Henry Box Brown: The Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

Credits: Flickr/House Divided Project

Henry “Box” Brown’s remarkable story started with his birth into slavery in the 1800s. Today, he stands as a symbol of the relentless pursuit of freedom by African-American slaves.

Believed to have been born around 1815 or 1816, Henry Brown’s early years were at the Hermitage plantation, close to Yanceyville in Virginia’s Louisa County. Growing up, he lived alongside his parents, three brothers, and four sisters.

All were under the ownership of John Barret, a previous mayor of Richmond. When Barret passed away on June 9, 1830, a young Brown was relocated to Richmond, leaving his family behind.

In Richmond, he was bound to serve Barret’s heir, William, and found himself laboring in a tobacco factory owned by William. Out of all his siblings, only Martha remained with Brown, but she was made William Barret’s mistress. Around 1836, Brown found love in Nancy, another enslaved individual.

The two tied the knot and were blessed with three kids. The family were active participants of the First African Baptist Church, with Brown showcasing his vocal talents in the choir. Being diligent at the tobacco factory, Brown managed to secure a rented house for his family through his hard-earned income.

However, tragedy struck in 1848. Nancy, who was expecting at the time, and their children were sold to a slaveholder from North Carolina by Nancy’s owner. Devastated by the separation from his family, Brown’s grief gave way to a determination to gain freedom.

He sought assistance from James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free individual from his choir. James connected him with Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker known for occasionally aiding slaves. Alexander, motivated by financial gain, agreed to Brown’s escape plan.

Brown’s escape plan was audacious: he would mail himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a wooden crate. Through their contacts, they reached out to James Miller McKim, an influential figure in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and associated with the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad, during the 1800s, represented hope and freedom for many. Conceived by African American slaves, it was a clandestine system of safe houses and covert paths leading away from servitude.

March 23, 1849, marked the day Brown squeezed himself into a wooden box, marked “dry goods.” A harrowing journey awaited him, especially when the crate was mistakenly placed upside down aboard a steamship, causing immense physical distress to Brown.

His ordeal ended on the following day as he arrived at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society office in Philadelphia. Greeted by McKim, Brown stepped out and recited a psalm, thus being christened Henry “Box” Brown.

In the subsequent months, Brown’s escape was celebrated at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston. To accentuate the cruelty of slavery, he began sharing his narrative at abolitionist gatherings.

His compelling story caught the attention of Charles Stearns, a physician and writer. Together, they authored and promoted Brown’s memoir titled Narrative of Henry Box Brown, touring New England to disseminate it and share anti-slavery messages until November 1849.

Regrettably, not all were as fortunate as Brown. In May, Samuel Alexander Smith tried replicating Brown’s escape method for other slaves. This attempt was foiled, resulting in Smith’s arrest, conviction, and subsequent imprisonment for over six years.

Henry Box Brown’s incredible journey from slavery to freedom captured many hearts. In late 1849, James Caesar Anthony Smith, another accomplice to Samuel Smith, narrowly evaded imprisonment due to a split decision by the jury handling his case.

By 1850, Brown collaborated with artists such as Josiah Wolcott to launch a moving panorama illustrating the harrowing reality of slavery. Debuted in Boston on April 11, 1850, as “Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery,” it graced New England’s stages throughout the summer.

However, the shadows of the impending Fugitive Slave Bill loomed large, threatening to ensnare escaped African Americans. This legislation would empower authorities to capture and return escapees to their former masters.

Encounters with hostility, including an attack in Providence, Rhode Island, pressed Brown and James Caesar Anthony Smith to flee to England by October 1850.

The duo showcased Brown’s panorama across various English cities like Liverpool and Manchester from November 1850 to spring 1851. Brown’s memoir, “The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown,” found its readership in Manchester in May 1851.

However, rifts over finances and accusations of Brown’s lack of effort to free his family caused a rupture between him and Smith. Smith’s subsequent disparaging letters to prominent activists drove Brown toward the entertainment industry.

Evolving his panorama, Brown later emerged as a mesmerist in 1857, displaying his hypnotic skills to rapt audiences. Revisiting his escape, he incorporated his original shipping box into his acts and even assumed the persona of an African Prince.

After winning a libel suit against a derogatory newspaper piece, Brown’s life journeyed through various phases.

In 1859, he found love again, marrying and fathering a daughter. Toronto was the backdrop for his final years, where he passed away on June 15, 1897.

Today, over a century later, Brown’s extraordinary tale of courage and ingenuity resonates through various creative mediums, from plays to films, operas, and museum displays.