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“She is a woman who can take care of herself:” The Story of Jane Johnson

Boston served as a destination for many people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers arriving in the city found that Boston's tightly knit free Black community provided support and a welcome sanctuary as they began their new lives. This article highlights the journey of a freedom seeker, Jane Johnson, who escaped to Boston. To explore additional stories, visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

When Jane Johnson's enslaver took her and her two sons to Philadelphia, Johnson saw an opportunity to escape. She contacted local abolitionists who escorted her and her sons away from her enslaver. Her bold escape led to the arrest and trial of her accomplices. During the trial, she bravely testified against her enslaver. Following her escape, Johnson became active in Boston's Black Beacon Hill community and assisted other enslaved people on their path to freedom.

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Jane Johnson

c.1814/1830 - August 2, 1872

Learn about Jane Johnson's path to freedom.

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Jane Johnson

c.1814/1830 - August 2, 1872

Learn about Jane Johnson's path to freedom.

Engraving of Jane JohnsonJane Johnson, a freedom seeker. (Credit: William Still, 1872)

c.1814 - c.1830: Washington D.C.

In a courtroom testimony in 1855, Jane Johnson said, "I was born about the time the British burnt the Capitol of Washington" referencing the 1814 burning of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Later in the same testimony, she admitted, "I can’t tell my exact age; I guess I’m about 25; I was born in Washington City."[1] As many enslaved people experienced, Johnson, born Jane Williams, did not know her exact birthdate.

Newspaper etching of a slave auction.This depiction of a slave auction may have been similar to Johnson's experience of being sold. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Unknown - January 1854: Richmond, Virginia

Much of Williams' early life in slavery remains unknown. She married a man named Johnson and had at least three children. She gave birth to her sons Daniel around 1843-44 and Isaiah around 1847-48. Johnson had another son who her owner sold away. [2]

Her earliest known owner, Cornelius Crew of Richmond, Virginia sold Johnson and her sons Daniel and Isaiah to John Hill Wheeler around New Year’s Day 1854.

Describing her life and family in slavery at an 1855 court hearing, Johnson said "I was the slave of Mr. Wheeler of Washington; he bought me and my two children, about two years ago, of Mr. Cornelius Crew, of Richmond, Va.; my youngest child is between six and seven years old, the other between ten and eleven; I have one other child only, and he is in Richmond; I have not seen him for about two years; never expect to see him again; …" [3]

Color printed view of Washington D.C. with the capital in the foreground.Washington D.C. where Johnson worked as an enslaved servant. (Credit: Library of Congress)

January 1854 - July 1855: Washington D.C.

In 1854, John Hill Wheeler served as assistant secretary to President Franklin Pierce and soon became appointed U.S. Minister to Nicaragua. As an enslaved servant to a Washington insider, Johnson performed the duties expected of her in the elite circles of the nation’s capital. One reporter later recalled that:

Jane is a fine specimen of the best class of Virginia housemaids, with a certain lady-like air, propriety of language and a timidity of manner that prepossesses the audience in her favor…She was very polite in her manners and spoke of 'colored gentlemen,' 'white gentlemen,' and 'colored ladies,' as though ladies and gentlemen had been her associates all her lifetime…[4]
A sketch of Jane Johnson and her sons leaving their enslaver on the boat.This engraving depicts Jane Johnson and her sons leaving their enslaver Mr. Wheeler on the ship headed for New York. Abolitionists assisted them as they disembarked. (Credit: William Still, 1872)

July 18, 1855: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

On July 18, 1855, Wheeler stopped in Philadelphia with Johnson and her two sons as they traveled to New York to board a ship bound for his diplomatic post in Nicaragua. While in the city, Wheeler left Johnson and her sons at Bloodgood’s Hotel with instructions to not talk to anyone when he went to visit his father-in-law. Defying her owner’s wishes, Johnson spoke to several people at the hotel and got word to the city’s abolitionist network that she wanted to be free.

A messenger brought a note to William Still, of Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee, the organization responsible for much of the city’s Underground Railroad activity. It read:

MR. STILL – Will you come down to Bloodgood’s Hotel as soon as possible – as there are three fugitive slaves here and they want liberty. Their master is here with them, on his way to New York.[5]

Still and Passmore Williamson, a fellow member of the Vigilance Committee, hurried to the hotel only to find that Wheeler, Johnson, and her sons had left for the nearby wharf to get on a boat heading for New York. They tracked them to the dock and boarded the vessel. On the boat they told Johnson:

