Casey Jones and the Promised Land

An advertisement for a new line of pipe tobacco named for Casey Jones calls to mind that controversial American folk-hero.  “When most people think of old-time railroading,” wrote Oliver Jensen in 1975, “they think of Casey Jones roaring into eternity with his hand on the whistle cord.”  John Luther “Casey” Jones (born 1863) was the only person killed when on the foggy and rainy night of 30 April, 1900, in Vaughan, Mississippi, his Illinois Central passenger and mail train rounded a curve and collided with the caboose of a stalled freight train sticking out from a siding.

As Christian Wolmar wrote in The Iron Road (2014), Jones “died while travelling too fast [and] went on to become a cult figure in American folklore and folksong.”  That song, composed right after the wreck by a railroader friend of Jones, has gone through some forty-five variations, including one slandering Mrs. Jones as unfaithful and another used from 1957 to 1958 as the theme song for a half-hour television series, Casey Jones.  Like the song, that wholesome show held scant resemblance to historical reality.  For example, the round-faced and burly Alan Hale, six years before becoming the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island, portrayed the lean and oval-faced Jones.

Jones grew up in Cayce, in the southwestern tip of Kentucky, and his nickname came from the sound of that place name.  In contrast to pioneer heroes like Daniel Boone or rural heroes like Johnny Appleseed, Jones was, as Milton Bagby wrote in the December, 1999, issue of American History, “a modern hero, a man of the industrial age who lost his life at the helm of a machine.”

Critics dismiss his heroic standing and thus overlook in Jones’s story not only heroism, but also interracial and religious aspects.  His detractors see Jones as reckless and headstrong, and they point out that his testing of limits got him nine suspensions in ten years.  Even family friend and biographer, Fred J. Lee, writing in 1939, called him “irrepressible but reliable.”  Nevertheless, railroad owners and customers preferred punctuality, and Jones earned a reputation for getting to his destination on the time advertised in newspapers and printed in railroad timetables.

Here we see a man eager to keep his word and that of his company, a man who took pride in doing well a job that bore his name.  He had worked his way up from brakeman to engineer; as an engineer he moved from freight trains to passenger trains.  Quietly confident and a church-going, tee-totaling family man, he had the respect of his peers, his crew, and railroad executives.  He became well-known not only for being on time, but also for installing on his engine a six-tone whistle that resembled the call of a whippoorwill.

The night of his death he began his southbound run from Memphis 75 minutes behind schedule; at the time of the collision, he had made up all but two minutes of that time, largely by going over 100 miles an hour.  In the days of horse and buggy, such speeds were nearly unimaginable.  A young man commanding fantastic speeds by controlling a massive machine that raced along steel rails was the envy of every boy along the line.  For Jones, the thrill of such risk and velocity may also have stirred in him a sensual element.  Almost his last words to his fireman before realizing danger loomed ahead and thus taking desperate braking action were, “The old girl’s got her high-heeled slippers on tonight!”

According to his loyal family and friends, as well as admirers who never met him, Jones sacrificed his life to save those of the passengers and crew in the twelve cars behind him.  He became a Christ-like figure, and one permutation of the ballad about him said he “Climbed into the cab with the orders in his hand/Says, ‘This is my trip to the Promised Land’.”

The wording signifies a religious tradition outside the one practiced by Jones.  He came from Welsh Protestant stock, and while working for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, he fell in love with Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady, a daughter of the owner of the boarding house where Jones lived in Jackson, Tennessee.  The Bradys were Irish Catholic, and Jones agreed to take instruction and was baptized in Saint Bridget’s Catholic Church in Whistler, Alabama.  On 25 November, 1886, Janie and Casey were married at Saint Mary’s Church, Jackson, Tennessee.  In due course they had two sons and a daughter.

A Southerner open to Catholicism, Jones grew up when Southern Democrats were founding the Ku Klux Klan and before the United States Supreme Court ruled seven to one in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) for the constitutionality of states legislating “separate but equal” facilities for whites and blacks, facilities that included railway cars.  Honesty requires acknowledging that joining the Court’s majority was Edward Douglass White, the second Catholic to serve on the Court; the first had been Roger Brooke Taney, best known today for the Dred Scott decision (1857).

Whether working on railroads or playing neighborhood or company baseball, the 6’4″ Jones spent his life around other men whose work and play also put calluses on their hands and dirt under their fingernails.  Those men included sons of former slaves.  The man who came up with the words for the first version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” Wallace Saunders, was what today would be called an African-American; Jones’s fireman, Simeon “Sim” Webb, also was a black man.

As Jones strained every muscle to keep his engine, Number 382, dubbed the Cannonball Express, from ramming into that stopped freight train, he ordered Sim Webb to jump to safety.  Webb obeyed, suffering cuts and bruises; he lived to be eighty-three, dying in 1957.  Jones brought his train from around 75 miles per hour down to close to 35 before it smashed into the freight’s caboose.  Jones’s locomotive flipped backwards and on its side, and his body, mangled and scalded, was found under the cab.

Casey Jones’s funeral Mass was offered at Saint Mary’s church in Jackson, and he was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery.  As Oliver Jensen wrote in The American Heritage History of Railroads in America (1975), Jones was “steadfast,” seen across the nation as personifying “the brave engineer.”  Over the years, with heartfelt clarity, Sim Webb would say, “Mr. Casey was a fine man.”


Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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