One Book, One Philadelphia:
By Phil Lapsansky
Arriving by train from Washington D.C. on the morning of July 18, 1855 was Col. John H. Wheeler of North Carolina; his slave, Jane Johnson; and her two sons, Daniel and Isaiah. Wheeler was the American minister to Nicaragua, and his party was passing through, on their way to New York and then to Nicaragua. Unknown to Wheeler, Jane, who’d seen one son sold away, had no intention of traveling to Central America or remaining a slave. Her plan was to leave Wheeler and escape with her children to freedom as soon as they were safely north of slavery. News of the Underground Railroad and abolitionists in the North who helped fugitive slaves was widespread among slaves in the upper South, particularly in urban centers like Richmond and Washington, D.C., where she’d lived. Apparently she already had a contact in New York, for she later testified that she intended to escape from Wheeler there, and after her escape she stayed in New York before settling in Boston. However, due to her determination, an alert black community, and the efficient energy of the tightly organized Underground Railroad operation in this city, she and her children were free in Philadelphia by around 5 o’clock that afternoon.
The Wheeler party debarked the train at the Broad & Washington Streets station (point A on the map) and rode to the home of Wheeler’s father-in-law, artist Thomas Sully, on 5th St. below Market. Later they relocated to Bloodgood’s Hotel on Walnut St. at Delaware Ave. (point B), on the river next to the ferry that, Wheeler thought, would take them to Camden an on north to New York. Wheeler left Jane and her sons locked in a hotel room, giving specific instructions not to talk to any of the black hotel staff. Jane, however, did just that, informing a black worker that she was a slave who wanted to be free. The hotel worker drafted a note to William Still, the African American head of the Vigilance Committee of the local Underground Railroad, and sent it off to Still at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office at 153 N. 5th St.(C). Still alerted his white colleague, Passmore Williamson, at his office on 7th and Arch (point D), and they raced off to the hotel.
They arrived as the 5 o’clock ferry was about to depart and approached the Wheeler party accompanied by five black dockworkers -- John Ballard, James P. Braddock, William Curtis, James Martin and Isaac Moore -- who quickly perceived the situation. Still told Jane that under Pennsylvania law she was a free woman and could leave Wheeler here and now if she wished. Williamson explained this to the protesting Wheeler, and the five dockworkers helped restrain Wheeler as Still escorted Jane and her two sons to a waiting carriage. They raced through town, down 10th St. and finally to Still’s home on Ronaldson’s Court (point E), a small street between 9th and 10th, above Shippen St., today’s Bainbridge St. It was a quick operation, "The whole affair was over and I back in my office in less that 3/4ths of an hour," Williamson later wrote.
Wheeler, a prominent Democrat, appealed to his friend Judge John Kintzing Kane of the Federal District Court, another proslavery Democrat, who summoned Williamson before him with a writ of habeas corpus ordering him to bring Jane and her two sons before the bench. Williamson truthfully testified that after seeing Jane off from the dock he had no idea of her whereabouts. It was the practice of the local Vigilance Committee to keep such information compartmentalized; he was not informed of the details of her escape and he didn’t wish to know, satisfied with the news from Still that she was safe.
Kane rejected Williamson’s plea as "evasive, if not false," threatened him with perjury charges, and committed him to Moyamensing Prison for contempt of court. It was a legal stretch, using a writ of habeas corpus to imprison a man and return a woman to slavery, and championing the right of slaveholders to travel the free states with their slaves in spite of state laws banning slavery. Though couched in convoluted legalese, Kane’s decision to imprison Williamson was rooted in the commonplace racist logic of the time. "Of all the parties to the act of violence, "Kane wrote, "he was the only white man, the only citizen, the only individual having recognized political rights, the only person whose social training could certainly interpret either his own duties or the rights of others, under the constitution of the land." White made right. Kane even rejected an affidavit from Jane Johnson affirming there had been no abduction as immaterial and irrelevant to the proceedings. Like most Democrats of the time, Kane believed that black people, even if free, enjoyed no citizenship rights under the Constitution, and that masters should be secure in their slave property anywhere in the nation, a belief affirmed a year and a half later in the U. S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. It was also likely personal. Kane and Williamson had crossed swords before over fugitive slave cases, and they had little respect or regard for each other.