You are entitled to your freedom according to the laws of Pennsylvania, having been brought into the State by your owner. If you prefer freedom to slavery, as we suppose everyone does, you have the chance to accept it now. Act calmly – don't be frightened by your master – you are as much entitled to your freedom as we are, or as he is – be determined and you need have no fears but that you will protected by the law… Remember, if you lose this chance you may never get such another… [6]

Despite Wheeler’s protests and attempts to block their passage, Johnson and her sons left with Still, Williamson, and several Black men from the docks who helped keep Wheeler at bay. They safely made their way into the city. Williamson later wrote, "The whole affair was over and I back in my office in less than 3/4ths of an hour."[7]

According to Still, "For the first time in her life she could look upon herself and her children and feel free!"[8]

Illustrated image of Williamson sitting in a prison cell.Passmore Williamson went to prison for assisting Jane Johnson and her sons in their escape to freedom. (Credit: Library of Congress)

July 31, 1855: New York City, New York

In the days that followed her escape from Wheeler, Johnson and her sons made it to New York. On July 31, she voluntarily appeared before E.D. Culver, City Judge of Brooklyn, and dictated an affidavit in an attempt help her rescuers who had been criminally charged in Philadelphia. She described the events of July 18 and stated that she willingly left Wheeler. This contradicted Wheeler’s accusation that she and her boys had been kidnapped by Williamson and others in Philadelphia. "I went away of my own free will," she said, "I always wished to be free and meant to be free when I came North." She said she gave this affidavit because "Mr. Williamson is in prison on my account, and I hope the truth may be of benefit to him."[9]

Clipping of the end of Jane Johnson's testimony with her mark at the end.

Newspaper clipping documenting Johnson's affidavit. (Credit: Daily Atlas, 08/02/1855)

Photograph of William Cooper NellWilliam Cooper Nell, a Boston abolitionist. (Credit: Massachusetts Historical Society)

c. August 12, 1855: Boston, Massachusetts

After leaving New York, Johnson and her sons traveled to Boston. In an August 12 letter to Amy Kirby Post, Underground Railroad operative William Cooper Nell wrote, "The Woman = Jane Johnson for whom Passmore Williamson has been imprisoned = I had the pleasure of escorting from the Depot in Boston recently on her destination = She is a woman who can take care of herself…"[10] He later wrote to Passmore Williamson:

I met Jane Johnson and her two Boys at the cars in Boston after her escape from Wheeler, in my capacity as a member of the Vigilance Committee, and was subsequently engaged in servicing Home and employment for her = on each occasion she was full of gratitude to you and the other noble friends who rescued her – [11]
Sepia photograph of Congress HallCongress Hall housed the Courthouse where Johnson testified. (Credit: Free Library of Philadelphia)

August 29, 1855: Courthouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

By the end of August, Johnson returned to Philadelphia to assist those who helped her make her escape from Wheeler.

Wheeler charged William Still and five African American dockworkers with assault and battery for their role in the Johnson rescue. Their trial began on August 29. Wheeler testified that his slaves had not desired their freedom and that Still and the other men had abducted her. Authorities had already imprisoned Passmore Williamson for failing to return Johnson and her sons to Wheeler. According to historian Robert Lowell Eckert,

Since it appeared that the only available witnesses for the defense were either on trial or in jail, it seemed that Wheeler’s testimony would go practically unchallenged. At this juncture, Jane Johnson, the "abducted" slave, dramatically arose in the courtroom gallery, where she had been seated with members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society… Her testimony boldly contradicted Wheeler’s on nearly all of the major points-she had desired her freedom, it was Wheeler who had restrained her, and she had not been forced off the ship. Having completed her testimony, Jane was escorted from the courtroom, despite the United States District Attorney’s desire to detain her.[12]

According to The Liberator, when the defense called Jane Johnson to the stand:

The name was followed by a breathless silence and a buzz of incredulity…When Jane first appeared, he (Wheeler) laughed immoderately and nervously, then became deadly pale, and as the testimony went on, red and pale by turns. At last, he could bear it no longer, but picked up his hat and disappeared…The way to the carriage was lined by a strong body of policemen…Strong apprehensions were entertained of an attack by the United States Marshal and his deputy slave-catchers.[13]

Guarded by a force of state and local officers as well as abolitionists, Johnson made her way out of the courtroom and disappeared into the city protected and beyond the reach of the U.S. Marshal and other federal officers.

