Henry Box Brown: The Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

Early on the morning of March 24, 1849, a box was delivered to 107 North Fifth Street in Philadelphia. These were the offices of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Several members of that organization had gathered that Saturday morning, anxiously awaiting the arrival of this package that had been shipped the day before from Richmond, Virginia.

When the box had been brought in, and the doors of the room locked so that there would be no untimely interruptions, one of the waiting men did something strange. Leaning over the box, he tapped on it and quietly asked, “Is all right within?” Even more strangely, a voice replied from inside the box, “All right.”

Within a few minutes the box was opened, and its contents revealed. He was an African American man in his early thirties by the name of Henry Brown. And he had just succeeded in escaping from slavery by shipping himself as freight to this city in the free state of Pennsylvania. In honor of this very creative but extremely dangerous feat, he would forever after be known as Henry “Box” Brown.

He had a mesmerizing story to tell.

Henry Brown was born in 1815 or 1816 in Louisa County, Virginia. His first owner was former Richmond mayor, John Barret. As a slaveholder, Barret was atypical. He treated his slaves much better than was the norm, so much so that Brown described him in his autobiography as “uncommonly kind,” adding wryly that “even a slaveholder may be kind.”

When Barret lay dying, he sent for Brown and his mother. They came, as Brown says, “with beating hearts and highly elated feelings.” Because of the kind treatment his family had always received from their master, and especially in light of the fact that Barret’s son Charles, impressed with the evils of slavery, had at one time emancipated about 40 of his slaves, Henry fully expected Barret to announce that he was setting the Brown family free. Instead, Barret simply told Henry that he would now belong to his son William, and urged him to be obedient to his new owner.

Barret probably felt he had done all he could for Henry, short of freeing him. He extracted a promise from William that he would treat Henry kindly, and never have him whipped. William was faithful to that promise. Henry was sure that there were many times when only William’s insistent instructions to the overseer that he be treated well saved him from the lash.

What Barret did not consider, as it seemed slaveholders almost never did, was that in dividing his slaves as an inheritance among his sons, he was ripping apart a family. Members of the Brown family were given to each of the four Barret sons. Even though Henry’s mother and sister joined him as part of William’s inheritance, they were ultimately separated by Henry being sent to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond. He was then about 15 years of age.

In 1836, as he entered his twenties, Henry fell in love with a young woman named Nancy. She was the slave of a Mr. Leigh, a bank clerk. Since slave marriages required the masters’ permission, Henry went to his own master and to Mr. Leigh to ask not only that he and Nancy be allowed to marry, but also for assurances that they would not be sold away from one another. Mr. Leigh was particularly strong in his commitment. Henry recalled that “He promised faithfully that he would not sell her, and pretended to entertain an extreme horror of separating families.” Secure in that promise, Henry and his bride were able to set up housekeeping together. But true to what Henry had come to expect from slaveholders, it was not more than a year after their marriage that Mr. Leigh broke his promise and sold Nancy.

This sale, and another that eventually followed, were to owners who lived in Richmond, and Henry and Nancy were able to maintain their family despite these upheavals. They had three children together, and were expecting their fourth when the long feared blow finally struck them.

On that day in 1848, Henry left home as usual to go to his work. His autobiography recounts the horrific news that was soon brought to him: “I had not been many hours at my work, when I was informed that my wife and children were taken from their home, sent to the auction mart and sold, and then lay in prison ready to start away the next day for North Carolina with the man who had purchased them. I cannot express, in language, what were my feelings on this occasion.”

Henry’s family became part of a group of 350 slaves purchased by a slave-trading Methodist minister. Although he tried in every way he could to find a means of getting his family back, nothing worked. When he pleaded with his master for help, the man would say nothing more than, “you can get another wife.” Henry was finally reduced to watching from the street as his wife and children, along with the other slaves, were herded into wagons for their journey to an auction block in North Carolina, and out of his life forever. He never saw them again.

With the loss of his family, Henry became determined to escape the hopeless oppression of slavery. He was a man of faith, a member of the First African Baptist Church where he sang in the choir. He was also a man of prayer. As he recalled, it was while he was fervently praying concerning his plight “when the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.” Henry was convinced that it was God Himself who inserted that thought into his mind. He immediately went to work to put his plan into action.

He secured the help of a free black man and fellow choir member by the name of James Caesar Anthony Smith. He also solicited the aid of Samuel Smith (no relation to James), a white storekeeper with whom he had done business. Although Samuel Smith had been a slave owner, Henry was convinced of his integrity and believed he could trust him to help. Henry offered him half of his savings of $166 (he actually gave him $86), and Smith agreed to participate in the escape effort. It was Samuel Smith who contacted an acquaintance, Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim, and arranged for him to receive the shipment.

