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Passmore Williamson v. John K Kane (1855)

Original Citation
David W. Brown, ed., Passmore Williamson vs. John K. Kane: Action for False Imprisonment, before the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, 1857), 4-5.


Passmore Williamson was a white leader of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which spearheaded Underground Railroad efforts in the region.  In 1855, he was involved in the rescue of Jane Wheeler, a slave of the U.S. minister to Nicaragua, John H. Wheeler, who was traveling through Philadelphia.  Williamson was arrested along with other vigilance leaders, including William Still, and faced trial.  This transcript, however, concerns a counter-attack mounted by abolitionist lawyers on Williamson's behalf alleging “false imprisonment” for the officials responsible for his detention.


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This is an action for false imprisonment instituted in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, to recover damages for assaulting the plaintiff and imprisoning him, and detaining him in prison for three months. The complaint is set out in a declaration containing six counts, in some of which the circumstances attending the commission of the offences charged are particularly detailed.

The defendant pleaded five pleas:

1. The first alleges that the defendant was duly commissioned Judge of the District Court of the United States; that being such judge he was privileged from answering in any civil suit for anything done or commanded by him as judge; that, on the 27th of July, 1855, a motion was made in the District Court to commit the plaintiff for contempt, because he had refused to make return to a writ of habeas corpus directed to him by the Court; that the defendant, as judge, had adjudged the plaintiff guilty of the contempt charged; and thereupon a warrant, signed by defendant as judge, issued out of the court to the marshal, by virtue of which the plaintiff was arrested and imprisoned, which were the trespasses complained of in the declaration.

2. The second plea makes substantially the same allegation, with the addition, that by virtue of the warrant issued to the marshal the plaintiff was detained till he purged himself of the contempt; which being done on the 3d day of November, 1855, he was discharged.

3. The third plea embraces all the circumstances alleged in the second, and sets out besides, briefly, the substance of the writ of habeas corpus.

4. The fourth plea only varies from the second in some immaterial particulars.

5. The fifth plea alleges the appointment of the defendant as judge--that on the 18th day of July 1855, John H. Wheeler, a citizen of Virginia, and Minister &c., being temporarily in Pennsylvania, petitioned the District Court for a habeas corpus to be directed to the plaintiff--on the allegation that three persons held to service or labor by the laws of Virginia, and owned by the petitioner, were detained by the plaintiff--that the defendant as judge granted the habeas corpus--that afterwards, to wit, July 19th, 1855, an alias writ issued, directed to the plaintiff, returnable the next day--that the plaintiff appeared at the time appointed, and made his return, stating that the persons named in the writ were not then, nor when the writ was issued, nor at any other time, in the custody or power of the plaintiff--that leave was given to the relator to traverse the return, whereupon the parties were heard by their counsel, and evidence adduced before the defendant as judge--that the defendant as judge, being of the opinion that the return was untrue and illusory, adjudged the plaintiff guilty of contempt, and ordered him to be committed to the custody of the marshal of the district--that neither the plaintiff nor his counsel made any objection to the jurisdiction of the court--that an order of commitment issued, under which the plaintiff was committed to prison, to await the further order of the court--that he remained in prison till he purged himself of the contempt; and that these are the trespasses complained of.

To these pleas the plaintiff replied that the defendant committed the trespass complained of his own wrong, and without the causes alleged in the pleas.

The defendant thereupon demurred specially, to the replication as applicable to the first, third and fifth pleas, and stated several causes.

1. That by the replication the plaintiff attempts to put in issue mere inference and matter of law.

2. That it attempts to put in issue matter of record.

3. That the replication is double and multifarious.

On the second and fourth pleas he joined issue.

The plaintiff joined in demurrer.

The argument was opened by Mr. Sheppard, one of the defendant's counsel, who addressed the court at an adjourned court in September last.

Mr. Broomall, one of the plaintiff's counsel, who was to have followed Mr. Sheppard, having been obliged to leave the court during Mr. Sheppard's argument, the further hearing of the case was postponed to an adjourned court, to be held on the 17th of December, 1856.

Dec. 17, 1856. On the meeting of the Court, Mr. Broomall rose to address the Court, but being in ill health was able to utter only a few sentences, before be was obliged to withdraw, and Mr. Lewis was called upon, unexpectedly, to proceed.

Citation for this page

David W. Brown, ed., Passmore Williamson vs. John K. Kane: Action for False Imprisonment, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,

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