According to a web site on Quakers and Slavery
On July 18, 1855, John H. Wheeler, a North Carolina politician and the United States ambassador to
Nicaragua, brought his slave Jane Johnson and her two children with him on a journey to South America.
Although they would be travelling through free states--even stopping overnight in Philadelphia and New
York--Wheeler apparently was not overly concerned that his slaves would attempt to escape. He planned
to keep a close eye on his slaves, but he underestimated the will and resolve of Jane. While still in
Philadelphia, she approached some free blacks and confided her desire to run away; someone sent a
hurried message to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society; and just after Wheeler had settled with his
slaves on a ferry to depart from Philadelphia, Passmore Williamson, William Still, and five colored
dockworkers boarded the ship.
Passmore Williamson quickly located Johnson and explained to her that she was free. William Still later
recalled his words: "You are entitled to your freedom according to the laws of Pennsylvania, having been
brought into the State by your owner" (Still 88). Wheeler protested, but two of the colored dockworkers,
John Ballard and William Curtis, held him back. Johnson exclaimed, "I am not free, but I want my
freedom--ALWAYS wanted to be free!! but he holds me" (Still 89). William Still led Johnson and her
children off the ferry and into a carriage, and that day, July 18, 1855, they were free.
"The opportunity seemed favorable for teaching abolitionists and negroes, that they had no right to
interfere with a "chivalrous southern gentleman," while passing through Philadelphia with his slaves.
Thus, to make an effective blow, all the pro-slavery elements of Philadelphia were brought into action.....
Passmore was locked up in prison on the flimsy pretext of contempt of court, and true bills were found
against him and half a dozen colored men, charging them with "riot," "forcible abduction," and "assault
and battery," ..... But the pro-slaveryites had counted without their host--Passmore would not yield an
inch, but stood as firmly by his principles in prison, as he did on the boat. Indeed, it was soon evident,
that his resolute course was bringing floods of sympathy from the ablest and best minds throughout the
North. On the other hand, the occasion was rapidly awakening thousands daily, who had hitherto
manifested little or no interest at all on the subject, to the wrongs of the slave. It was soon discovered by
the "chivalry" that keeping Mr. Williamson in prison would indirectly greatly aid the cause of Freedom--
that every day he remained would make numerous converts to the cause of liberty;) William Still, The
Underground Railroad (1872)
According to a the Wikipedia web site above,
Under petition by Wheeler, US District Court judge John K. Kane issued a writ of habeas corpus to
Williamson to produce Johnson and her two sons in court. Judge John K. Kane charged Williamson with
contempt of court for not revealing the location of Johnson and her children, but he literally did not know
it, as Still had not told him. (This was common practice among the Vigilance Committee, to protect
members and fugitives.) Williamson responded, noting that Johnson was not legally a fugitive under the
circumstances of the case, as Wheeler had voluntarily brought her into the state, where she had the
freedom to decide if she wanted to leave slavery.
Williamson served 100 days between July 27 and November 3, 1855, in Moyamensing Prison. His case
attracted extensive press coverage, as northern publications spread the story throughout the country.
"Friends comfortably furnished his cell," where he essentially held court. While imprisoned, he received
numerous letters and several hundred visitors, including African-American abolitionists Frederick
Douglass and Harriet Tubman, both former slaves who had escaped from the South. These are attested
in his visitor book, which is held by the Chester County Historical Society. Lucretia Mott noted that his
imprisonment was extremely helpful to the cause, and said that his father Thomas Williamson was “only
afraid Passmore will come out of Prison too soon.” supporters of Williamson pressed Judge Kane for
By August 29, 1855, when Still and the five deckhands were tried on charges brought by Wheeler,
Johnson and her sons were living in New York. She returned for the trial, entering the courtroom hidden
by a veil. She caused a dramatic stir by testifying at length that Still had not abducted her, nor any of the
charged men forced her to go; she had long planned to gain freedom in the North, whether in
Philadelphia or New York, during this trip. Her testimony refuted the prosecution and gained acquittal for
Still and three of the men; and reduced charges and sentences for two. A reporter said they were proud
of their actions and would have repeated them.
Protected by state and local officials, Jane Johnson was quickly taken out of the city, eluding federal
marshals. She and her children remained free; they moved to Boston, where they settled. Johnson soon
married there and worked as a seamstress. Several years later after being widowed, she married again.
Her son Isaiah Johnson served in a Massachusetts Regiment of the United States Colored Troops during
the American Civil War.
Claiming that he was illegally imprisoned, Williamson had filed his own writ of habeas corpus with the
State Supreme Court, but it was denied. He was finally freed on November 3, suffering some health
effects from jail. He sued Judge Kane for illegal imprisonment, but the case was still unsettled at the time
of Kane's death in 1858.
Marker at Penn's Landing near where Jane Johnson gained her freedom
We have recently learned that Passmore Williamson once owned our house in Darby (1878-1885) (More)