as sparks erupt from the smokestack and steam escapes from a leaking pipe. He looks up in alarm as he hears John Henry cry out in pain, and sees him begin to fall.