As a social sciences teacher by training, I am fascinated by the characters that together make up the history of this and every other country. The following is about a man we all heard of as kids and could even sing a song about. It is from 4-30-06.
I was having my coffee this morning before heading for worship service. Clicking on the television, I found CBS' Sunday Morning was on the air, beginning one of those This Day In History segments. On April 30, 1900, the legend of Casey Jones began to unfold. Born John Luther Jones and hailing from Cayce (pronounced KC), Kentucky, Jones was killed one hundred and six years ago. Possibly subbing for a sick friend that fateful day, Jones was at the throttle of an Illinois Central locomotive headed south from Memphis. Leaving an hour after the scheduled departure, Jones made up a considerable amount of time. Outside of Vaughan, Mississippi, there was a problem looming as cars were accidentally left on the tracks. Traveling at perhaps seventy miles per hour, Jones slammed on the brakes, holding on while his fireman jumped to safety. The locomotive plowed into the back part of Freight #83's caboose and a few other cars. Jones was the only fatality but perhaps spared the lives of others by staying with his engine until impact. The accident report placed the blame solely on Jones for failing to respond to flag warnings. There was an African-American man in Canton, Mississippi, the train's destination, who worked as an engine wiper. The wiper, Wallace Saunders, was known for composing ballads. Saunders made up a song based on this incident in honor of his friend, John Luther 'Casey' Jones. An Illinois Central engineer heard it and passed it on to his brothers, who happened to be in vaudeville. Soon, the song with new verses and a chorus added was being performed around the country and a legend was born. Folk songs seem to be constantly evolving and this one followed the pattern. As frequently happens in life, the story got better with the telling. Reading accounts of Casey Jones and his tragic death, I was intrigued how he subsequently became a folk hero, even having a 1950's television show in his honor. (The role of Casey was filled by Alan Hale who went on to fame as the Skipper on Gilligan's Island.) The Grateful Dead borrowed the name Casey Jones as the title of one of their singles, somehow tying in the long-dead railroad engineer with cocaine use. What I found with research seemed simply to indicate that Casey Jones was a good man, a good engineer, and went to his grave at an early age, possibly due to recklessness. In his demise, he left behind a wife, Janie, and three children. Janie lived as a widow until her death at ninety-two. She enjoyed the fame that accompanied her place in history but ALWAYS objected to one particular verse, reprinted exactly as it first appeared in 1909:
Mrs. Jones set on her bed a sighing
just received a message that Casey was dying
Said go to bed children and hush your crying
cause you got another papa on the Salt Lake line.
Janie Jones maintained that there definitely was no other man on the Salt Lake or any other line! She later ran a boarding house, rode the rails for free all her life, and was buried next to her beloved husband in Jackson, Tennessee.
Stories aren't cut and dried, are they? There are more than forty versions of Casey Jones that have been circulated in the century since his passing. Interestingly, Wallace Saunders is never credited for the song and never received compensation for it. And yet, he was the source of the Casey Jones legend! Schools are breeding grounds for gossip and not just with kids. A small population in a limited space makes it easy for rumors to run rampant.... and they ALWAYS improve with age. Most gossip is harmless, the simple spread of benign information; who likes who, who made cheerleader, etc. At times, it turns vicious and it isn't easy to get to the source. Often, the one who conceived the tidbit is far removed from the scene at the moment it becomes full grown. Kids spread tales but so do adults. The worst gossips I know are coaches. Camps and clinics are rumor central, a National Enquirer seminar for the basketball set. It's hard to read scriptures without running across teachings which warn against chattering and idle talk. Most problems between Christians, like most problems between children, have to do with the spoken word. It isn't doctrinal for the most part. It's repeating statements that shouldn't have been stated in the first place. It's getting offended over nothing, retaliating with an escalation of the same offensive behavior which upset us initially. Rumors aren't new. The religious leaders spread a rumor that Jesus' followers had confiscated his body from its resting place. John dealt in his gospel with the rumor, apparently passed on by believers, that he would never himself taste death. The legend of Casey Jones is positive in one aspect. The subject of the story came out better in the end than at the beginning. That doesn't happen often, does it? What a good lesson for us ten decades later from a man made famous by a train wreck: if possible and plausible, make someone sound better at the end of your conversation than they did at the first!
Applicable quote of the day:
"We find not much in ourselves to admire; we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes."
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org