13 November 2014

Historical Society seeks to preserve prison visitor log of Passmore Williamson

The Chester County Historical Society recently sent out an email asking for help to save Passmore Williamson's Prison Visitors' Book. The request states that over 500 people visited Williamson when he was in prison. So, who was Williamson and why is he so important?

Passmore Williamson was an abolitionist. He spent 100 days in the Moyamensing Prison, having been committed on 27 July 1855. His crime was that he refused to cooperate in recovering Jane Johnson, a slave, and her two sons, Daniel and Isaiah.

Slave owner John H. Wheeler brought Johnson and her sons with him while he traveled from North Carolina to New York then onto Nicaragua. He stopped in Philadelphia, presumably to visit his in-laws. While there, Johnson connected with some free blacks who got word to the Anti-Slavery Society on 18 July 1855. At that time, any enslaved person - such as Johnson - who was brought into the state was considered free under Pennsylvania law, if he or she so desired.

He was born 23 February 1822 in Westtown, Chester County to Thomas and Elizabeth Pyle Williamson, Quakers. The family moved to Philadelphia where father and son were both conveyancers.

Passmore was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The later Society was considered to be more radical at the time. It sought the end - the immediate end - to slavery and many of its members were involved in the Underground Railroad.

Known for their pacifist ways, the Quakers - the Society of Friends - disowned him in 1848. Despite being disowned (essentially outcast or, using a more Catholic phrase, he was excommunicated), he married a Quaker woman, Mercie Knowles Taylor. They had four children.

So aside from being born in the County, what is his connection to the CCHS? The Anti-Slavery Society often held meetings in West Chester’s Horticultural Hall. That Hall is now part of the CCHS.

Passmore worked alongside like-minded people like Lucretia Mott and William Still. His visitor's book, from his stay at Moyamensing Prison, contains the signatures of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman. He received visitors from 14 states and as far away as Canada and even Ireland! He was finally released from prison on 3 November 1853.

On 28 February 1895, at the age of 73, Williamson passed. He is buried next to his wife, who died in 1878, in Upper Darby in a Friends cemetery. His father is buried alongside him as well.

The book is in the CCHS collection already. The goal is to preserve it. Once preserved properly, the book will only be exhibited for limited periods. However, it will be scanned and will be digitally available online.  The financial goal of the CCHS is $25,480. At the time of the email Wednesday, the Historical Society had already raised $18,000.


Caust-Ellenbogen, Celia. Rescue of Jane Johnson. Swarthmore College: Friends Historical Library. http://trilogy.brynmawr.edu/speccoll/quakersandslavery/commentary/themes/johnson.php. Accessed 13 November 2014.

Chester County Historical Society. Passmore Williamson's Prison Visitors' Book. http://chestercohistorical.org/passmore-williamsons-prison-visitors-book. Accessed 12 November 2014.

Lapansky, Phil. The Liberation of Jane Johnson. The Library Company of Philadelphia. http://www.librarycompany.org/janejohnson/. Accessed 13 November 2014.
Locations listed are located in Pennsylvania (USA), unless otherwise noted in post.