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Abraham Johnstone, d. 1797
The Address of Abraham Johnstone, a Black Man, Who Was Hanged at Woodbury, in the County of Glocester, and State of New Jersey, on Saturday the the [sic] 8th Day of July Last; to the People of Colour. To Which Is Added His Dying Confession or Declaration. Also, a Copy of a Letter to His Wife, Written the Day Previous to His Execution
Philadelphia: The Purchasers, 1797.


Little is known about the life and death of Abraham Johnstone other than the information he himself provided in his Address (1797). According to that text, he was born Benjamin Johnstone in "Delaware, at a place called Johnny-cake landing Possom town, in Mother Kind-Hundred and County of Sussex" and spent time in Maryland and Pennsylvania before his death in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia (p. 32). Johnstone was born into slavery and passed through the hands of five owners before earning his freedom from James Craig around the year 1790. After his manumission, Johnstone assumed the first name of his brother, Abraham, in order to elude the pursuit of Craig's executors, who wished to sell him as a slave in Georgia. He survived Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic only to be hanged four years later on July 8, 1797, for the murder of Thomas Read, "a Guinea Negro" and one of Johnstone's friends (p. 2).

The Address reprints the text of three different documents written by Johnstone: an appeal for moral reform among his fellow African Americans; a "dying confession" in which Johnstone maintains his innocence in Read's murder, insisting that he has been wrongfully convicted (p. 40); and a letter to his wife Sarah. The compilation was published in Philadelphia "For the Purchasers," and since Johnstone addresses his injunction "to avoid all strifes, quarrels, contentions, animosities, law-suits or litigations of any kind" to "the People of Colour," the purchasers and readers of his Address were presumably African Americans (pp. 27).

In all three of the documents that make up his Address, Johnstone writes with a moral purpose in mind and acknowledges his own religious failings. Though he was "a chosen member of the Methodistical society" as a slave in Delaware, Johnstone "some how omitted" to renew his membership during his five years in New Jersey and Philadelphia (p. 36). Johnstone also acknowledges "a too great lust after strange women" and begs pardon from his wife "for all the transgressions I have committed against God, and our marriage bed during the time we have been united" (pp. 40, 43).

In the letter to his wife Sarah, Johnstone confesses these marital indiscretions only because she refuses to visit her "dotingly fond husband" in jail, even though he "had the [Sheriff's] express permission for your coming, and nobody should have molested " her (pp. 47, 43). Whether Sarah objects to her husband's adultery or merely wishes to avoid the attention of Johnstone's jailers and fellow inmates is unclear, but Johnstone's death-day letter evinces a sincere desire for the spiritual and physical welfare of his wife. He leaves her a white hat, two orders for a small amount of money, his clothes and moral counsel. Assuming that Sarah will find a new husband to replace him, Johnstone urges her to "shun and by all means avoid frolicking and all it's attending evil concomitants, for . . . there is no man of sense, but would as soon take his wife from a bawdy house, as from a frolic" (p. 45).

The marital advice that Johnstone offers his wife is similar to the religious counsel he provides to the larger African American community. Johnstone treats the abundance of white criminals as "plain proof that there are some whites (with all due deference to them) capable of being equally as depraved and more generally so than blacks or people of colour," then exhorts his "dear friends and brethern" to obey the commandments and prove themselves just as righteous as their white counterparts (pp. 7-8). Johnstone condemns, among others, Sabbath-breakers and the indolent, but he denounces perjurers as "the blakest and most horrid, audacious, and impious" of all sinners (p. 23). Johnstone reacts so harshly towards perjury not only because the practice violates both Christ's command to avoid swearing oaths and the Old Testament stricture against bearing false witness, but also because he believes that his conviction and impending execution are the product of perjured testimony.

In his dying confession, "with the ignominious cord round my neck, and standing on a stage beneath that gallows that must in a few moments transport" him into God's presence, Johnstone claims that five different men have lied under oath in order to secure his conviction (p. 40). Johnstone assumes that his audience is familiar with the details of his trial, which makes his explanation of Thomas Read's murder difficult to understand at times, but Johnstone apparently believes that a man named Samuel Huffsey "procured Tom [Read] to steal" the lease that enabled Johnstone to live on Huffsey's farm. The very next day, "Huffsey brought a witness with him and called upon me to produce my lease, or else quit" the premises (p. 40). Johnstone fails to produce the lease and is presumably evicted. When Read is discovered dead shortly thereafter, the testimony of Huffsey's friends convicts Johnstone for Read's murder.

The unidentified editor of Johnstone's Address apparently publishes the document in order to demonstrate that "juries ought to be extremely cautious how they admit evidence founded solely on presumption" and to discourage the admission of "Proof of so vague and indeterminable nature" such as that used in Johnstone's trial (p. 2).

But Johnstone does more than proclaim his innocence. In crying repentance to his fellow sinners, Johnstone molds himself into a Christ figure—he goes to his death "like a lamb led to the slaughter house" (p. 42). As Christ's "life was taken away by false swearing, (Alas! So is mine,)"; as Christ "prayed for and forgive his enemies, (so do I most freely forgive mine)" (p. 45). Though Johnstone is to be executed wrongfully, he goes to his death "chearfully" because he will die imitating his Savior (p. 41).

Zachary Hutchins

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