After Johnson’s surprise testimony and tense departure from the courtroom, the judge explicitly asserted to the jury "that when Col. Wheeler and his servants crossed the border of Pennsylvania, Jane Johnson and her two sons became as free as he."[14]

Newspaper clipping about Jane Johnson attending an anti-slavery convention.This newspaper article describes Johnson at an Anti-Slavery Convention. (Credit: Anti-Slavery Bugle, 9/15/1855)

September 1855: Norristown, Pennsylvania

Shortly following her courthouse appearance in Philadelphia, Johnson attended a "large and spirited" Anti-Slavery Convention in Norristown, Pennsylvania. The Anti-Slavery Bugle reported:

Jane Johnson was present and appeared on the platform. This itself produced a deep impression; but when, by request, she rose and told her story, there was not a dry eye or an unmoved heart in the audience. That such a woman, so intelligent, so lady-like in every way, so respectable, should have been the subject of such base treatment, was more than could be endured with patience.[15]
Portion of a record that lists William Manix.This Vigilance Committee record lists William Manix boarding Jane Johnson. (Credit: Dr. Irving H. Bartlett Collection, 1830-1880)

c. September 26, 1855 - 1865: William Manix's Boarding House, 83 Southac Street, Boston, Massachusetts

Sometime in September, Johnson returned to Boston. In a further attempt to secure Passmore Williamson’s release from prison, Johnson appeared in person at the U.S. Court for the District of Massachusetts on September 26 to dictate yet another affidavit attesting that Williamson did not coerce or kidnap her from Wheeler.[16]

In November, the Boston Vigilance Committee Account Book recorded expenses for Jane Johnson and her sons staying in the boardinghouse of William Manix on Southac Street, in the heart of Boston’s Black community on the north slope of Beacon Hill.

Lines from Longfellow's account book, featuring Jane Johnson.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's account book. (Credit: Harvard University Library)

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who frequently donated to Black causes, also recorded a donation to Johnson in his account book in November. [17]

Clipping from the Liberator about Jane Johnson attending an Anti-Slavery Bazaar.Newspaper documenting Johnson's participation in the Bazaar. (Credit: The Liberator, 1/25/1856)

December 1855: Winter Street Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

The Liberator published a letter by abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman about the 22nd Annual National Anti-Slavery Bazaar held at the Winter Street Hall in Boston in December 1855. Chapman talked about Johnson’s unexpected participation in the bazaar and her impact on those gathered for the occasion:

Such a slave mother came into the hall while we were thus engaged in raising funds to abolish the system that bears down with a power so deadly upon four million persons in this self-styled land of freedom. It was Mrs. Jane Johnson…It was a profound satisfaction to us to take by the hand, as our co-laborer in the cause, one whom neither threats nor cajolery could overcome, but who swore, in the face of the world, for the truth, for her children, and for the man in prison on her account, that the miserably contemptible United States Minister to Nicaragua lied when he said she loved slavery, and was happy to return to it…she is comfortably settled in the midst of us, our friend and neighbor… [18]
Two selections from the Boston Vigilance Committee that include Jane Woodfolk.Jane Woodfolk assisted freedom seekers once she had settled in Boston. (Credit: Dr. Irving H. Bartlett Collection, 1830-1880)

1855-1865: Beacon Hill, Boston, Massachusetts

Once in Boston, Johnson and her family moved “almost every year for the next several years” living in various tenement houses throughout Beacon Hill and the West End.[19] She received support several times from the Boston Vigilance Committee in the early months of her arrival.

In a May 26, 1856 letter to Passmore Williamson, William Cooper 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 [at] No. 1 Southac 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. [20]

By 1857, Johnson married Lawrence Woodfolk. They lived on Grove Street and later on Revere Court. Vigilance Committee Records indicate that she sheltered fugitives on at least two occasions.[21]

A record list with Jane Woodfolk on it.

Jane Woodfolk boarded two freedom seekers in April, 1859. (Credit: Dr. Irving H. Bartlett Collection, 1830-1880)

After Woodfolk died in 1861, Johnson married William Harris, a mariner, and lived at various places in the area.[22]

During the Civil War, her son Isaiah served in the Massachusetts 55th Regiment, the second Black regiment recruited in the state.

Entrance to a cemetery that includes a building with a tower.The Woodlawn Cemetery, the resting place of Jane Johnson Woodfolk. (Credit: Everett Public Libraries)

1872: Woodlawn Cemetery, Everett, Massachusetts

There are no records tying Jane Johnson to Boston between 1865-1870. Her whereabouts during those years are unknown. She reappears in the historic record in Boston in 1871 living at 5 Fruit Street.

After a two-week bout of dysentery, Johnson died on August 2, 1872. Her remains are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts, "identified by only a cheap metal plot marker, similar to many in her section."[23]

Jane Johnson’s escape from slavery with her children and the incredible risks she took to assist those that helped her along the way is an inspiring American story of struggle, determination, and freedom.

Footnotes

[1] Frederick Douglass' Paper (Rochester, New York), September 14, 1855.