Henry hired a carpenter to construct the box, which was 3 ft long, 2 ft wide, 2.5 ft deep, and lined with a coarse woolen cloth. It had just three small air holes where his face would be to allow him to breathe. A sign was attached that read “This Side Up With Care,” since for a human being to be kept in a head-down orientation for any length of time is extremely dangerous. Once inside the box, Henry would be entirely unable to shift his position.

Early in the morning of Friday, March 23, 1849, Henry climbed into the box. He carried nothing with him but a small bladder of water and a few crackers. The two Smiths nailed the box shut and lashed it with straps, then conveyed it to the facility of the Adams Express Company, about a mile away.

True to the traditions maintained by freight handlers to this day, the “This Side Up With Care” sign was totally ignored. Henry recalled, “I had no sooner arrived at the office than I was turned heels up, while some person nailed something on the end of the box. I was then put upon a wagon and driven off to the depot with my head down, and I had no sooner arrived at the depot, than the man who drove the wagon tumbled me roughly into the baggage car, where, however, I happened to fall on my right side.”

There were several times during the trip when Henry was left in an upside down position. One particular time almost killed him: “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head. In this position I attempted to lift my hand to my face but I had no power to move it; I felt a cold sweat coming over me which seemed to be a warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries.” Just in time, two men looking for a place to sit turned the box right side up to make it a comfortable seat, and Henry was saved.

Henry had to endure 27 hours in his cramped and stifling hot enclosure before arriving at the Anti-Slavery Society’s offices on that notable Saturday morning. It’s no wonder that when the box was opened and he tried to stand, he lost consciousness. But Henry was dauntless. As soon as he was brought back to consciousness, he carried out the plan he had made for celebrating his safe arrival. Like Neil Armstrong when he stepped for the first time on the surface of the moon, Henry had prepared what he would say when he stepped for the first time into freedom. As he put it,

I had risen as it were from the dead; I felt much more than I could readily express; but as the kindness of Almighty God had been so conspicuously shown in my deliverance, I burst forth into the following hymn of thanksgiving…

He then went on to sing his own version of Psalm 40, “I waited patiently, I waited patiently for the Lord, for the Lord; And he inclined unto me, and heard my calling.” From then on, in the hundreds of times Henry would tell his story, this psalm was always part of his presentation.

Henry Brown’s parcel-post escape from slavery was, of course, an exciting and compelling story. At first, the Anti-Slavery society tried to keep it from getting out so that others could use the same method. But keeping that kind of secret was impossible. In its edition of April 12, 1849, less than a month after Henry arrived in Philadelphia, the Courier newspaper of Burlington, Vermont published a somewhat garbled version of the story. Other papers soon picked it up.

With the story of his escape no longer a secret, abolitionists knew that Henry Box Brown could be a potent ally in their cause. He soon began speaking to abolitionist meetings, and became a very effective advocate for the elimination of American slavery. It turned out that the creativity Henry displayed in devising his means of escape was no fluke. In 1849 he hired artists and craftsmen to produce a panorama that as it was unrolled revealed 49 scenes from his life as a slave. It was called Henry “Box” Brown’s Mirror of Slavery, and it was a powerful illustration in his anti-slavery talks. He also published, with Charles Stearns, his autobiography called Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery.

With all his success and fame, Henry “Box” Brown was still legally a slave. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in August, 1850, it was no longer safe for him to remain in a country where any slave catcher had a legal right to grab him and carry him back into slavery. So, in October of that year he sailed for England. He remained there, traveling throughout the United Kingdom presenting his panorama, until 1875, when he returned to the United States. He had remarried in England, and brought his new wife and daughter with him.

At that point, ten years after the close of the Civil War, the anti-slavery crusade was moot. So, Henry and his family made their living performing together an act called, “the African Prince’s Drawing-Room Entertainment” in which Henry appeared as “Prof. H. Box Brown.” Their last known performance was reported by a newspaper in Brantford, Ontario on February 26, 1889. Nothing is known of what happened to Henry and his family after that time. The date and place of his death are unknown.

Other attempts to use Henry’s method of escaping slavery were made. In fact, the two Smiths who had helped him, James and Samuel, were both caught aiding other fugitives and put on trial. James was acquitted, and moved North. Samuel, however, was convicted and served about seven years in prison for his commitment to freedom for slaves.

The ordeal that Henry “Box” Brown endured in order to be delivered out of slavery was not unique. Many others braved terrors as severe in their own quest for freedom. Although the publicity surrounding his means of escape precluded it being used, as premier abolitionist Frederick Douglass had hoped, by “a thousand Box Browns per annum,” the story of Henry “Box” Brown provided something beyond just one successful method for escaping slavery. It provided inspiration and hope to thousands, both black and white, that with the help of God, good can indeed triumph over evil. And that hope still lives today.