On the Eve of Jane Johnson Day

Jane Johnson

On the eve of Jane Johnson Day, we’re curious how the story – how the many intertwined stories – come to an end.  Not long after the escape, after the trial, after the death of at least one of the main players, the Civil War overshadowed just about everything else. The others went on with their lives and the account fell into the cracks of history.

Jane Johnson was met in Boston by abolitionist William Cooper Nell. They struck up a friendship and she settled there. Initially, Johnson stayed at a boardinghouse run by William T. Manix, but moved to her own residence within less than a year.  The African-American community embraced Johnson with open arms, and she settled in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, marrying twice and living her life out in the same community.  Johnson learned to read and write and when the opportunity arose, she helped former slaves.  She corresponded with those who had helped her, including Passmore Williamson. When dysentery swept through Boston, in 1872, Johnson succumbed to the disease at the age of 59.

Passmore Williamson continued with his abolitionist efforts even after the abolition of slavery. Williamson served as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society into the 1890s. As a result of his stay in Moyamensing, Williamson suffered from chronic health problems. He traveled to Cuba with his wife, Mercie, for treatment.  He died in 1895.

John H. Wheeler’s popularity continued to plummet, even after the case. Lending his support to William Walker, a questionable character who became the ruler of Nicaragua, he was harshly and publicly criticized by William Marcy, the American Secretary of State. For several years after the Johnson incident, Wheeler persisted in legal efforts to win compensation for his lost property.  During the Civil War, Wheeler established himself for a time in England, but returned to the United States at the conclusion of the war. He died in 1882.

William Still succeeded Williamson as the head of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In 1872, at the urging of his friends and colleagues, Still published The Underground Railroad, which told the story of Jane Johnson and more than 650 others.  A committed activist in the African-American community, Still led an effort to desegregate the city’s public transit system in 1859. He lived until 1902.

John Kintzing Kane died before the lawsuit brought against him by Passmore Williamson came to court. The lawsuit, however, depleted Kane’s finances. When Judge Kane died in 1858, of typhoid pneumonia, legal associate and friend George Sydney Fisher wrote in his diary that “Kane had ability, acuteness, some learning, plausibility, but he was without moral principle.” Abolitionist James Miller McKim rejoiced: “Judge Kane died last night! The fugitive will feel more secure in his hiding place.”

So – how should Jane Johnson’s freedom story, her awe-inspiring bravery, be remembered? Join The Sixth Square at the foot of Walnut Street on Wednesday, July 18th, 4:30-5PM. (That’s now the entrance to the Independence Seaport Museum.)  Anyone and everyone is welcome to come and share ideas.

Or, if you cannot stand with those who remember Jane Johnson, post your ideas here.


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