Image: William Still, "Engravings by Bensell, Schell, and others," Still's Underground Rail Road Records: With a Life of the Author. Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (United States: William Still, 1886), accessed November, 2020, https://archive.org/details/undergroundrailr00stil/page/n117/mode/2up.

[2] Katherine E. Flynn. “Jane Johnson, Found! But Is She ‘Hannah Crafts’?” in In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on The Bondwoman’s Narrative, ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2004), 398-399.

Image: Slave auction at Richmond, Virginia, Richmond Virginia, 1856, Photograph, accessed November, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/98510266/.

[3] William Still, The Underground Railroad (Medford, New Jersey: Plexus Publishing, 2005), originally published in 1872, 58-59.

[4] Flynn, "Jane Johnson, Found!," 393.

Image: E. Sachse & Co. View of Washington / drawn from nature and on stone by E. Sachse ; lith. and print in colors by E. Sachse & Comp. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington, ca. 1852 (Baltimore, Md.: Published and sold by E. Sachse & Co), Photograph, accessed November, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/98515951/.

[5] Still, The Underground Railroad, 54-56.

Image: William Still, "Engravings by Bensell, Schell, and others," Still's Underground Rail Road Records: With a Life of the Author. Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom (United States: William Still, 1886), accessed November, 2020, https://archive.org/details/undergroundrailr00stil/page/n109/mode/2up.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Phil Lapsansky, "The Liberation of Jane Johnson," The Library Company of Philadelphia, accessed October 2020, http://librarycompany.org/JaneJohnson/.

[8] Still, The Underground Railroad, 54-56.

[9] Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts), August 2, 1855.

Image: Emil Luders and Augustus Kollner, Passmore Williamson, in Moyamensing Prison for alledged contempt of court / on stone by Emil Luders ; lith. of August Kollner, Phila. , ca. 1855 (Philadelphia: Published by Thomas Curtis, printseller, 134 Arch St., Phila) Photograph, accessed November, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003689277/.

[10] William Cooper Nell, Selected Writing 1832-1874, ed. by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Costance Porter Uzelac (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 2002), 420.

Image: William Cooper Nell, Photograph, Massachusetts Historical Society Collection, accessed November, 2020, http://masshist.org/database/1338.

[11] Ibid., 432.

[12] Ralph Lowell Eckert, “Antislavery Martyrdom: The Ordeal of Passmore Williamson,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 100, No. 4 (Oct., 1976): 529.

Image: Congress Hall, the State House and Old City Hall, Chestnut Street at 6th, c. 1855, ca. 1855, Salt Prints (Philadelphia, PA: Free Library of Philadelphia), accessed November, 2020, https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/2586.

[13] The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), September 7, 1855.

[14] Narrative of Facts in the Case of Passmore Williamson, Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (Philadelphia, 1855), https://archive.org/details/narrativefactsi00unkngoog/mode/2up, 16.

[15] Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, Ohio), September 15, 1855.

Image: Anti-Slavery Bugle (Salem, Ohio), September 15, 1855.

[16] Philadelphia Inquirer, October 13, 1855.

Images: Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston, selection from 1855, Dr. Irving H. Bartlett collection, 1830-1880, W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College, accessed November, 2020, https://archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/48/mode/2up; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Papers, 1819-1928. MS Am 1340 (152), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. p. 180, accessed November, 2020, https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:9028239$190i.

[17] Eric Foner, Gateway To Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015), 144.

[18] The Liberator, January 25, 1856.

Image: The Liberator, January 25, 1856.

[19] Flynn, "Jane Johnson, Found!," 376.

Images: Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston, selection from 1857, Dr. Irving H. Bartlett collection, 1830-1880, W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College, accessed November, 2020, https://archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/n57/mode/2up; Account Book of Francis Jackson, Treasurer The Vigilance Committee of Boston, selection from 1859, Dr. Irving H. Bartlett collection, 1830-1880, W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College, accessed November, 2020, https://archive.org/details/drirvinghbartlet19bart/page/n61/mode/2up.

[20] Nell, Selected Writing 1832-1874, 452.

[21] Flynn, "Jane Johnson, Found!," 379.

[22] Kathryn Grover and Janine V. Da Silva, "Historic Resource Study: Boston African American National Historic Site," Boston African American National Historic Site, (2002), 105-106, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/discover_history/upload/boafsrs.pdf.

[23] Flynn, "Jane Johnson, Found!," 381.

Image: Gustav F. Braun, “Woodlawn Cemetery Everett,” NOBLE Digital Heritage, accessed November, 2020, https://digitalheritage.noblenet.org/noble/items/show/612.

Last updated: November 20, 2020