Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - March - 2003 Issue

The Library Company’s Jane Johnson Online Exhibit

Julie1

courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia


By Julie Carleton

In July of 1855, an African American female slave from Virginia named Jane Johnson took the brave steps to become a free woman. While traveling with her master Colonel John Wheeler and her two sons to Philadelphia, Johnson had already set her escape plans in motion. After secretly communicating with an Underground Railroad supporter in the hotel they were staying in, Johnson’s flight to freedom was well underway. Local abolitionists and Underground Railroad leaders Passmore Williamson and William Still were subsequently notified and quickly responded. Just hours later, Williamson, Still, and five volunteers intercepted the Wheeler party to assist Johnson and her sons in their departure.

As Pennsylvania was a free state, Johnson was technically free to go. Yet, Wheeler vehemently protested the entire incident, although it was purely within the law. Through his pro-slavery perception he viewed the event entirely differently, claiming his right to be a slave owner in a free state. As well, he insisted that Williamson had abducted Johnson. As a result, he sought assistance from the Federal District Court Judge (and friend) Kintzing Kane to bring Johnson back. After testifying under oath that he did know where she was located, Kane sentenced Passmore Williamson to prison for contempt of court (Williamson had honestly denied that he did not know of Johnson’s whereabouts). Wheeler argued that Johnson was led away against her will. Kane, taking a pro-slavery stance on the matter, sided with Wheeler.

Williamson’s subsequent imprisonment caused waves beyond the city of Philadelphia. Pro-slavery enthusiasts sided with Wheeler and Kane, arguing that slave owners had the inherent right to maintain ownership of their slaves wherever they might be traveling; including in the free states. Judge Kane and the supporting media such as the anti-abolitionist newspaper The Pennsylvanian ignored Johnson’s testimony that she had chosen to become a free woman. On the other side, Williamson and Johnson were supported in such newspapers as The New York Tribune and the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Indeed, even Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman made special visits to the incarcerated Williamson to lobby for her case.

The story of Jane Johnson is just one of many tales of freedom for ex-slaves. In 1855, the timing was ripe for a media event on the issue of slavery and abolitionism. From our present day perspective, Jane Johnson’s story is especially intriguing because genealogists are now speculating that she might have been the same person as Hannah Crafts, a female African American writer (and perhaps the first female slave writer) from the same time period. The Bondswoman’s Narrative, published in 2002, is taken from Hannah Crafts’ 19th century writings.

The mystery and sensation surrounding the identity of Jane Johnson is the subject of an exhibit presented by the Library Company of Philadelphia. This online exhibit, entitled, “One Book, One Philadelphia: The Story Behind The Price of a Child: The Liberation of Jane Johnson” can be viewed on the Library Company’s web site at: www.librarycompany.org/JaneJohnson

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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