Jane Johnson entered the history books in July 1855, when she and her sons accompanied John Wheeler and his family on a trip north by train from Washington to Philadelphia. After a short visit, they planned to travel by ferry to New York City, then by ship to Nicaragua, where Wheeler was U.S. minister. On 18 July the entourage arrived at the Broad Street Station in Philadelphia … After a brief stop, they continued to Bloodgood's Hotel, near the Camden Ferry. The family left Johnson and her sons at the hotel, locking them in their room and instructing the Johnsons to talk to no one until their return later that afternoon.
Philadelphia was a center of abolitionist activity and a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Johnson was apparently aware of this. She managed to pass a note to a black hotel worker indicating that she wanted her freedom, and the note was passed along to William Still, an African-American leader of the abolitionist cause. Still and a white associate, Passmore Williamson, went to the hotel, where they found the Wheeler party about to leave on the five o'clock ferry. As the party made its way to the boat, Still and Williamson approached Johnson and informed her that under Pennsylvania law she was free and could leave Wheeler. As Williamson tried to reason with Wheeler while black dockworkers restrained him, Still rushed Johnson and her sons to a waiting carriage that drove them to Still's home in the city.