Jane Johnson’s rescue had captured the attention of the press, but Williamson’s incarceration made the episode national news. Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune covered the case extensively and through is widely circulated daily and country editions, spread the story throughout the nation. Antislavery weeklies, like The National Anti-Slavery Standard published in New York, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator out of Boston, The National Era in Washington, D.C., and Frederick Douglass’s Newspaper from Rochester, covered the story in every issue and liberally quoted supportive comments from a host of northern newspapers, like the Hartford Religious Herald , "A tyrannical judge is one of the vilest and most dangerous of despots. We refer to Judge Kane of Philadelphia. Fellow citizens of the North, let us unite to free our country from this degrading bondage of the Slave Power." Even one of Wheeler’s home state papers, the Fayetteville Observer, chided him: "No man who carries his Negroes into a Free State is deserving of any sympathy in his loss. He invites it, with an assurance that the invitation will be accepted."
In Philadelphia, most local papers initially covered the affair with studied neutrality. To the majority of white Philadelphia, "Abolitionist" was curse word, and there was little sympathy for slaves or free blacks. But if Northern respect for Southern slavery was necessary to preserve the Union, why was not Southern respect for Northern freedom? Pennsylvania law clearly did not recognize slavery and Judge Kane’s actions seemed a clear violation of states’ rights and a usurpation of federal authority in defense of slavery in a free state. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did not apply in this case as Jane Johnson was not a runaway fugitive slave. To many it seemed there was no federal issue of any sort in this case, yet a federal district judge supported by a cadre of federal marshals seemed determined to make proslavery law where there was none. Williamson’s legal team initiated appeals, affidavits and statements regularly featured in the press, emphasizing Kane’s use of the federal bench to bend state law to the whim of a passing slaveholder rather than advancing antislavery arguments. It proved an effective strategy, generating a steady flow of articles denouncing Kane’s action.
The Pennsylvanian, archly Democratic and proslavery, was rabid in its denunciation of Williamson and in support of Wheeler and Judge Kane. "Highway Robbery of an Ambassador" headlined the July 20th story, with a lurid account of Williamson leading a "gang of some dozen Negroes" -- inflated to 20 in later accounts. "It is said that one of the gang threatened to cut Mr. Wheeler’s throat if he interfered." Williamson was "one of those fiery zealots in the cause, who would make a saint of a runaway Negro no matter how worthless and degraded. His whole nature seems perverted, and the channel of sympathy to his heart clogged for everything else but a black skin and a woolly head." Jane in this account is "worthless and degraded" but in the same paper she is also the innocent victim of Williamson’s forceful abduction, protesting "I want to go with my master" as she was dragged to the waiting carriage. Like Judge Kane, The Pennsylvanian ignored Jane’s contrary account.
Williamson would spend over three months in Moyamensing Prison, literally holding court, as the northern press spread the story throughout the country. Friends comfortably furnished his cell, and he received several hundred visitors and congratulatory letters. Frederick Douglass came to call, as did Harriet Tubman, even then an Underground Railroad legend with a price on her head. In early October, a national gathering of African American leaders met here for the Colored National Convention and sent a delegation to congratulate Williamson. Spurred by press accounts, local meetings were organized to protest Judge Kane’s action. Petitions circulated for his impeachment and funds were raised to mount a legal challenge. Local abolitionist attorneys even considered charging Wheeler with attempted kidnapping in trying to reclaim Jane Johnson. And the newly organized state Republican Party nominated Williamson for Canal Commissioner. He was photographed in his cell (the daguerreotype is now in the Chester County Historical Society), and a local publisher produced a lithographic print of the image, on sale for fifty cents.
Jane Johnson remained an active player in this drama. She spoke at several meetings and submitted an affidavit to Kane debunking the charges of abduction and declaring her long-standing intention to leave Wheeler as soon as an opportunity arose. Her most dramatic role took place on August 29th, at trial of William Still and the five African American dockworkers who aided her escape, charged by Wheeler with riot and assault and battery. She had returned to Philadelphia, staying with Lucretia Mott at 338 Arch St. (between 11th & 12th, point F on the map). Jane, surrounded by Mott and a phalanx of local antislavery women, appeared in court as a surprise witness. A reporter described her as "a fine specimen of best class of Virginia housemaids, with a certain lady-like air, propriety of language and timidity of manner that predisposes the audiences in her favour." As Wheeler and his allies visibly squirmed, Johnson "spoke what was evidently the truth, tearing to tatters all the ingeniously devised lies of the prosecution as to her forcible abduction."
