Not only does the exhibit describe a fascinating story; the threads of current theories and speculations bring further texture to the weave. The exhibit is essentially divided into two main parts. The first and largest section of “One Book, One Philadelphia” focuses purely on the tale of the case surrounding Jane Johnson’s escape to freedom. The pertinent cast of characters includes Col. Wheeler, Judge Kane, Passmore Williamson and William Still. This narrative is peppered with images of the main characters, famous scenes, and a convenient map of Johnson’s escape route through the streets of Philadelphia. Local residents will surely appreciate the regional significance of this tale.
William Still, being a black leader of the Philadelphia area Vigilance Committee, wrote The Underground Railroad in 1872. This exhibit includes an image taken from his book, entitled, "Rescue of Jane Johnson and Her Children." Here we see Wheeler being restrained by local abolitionists, as Jane Johnson and her two sons are escorted away from the scene. In another image we view the cover to a book that documented the case, titled, Atrocious Judges. Lives of Judges Infamous as Tools of Tyrants and Instruments of Oppression . . . With an Appendix, Containing the Case of Passmore Williamson, by Richard Hildreth. (One might extrapolate from the title that Hildreth was antislavery.) Its publication date of 1856 also signifies the immediate and major impact of said event. Perhaps the most entertaining image is the lithograph “The Follies of the Age, Vive La Humbug!”. This cartoon of then-recent Philadelphia events is amply presented in a full-page image. Included in the image is the (later famous) scene of Passmore Williamson assisting Jane Johnson to freedom. In addition, three books owned by the Library Company are displayed, Case of Passmore Williamson. Report of the Proceedings on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Issued by the Hon. John K. Kane . . ., Opinion of Judge Kane on the Suggestion of Jane Johnson. October 12, 1855, and Narrative of Facts in the Case of Passmore Williamson, 1855.
The second part of the exhibit briefly touches on the resolution of the case (Williamson was finally released in October of that year) and Jane Johnson’s final relocation to Boston and subsequent death in 1872. Two books are then discussed; Lorene Cary’s 1995 The Price of a Child and the aforementioned The Bondswoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts. The Price of a Child is a novel based on the events of the Jane Johnson story. The Bondswoman’s Narrative includes such real life characters as the Wheeler family and Jane Johnson. Genealogist Katherine Flynn, who has recently argued that Hannah Crafts is actually Jane Johnson, claims that the details of the Wheeler household and the life events of Jane Johnson after moving to Boston are suspiciously similar.
This interesting theory concludes the exhibit, leaving the viewer ready to read more. Perhaps a sequel to “One Book, One Philadelphia: The Story Behind The Price of a Child: The Liberation of Jane Johnson” will appear if future speculations on the identity of Jane Johnson are brought forth. Future speculations or not, in “One Book, One Philadelphia: The Story Behind The Price of a Child: The Liberation of Jane Johnson”, the Library Company presents an enjoyable and informative voyage through local history, literature and current thought on the life of Jane Johnson and, by extrapolation, of slaves in general.