Henry Brown: A Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

Henry Brown was a slave who at the age of 33 mailed himself to freedom. He placed himself in a baize-lined wooden crate that had been addressed to an abolitionist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Because of his clever plan he acquired the nickname of “Box” at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849 and thereafter called himself Henry Box Brown.

Henry Brown

Henry Brown. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Henry Brown’s story begins when he was born into slavery in 1815 or 1816. His birth happened in Louisa County, Virginia on a plantation called the Hermitage. As an adult he remembered his parents fondly and reported having several siblings whom he mentioned in his autobiography.

“According to his own account his owner was kind and he had nothing in the way of cruel treatment of which to complain. When his master died he became the property of one of the sons and taken to Richmond, Va., to work in a tobacco manufactory. Here he married and had a happy home with his wife and three children. One morning, in 1848, while he was at his work his family was sold to a slave dealer and sent to North Carolina. Soon after he made arrangements with a friend in Richmond to help him escape.”[1]

Brown, with the help of free black man named James C. A. Smith and Samuel A. Smith, a white Richmond shoemaker who gambled and sold lottery tickets, devised a plan for him to acquire his freedom. Brown was advised to mail himself to a Quaker merchant, Passmore Williamson, who was active with the Vigilance Committee.

“While [Samuel] Smith’s motives for helping Brown remain a matter for speculation, in early March of 1849 Smith traveled to the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society to ask James Miller McKim, William Still, and Cyrus Burleigh for help with Brown’s plan to ship himself north. Smith’s correspondence with McKim about the timing of the trip, particularly his attention to the breakup of the ice on the Susquehanna, indicates his ― and perhaps Brown’s ― practical understanding of the conditions necessary for the box to arrive swiftly enough for Brown to survive the journey.”[2]

With a knowledge of what was necessary to be successful Henry Brown paid $86 (equivalent in 2020 to $2,675) to the Adams Express Company for the mailing fees. Adams Express was a private mail service that marketed itself as being confidential and extremely efficient. Moreover, the company was favored by abolitionist organizations because it “promised never to look inside the boxes it carried.”[3]

In 1849, the same year that French socialite, Madame Récamier died, Henry Brown put his escape plan into action. He claimed he burned his hand with sulfuric acid, but it was ruse to get him out of work. He then climbed into a three foot long and two-foot six inch deep box along with a bladder of water and gimlet in case he needed to create additional breathing holes. He was locked inside the box by Samuel A. Smith for twenty-seven hours and was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad again, and finally delivered by wagon. The New Orleans’ Times Picayune published information related to Brown’s trip to freedom:

“While at Richmond, though the box was legibly and distinctly marked ‘this side up with care,’ it was placed on end, with his head downwards. He felt strange pains, and was preparing himself to die, preferring liberty or death to slavery, and he gave no sign. He was, however, relieved from this painful position, and encountered no other danger than the rough handling of the box, until it arrived in Washington. When the porters who had charge of it reached the depot there, they threw or dropped it with violence to the ground, and it rolled down a small hill, turning over two or three times. This he thought was bad enough, but the words he heard filled him with anguish, and brought with them the blackness of despair. They were, that the box was so heavy it could not be forwarded on that night, but must lay over twenty-four hours. In the language of the fugitive, ‘My heart swelled in my throat; I could scarcely breathe; great sweats came over me; I gave up all hope.’ But a man came in and said, ‘that box must go on it’s the express mail.’ Oh, what relief I felt. It was taken into the depot, and I was placed head downward again for the space of half an hour. My eyes were swollen almost out of my head, and I was fast becoming insensible, when the position was changed.”[4]

Depiction of Henry Brown being freed from the box. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The box was forwarded on and received at its destination where it was crowbarred open on 30 March 1849 by McKim, Williamson, and Still along with members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee and others. After Brown’s release from the box, the following was noted:

“Here is a man who has been the hero of one of the most extraordinary achievements I ever heard of; ― he came to me on Saturday Morning last, in a box tightly hopped, marked ‘THIS SIDE UP,’ by overland express, from the city of Richmond!! Did you ever hear of any thing in all your life to beat that? Nothing that was done on the barricades of Paris exceeded this cool and deliberate intrepidity. To appreciate fully the boldness and risk of this achievement, you ought to see the box and hear all the circumstances. The box … was a regular old store box, such as you see in Pearl-street; ― it was grooved at the joints and braced at the ends, leaving but the very slightest crevice to admit the air. Nothing saved him from suffocation but the free use of water ― a quantity of which he took in with him in a beef’s bladder, and with which he bathed his face ― and the constant fanning of himself with his hat. He fanned himself unremittingly all the same. The ‘this side up’ on the box was not regarded, and he was twice put with his head downward, resting with his back against the end of the box, his feet braced against the other, ― the first time he succeeded in shifting his position; but the second time was on board of the steam boat, where people were sitting and standing about the box, and where any motions inside would have been overheard and have led to discovery; he was therefore obliged to keep his position for twenty miles. This nearly killed him. He says the veins in his temples were as thick as his finger. I had been expecting him for several days, and was in mortal fear all the time lest his arrival should only be a signal for calling in the coroner. You can better imagine than I can describe my sensations, when, in answer to my rap on the box and question, ‘all right,’ the prompt response came ‘all right sir.’ The man weighs 200 pounds and is about five feet eight inches in height; and is, as you will see, a noble looking fellow. … He was boxed up in Richmond at five, A.M. on Friday shipped at eight, and I opened him up at six (about daylight) next morning. He has a sister in New Bedford.”[5]

After his escape to freedom, Henry Brown published two versions of his autobiography. The first was titled Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown and was ghostwritten by white abolitionist Charles Stearns. It was published in Boston in 1849. The second, Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown, Written by Himself, was published in 1851. It is not considered any more accurate than the first version and in fact was likely more embellished. However, it provided more of Brown’s voice and less of the “Abolitionist Style” popular at the time when people wrote about slavery.