Still and four others were promptly acquitted, and two, John Ballard and William Curtis, were convicted of assault, fined $10, and imprisoned for a week. A reporter on the scene wrote of them: "I have just seen four of the five men who acted so brave a part of the rescue. They are very respectable looking persons, and instead of being sorry for what they did, would like nothing better than a chance to repeat the offense."
Jane quickly left the courthouse followed by federal marshals determined to arrest her. State and local authorities were just as determined to protect the witness and the integrity of local courts and vowed resistance. Jane’s flight from the courtroom was described in a letter by Lucretia Mott: "We didn’t drive slow coming home Miller [J. Miller McKim, chairman of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society], an officer, Jane & self -- another carriage following with 4 officers for protection. Miller & the slave passed quickly through our house, up Cuthbert St. to the same carriage, who drove around to elude pursuit. They drove to Broad & Coates, where the Hallowell boys were ready to receive her with carriage & horse coach & conveyed her to Millers & lest she should be pursued her, he took her that evening over to Edward’s & the next day they sent her to Plymouth [Meeting] & they ventured to take her to Norristown Meeting, where she told her story well & made a good impression."
After Jane’s dramatic visit here she returned to New York and later settled in Boston. In a December 3, 1855 letter to Williamson, Boston black activist William Cooper Nell informed him that in October he helped Jane find work and a place to live. "She was full of gratitude to you and the other noble friends who rescued her." Again, on May 26, 1856, Nell wrote, "Jane Johnson called in this morning and expressed much pleasure on hearing from you. She requested my informing you that she now lives No. 1 Southack Court -- and is quite well. Her boys are progressing finely at School, for all these advantages of freedom she feels heartfelt gratitude for your exertions."
As Jane settled into her new life as a free working mother, the events she set in motion continued to rage in Philadelphia and the national press. In September the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, on appeal, affirmed Kane’s action. Maybe it was just judicial courtesy, but rumors circulated that President Franklin Pierce threatened to have Williamson placed in military custody should the court free him. As protests continued, Kane’s resolve weakened. He offered to release Williamson if he would change his testimony to agree with Kane’s contention that he was the controlling party in the episode. Williamson refused, affirming, "my return is the truth & the whole truth. It will neither be retracted nor amended." Kane finally relented and, on November 2, accepted from Williamson testimony he denounced in August as false, cleared him of contempt, and set him free. Williamson rejoined his Underground Railroad colleagues in continuing to aid several hundred fugitive slaves passing through Philadelphia in these waning years of American slavery. And his African American colleague, William Still, would later write of this and hundreds of other fugitive slave cases in his classic book, The Underground Railroad, published here in 1872.
But the story continues. Last year was published the fascinating new work, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by one Hannah Crafts, prepared from a 19th-century manuscript by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates. Gates, marshalling impressive evidence, argues that the book is likely the first known novel by a slave woman. In this work, Col. John Wheeler and his wife and D.C. household figure prominently, and Jane Johnson’s story is featured. One Katherine E. Flynn, a scientist by vocation and skilled genealogist by avocation, read the work and set out to document Hannah Crafts. Her search led her to Lorene Cary’s web site, where she learned of Cary’s book, and found posted a 1995 article from a Boston newspaper on Ms. Cary’s book tour there that noted Jane Johnson had finally settled in Boston. Ms. Flynn was captivated and concluded that the route to Hannah Crafts’ identity might lay in the Jane Johnson story. After much digging, she fleshed out Johnson’s life in Boston: married to one Lawrence Woodford shortly after her arrival, widowed in 1861, and, in 1864, remarried to one William Harris. Of the children, Daniel went to sea, and Isaiah served in the Civil War with the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. Jane died in 1872, age given as 59.
In The Bondswoman’s Narrative we meet the Wheelers after Jane Johnson has escaped (noted in the book); but several events and personal anecdotes seem to date from the period when Jane was Wheeler’s slave and suggest that it was written by someone close to the Wheeler family. Like Jane Johnson? Ms. Flynn thinks it likely and presents her findings in her article "Jane Johnson Found! But Is She ‘Hannah Crafts’? The Search for the Author of The Bondswoman’s Narrative," in the September 2002 issue of National Genealogical Society Quarterly. Scholars will be arguing over this book for some time. Is it a novel or a narrative? Is it in fact by a former slave woman? Is Hannah Crafts a real name or a pseudonym? And Jane Johnson will be a central figure in this ongoing discussion. Though 130 years in her Boston grave, Jane Johnson is alive and well today.
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