Collection Title: Passmore Williamson Papers

Collection Number: MS 196

Dates of Collection: 1814-1895, Bulk date 1855

Box Numbers: 1

RepositoryChester County Historical Society

Project Archivist: Jasmine Smith, Librarian


Biography: Dedicated abolitionist Passmore Williamson hurried toward a departing ship in the summer of 1855. Before the ship left Philadelphia, he needed alert slave Jane Johnson that according to Pennsylvania law, she was free to leave her master at any time while on Pennsylvania land. She and her two children left her master and disappeared into the protection of the Underground Railroad. The ensuing court case against Williamson set legal precedent for use of writs of habeus corpus, included a dramatic testimony from Johnson herself, and was of intense interest to the public, particularly abolitionists. Williamson was jailed for nearly five months before being released in November of 1855. This collection documents the long process of the trial through letters and publications. It complements the Passmore Williamson Visitors’ Book.          

Resources Used: “Narrative of Facts in the Case of Passmore Williamson.” Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1855.

Collections Scope:

This collection includes letters, ephemera, and publications.

The letters almost exclusively date from 1855 and document the course of Passmore Williamson’s incarceration, trial, and release. Most are addressed to William Williamson, Passmore Williamson’s uncle.

The ephemera includes calling cards, receipts, and organizational materials related to both Passmore Williamson and his wife. Many ephemera items do not relate to the trial but are included in this collection because of shared provenance.

The publications are contemporaneous writings on the trial and its wider legal implications.

Collection Arrangement:

The letters are arranged by writer and date. The ephemera is grouped by donor.

Related Material:

Click to view the Passmore Williamson Visitors’ Book in our digital collection.

The Chester County Historical Society does hold other manuscripts and letters to or from Passmore Williamson and his family unrelated to the 1855 court case. Please consult our manuscript catalog to identify these additional manuscript items.

Collections Contents:

Folder #           Description 

1          Letters from Edward H. Williamson to William Williamson concerning trial of Passmore Williamson, 1855, from Philadelphia

            MS 35574 – August 5

            MS 35575 – August 9, includes sketch of Colonel Wheeler

            MS 35576 – August 16, telegram sent from Altoona

            MS 35577 – August 18

            MS 35578 – August 25

            MS 35579 – August 27

            MS 35580 – August 29, describes Colonel Wheeler’s statement

            MS 35581 – August 30

            MS 35582 – September 1, Jane Johnson makes her court appearance

            MS 35583 – September 7

            MS 35584 – September 15

            MS 35585 – September 20

            MS 35586 – September 22, new writ served for circuit court appearance

            MS 35587 – September 26

            MS 35588 – October 22, judge refuses to hear release petition

            MS 35589 – October 31

            MS 35590 – November 2

            MS 35591 – November 3, Passmore Williamson discharged

            MS 35592 – November 7


2          Letters from Thomas Williamson to his brother William Williamson concerning trial of Passmore Williamson, 1855, from Philadelphia

            MS 35607 – July 31,

            MS 35608 – August 1,

            MS 35609 – August 2

            MS 35610 – August 10

            MS 35615 – August 13

            MS 35611 – August 14

            MS 35612 – August 20

            MS 35613 – September 6

            MS 35614 – September 27

            MS 35616 – October 17

            MS 35617 – October 24

            MS 35618 – October 31

            MS 35619 – November 7


3          Letter, Passmore Williamson to his Uncle, August 6, 1855


4          Notes of a Legal Action vs. John Kane

            Manuscripts 9031, 9032


5          Passmore Williamson Documents, donations of Mrs. P. Louis Lloyd

            Letter, Mercie Williamson to Passmore Williamson, February 22, 1850

            Letter, Sallie Emma Williamson to her parents, February 23, 1862

            Reading Circle memoriam for Mercie Williamson, November 17, 1878

            Invitation sent to Passmore Williamson, 1844

            Williamson family births list, up to 1814

            Pennsylvania Women’s Suffrage Association, letter to Passmore Williamson on death of Mercie Williamson, November 7, 1878

            In memoriam of Passmore Williamson, March 1895


6          Passmore Williamson Documents, donations of Mrs. Harry E. Barker

            Calling cards

            Letter, Passmore Williamson to his wife, undated, but indicates early July, 1855

            Letter, Passmore Williamson to Mercie K. Taylor, July 6, 1848

            Receipt to Passmore Williamson, hardware, 1877

            Receipt to Passmore Williamson, stationery, 1874

            Receipt to Passmore Williamson, furniture, 1877

            Receipt to Mrs. Williamson, dry goods, 1876

            Receipt to Mrs. Williamson, upholsterer, 1877

            Receipt to Mrs. Williamson, linens, 1877


7          “Narrative of Facts in the Case of Passmore Williamson.” Philadelphia: The Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, 1855.


8          Case of Passmore Williamson: Report of the Proceedings on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, Issued by the Hon. John K. Kane, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in the Case of the United States of America Ex Rel. John H. Wheeler vs. Passmore Williamson, Including the Several Opinions Delivered; and the Arguments of Counsel, Reported by Arthur Cannon, Esq., Phonographer. Philadelphia: Uriah Hunt & Son, 1856.

9           Flynn, Katherine E. (2002). “Jane Johnson Found! But Is She “Hannah Crafts”?: The Search for the Author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 90:3, 165-190.