Passmore Williamson's Prison Visitors Book

Chester County History Center Saves Passmore Williamson’s Prison Visitors’ Book

Who was Passmore Williamson? In 1855, abolitionist Williamson was jailed for refusing to cooperate in recovering Jane Johnson and her two sons. Johnson, an enslaved woman, sought and gained freedom in Pennsylvania with Williamson’s assistance. He spent 100 days in Moyamensing Prison before he was released. 

Why preserve this book? The book is tangible proof of the fight against slavery. Passmore Williamson’s prison visitors’ book contains the signatures of famous abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. The book demonstrates how Williamson’s principled stand against injustice inspired others to speak out on his behalf.  

Why is his Visitors’ Book important? Over 500 men, women and children visited Williamson to show their support. The signers came from 14 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Ireland. In addition to Frederick Douglass, other prominent abolitionists who visited included Harriet Tubman, William Still, Robert Purvis, Caleb and Isaac Clothier, and Mary Ann Shadd (formerly of West Chester, PA, but then living in Ontario). The book also contains letters from Oberlin College, Longwood Progressive Friends, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and Senator Charles Sumner. In the back is a letter from William Cooper Nell conveying gratitude from Jane Johnson, who was safely living in Massachusetts.  

Why did this book need conservation treatment? The leather on the book’s spine and corners was almost completely missing and the front and back covers are worn and completely detached.  Many pages were loose or very tenuously attached. Many of the pages and attached letters were creased and torn. Handling the book would have risked further damage.

What did conservation treatment include? Each page of the book required stabilization and the binding was restored. 

What has happened to the book after it was treated? The book will only be exhibited for limited time periods in order to ensure its long-term preservation. The entire book was scanned and digital images are available online and in the CCHC Library. A transcribed and annotated list of signatures are also online. The database documents the extensive community that rallied around Passmore Williamson and supported his principled stand against slavery. This information will be used as the basis for new school and public programming. 

What was the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts campaign? Pennsylvania’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts was “a campaign that celebrates our state’s most inspiring items” while building awareness and raising funds for much-needed conservation work.  Nominated items were selected by an independent review panel and represented a range of institutions from across Pennsylvania. During the campaign, which ran for six weeks in 2013, people could vote for and donate to their favorite artifacts. The visitors’ book won the People’s Choice Award, with 1,968,595 votes and social media shares. Individual donations, grants, and foundations enabled CCHC to achieve the goal of $25,480. 

Many thanks to our individual, corporate, and foundation supporters especially the Chester County Bar Foundation, Philadelphia Foundation, and Pennsylvania Abolition Society. 

For more on Passmore Williamson and the campaign to save his prison visitors’ book, please visit: 

“Passmore Williamson’s Visitors’ Book”  

Chester County Historical Center selected to participate in Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts’ Top 10 campaign 

Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts announces winner of People’s Choice Award

Top 10 campaign featured on WHYY’s Newsworks Tonight

All book photos credited to Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts, Philadelphia, PA