Brown’s tales of his time in slavery did not involve horrible stories of cruelty or bad treatment. In fact, he talked about the “partial kindness” of his master and mentioned what was most horrible was the tearing apart of families by the wanton practice of selling of slaves without regard to family ties (such as what happened in the largest slave auction in U.S. history in March 1859). Of family separation Henry Brown stated:

“From the time I first breathed the air of human existence, until the hour of my escape from bondage, I did not receive but one whipping. I never suffered from lack of food, or on account of too extreme labor; nor for want of sufficient clothing to cover my person. My tale is not, therefore, one of horrid inflictions of the lash upon my naked body; of cruel starvings and insolent treatment; but is the very best representation of slavery which can be given; … Far beyond, in terrible suffering, all outward cruelties of the foul system, are those inner pangs which rend the heart of fond affection, when the ‘bone of your bone, and the flesh of your flesh’ is separated from your embrace, by the ruthless hand of the merciless tyrant. … and more fearful by far than all the blows of the bloody lash, or the pangs of cruel hunger are those lashings of the heart, which the best of slaveholders inflict upon their happy and ‘well’ slaves as they tear from their grasp the pledges of love, smiling at the side of devoted attachment … Tell me not of kind masters … There is no such thing as a person of that description; for, as you will see, my master, one of the most distinguished of this uncommon class of slaveholders, hesitated not to allow the wife of my love to be torn from my fond embrace, and the darling idols of my heart, my little children, to be snatched from my arms, and thus to doom them to a separation from me, more dreadful to all of us than a large number of lashes, inflicted on us daily.”[6]

Although Brown may have talked about losing his wife* and family with affectionate terms, soon after his escape he was contacted by their new owner, who offered to sell Brown’s family back to him. Despite being a newly freed man, Brown declined. This was a huge embarrassment within the abolitionist community and great lengths were taken to keep this information private.

Besides, publication of his autobiography, Brown went on to become a well-known speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, where he met Frederick Douglass, an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. In addition, while on the lecture circuit in the northeastern United States, he, with his partner, the free black man Smith, developed a moving panorama,** described as a “pictorial illustration of American slavery in all its phases of social injustices and domestic crime.”[7]

The same year that the famous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud died, was also the same year that the Fugitive Slave Act passed the U.S. Congress. It happened on 18 September 1850 and was one of the most controversial elements of the 1850 compromise because it heightened Northern fears of a slave power conspiracy. The act required all law enforcement officials, even in free states, to capture and return escaped slaves to their owners.***

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act scared Henry Brown and he feared that he would be recaptured and returned to slavery. Therefore, he decided to move to Manchester, England for safety. While living in England he toured for ten years with his antislavery panorama titled “The American War, and Life amongst the Slaves” along with other panoramas of Africa, the Holy Land, and the India Mutiny. He also earned money by lecturing on the evils of slavery on the British show circuit in the 1850s.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of Henry Brown and his panoramas or lectures. There were critics who condemned Brown claiming that he exaggerated his tales of slavery and they disparaged his character. Ultimately, Brown ended up filing a libel lawsuit against one vocal critic.

Brown eventually expanded his career. Besides his lectures and panoramas, he began acting in several plays written specially for him by E.G. Burton, a British playwright. Unfortunately, his acting career was short-lived and by the 1860s Brown was performing as a magician, mesmerist (hypnotist), and conjuror under the name “H. Box Brown.”

Advertisement by Henry “Box” Brown in 1869. Author’s collection.

While living in England, Henry Brown also met and married Jane Floyd, a white Cornish tin worker’s daughter. They married in 1855 and had at least one child. Brown and his family returned to the United States in 1875 and his last known performance was in February 1889 where he performed with his daughter Annie and wife Jane in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Henry Brown died in Toronto, Canada on 15 June 1867.


* His wife’s name was Nancy Brown.
**A moving panorama was an innovation on the panoramic paintings of the mid-nineteenth century that became a new visual element to theater and helped incorporate a more realistic quality. Not only was it a special effect on stage, but it also served as an ancestor and platform to early cinema. In addition, it was among the most popular forms of entertainment in the world and often seen in melodramatic plays.
***Abolitionists thought the Fugitive Slave Act was horrible and nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Bill,” after the dogs that were used to track down escaping slaves.

References:

  • [1] The Buffalo Enquirer, “Henry Brown, the Slave,” September 26, 1911, p. 3.
  • [2] H. Robbins, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry “Box” Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics,” American Studies 50, no. 5 (2009): p. 14.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 13.
  • [4] The Times-Picayune, “The Running of Slaves,” June 13, 1849, p. 1.
  • [5] H. Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (Manchester, 1851), p. iii, iv.
  • [6] C. Stearns, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box Three Feet Long, Two Wide, and Two and a Half High 1849, Boston, (Boston: Brown & Stearns, 1849), p. 12–13.
  • [7] The Era, “History of Henry Box Brown,” October 4, 1857, p. 12.

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