Henry Box Brown

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - View original article

Jump to: navigation, search
For other people named Henry Brown, see Henry Brown (disambiguation).
The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse published in 1850

Henry "Box" Brown (c.1816–after 1889)[1] was a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom at age 33 by arranging to have himself mailed in a wooden crate in 1849 to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists. He left behind his enslaved wife and children.

For a short time Brown became a noted abolitionist speaker in the northeast United States. He lost the support of the abolitionist community, notably Frederick Douglass, who wished Brown had kept quiet about the details of his escape so that others could have used similar means. As a public figure and fugitive slave, Brown felt endangered by passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which increased pressure to capture escaped slaves. He moved to England and lived there for 25 years, touring with an anti-slavery panorama and becoming a mesmerist and showman. Mostly forgotten in the United States,[2] he married an English woman and had a second family with her. He returned to the US with them in 1875 and continued to earn a living as an entertainer.

Childhood and slavery[edit]

Henry Brown was born into slavery in 1816 in Louisa County, Virginia. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself, he describes his owner: "Our master was uncommonly kind, (for even a slaveholder may be kind) and as he moved about in his dignity he seemed like a god to us, but notwithstanding his kindness although he knew very well what superstitious notions we formed him, he never made the least attempt to correct our erroneous impression, but rather seemed pleased with the reverential feelings which we entertained towards him."[3]


Brown had married but his wife was also enslaved, and their marriage was not recognized legally. Their three children were born into slavery, under the partus sequitur ventrem principle. Brown was hired out by his master in Richmond, Virginia and worked in a tobacco factory; he rented a house where he and his wife lived with their children.[2] After his master sold his wife and children to a different slave owner, Brown said he received a "heavenly vision" to "mail [himself] to a place where there are no slaves."

With the help of James C. A. Smith and a sympathetic white shoemaker (and likely gambler) named Samuel A. Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped to a free state by Adams Express Company, known for its confidentiality and efficiency.[2] Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Samuel Smith. He went to Philadelphia to consult with members of Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society on how to accomplish the escape, meeting with minister James Miller McKim, William Still, and Cyrus Burleigh. He corresponded with them to work out the details after returning to Richmond. They advised him to mail the box to the office of Quaker merchant Passmore Williamson, who was active with the Vigilance Committee.[2]

To get out of work the day he was to escape, Brown burned his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid).[2] The crate in which the 200-pound man traveled measured three feet one inch long, two feet six inches deep, and two feet wide.[2] He later wrote that his uncertain method of travel was worth the risk: "if you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast." [4]

Brown had he arrived at the depot than they put the box in the baggage car; next, the box was taken off the car. Immediately after that, Brown was put on the steamer. Brown's heavy use of passive voice cause [5]recent critics overlook the workers who are doing the placing and carrying. He was crouched in the fetal position with the box tossed upside down three or four times, Brown traveled three hundred and fifty miles—having only a flask of water and a few biscuits as sustenance," Wolff writes, as if the traveling was magic.

During the trip, which began on March 29, 1849,[2] Brown's box was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon, being completed in 27 hours. Despite the instructions on the box of "handle with care" and "this side up," several times carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown remained still and avoided detection.

Another "Resurrection of Henry Box Brown" published with an account of the story in William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad

The box containing Brown was received by Williamson, McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on March 30, 1849, attesting to the improvements in express delivery services.[2] When Brown was released, one of the men remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He sang a psalm from the Bible, which he had earlier chosen to celebrate his release into freedom.[6]

In addition to celebrating Brown's inventiveness, as noted by Hollis Robbins, "the role of government and private express mail delivery is central to the story and the contemporary record suggests that Brown’s audience celebrated his delivery as a modern postal miracle."[2] It was a private mail service that promised confidentiality.[2] The government postal service had dramatically increased communication and, despite southern efforts to control abolitionist literature, mailed pamphlets, letters and other materials reached the South.

"Cheap postage, Frederick Douglass observed in The North Star, had an “immense moral bearing.” As long as federal and state governments respected the privacy of the mails, everyone and anyone could mail letters and packages; almost anything could be inside. In short, the power of prepaid postage delighted the increasingly middle-class and commercial-minded North and increasingly worried the slave-holding South.[2]

Brown's escape highlighted the power of the mail system, which used a variety of modes of transportation to connect the East Coast. Adams Express Company, founded in 1840, marketed its confidentiality and efficiency. It was favored by abolitionist organizations and "promised never to look inside the boxes it carried."[2]

Life in freedom[edit]

Brown became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society and got to know Frederick Douglass. He was nicknamed "Box" at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849, and thereafter used the name Henry Box Brown. He published two versions of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown; the first, written with the help of Charles Stearns and conforming to expectations of the slave narrative genre,[7] was published in Boston in 1849. The second was published in Manchester, England, in 1851 after he had moved there. While on the lecture circuit in the northeastern United States, Brown developed a moving panorama with his partner James C. A. Smith. They separated in 1851.[7]

Douglass wished that Brown had not revealed the details of his escape, so that others might have used it. When Samuel Smith attempted to free other slaves in Richmond in 1849, they were arrested.[8] The year of his escape, Brown was contacted by his wife's new owner, who offered to sell his family to him, but the newly free man declined.[9] This was an embarrassment within the abolitionist community, which tried to keep the information private.[7]

Brown is known for speaking out against slavery and expressing his feelings about the state of America. In his Narrative, he offers a cure for slavery, suggesting that slaves should be given the vote, a new president should be elected, and the North should speak out against the "spoiled child" of the South.[10]

After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required cooperation from law enforcement officials to capture refugee slaves even in free states, Brown moved to England for safety, as he had become a known public figure. He toured Britain with his antislavery panorama for the next 10 years, performing several hundred times a year. He visited nearly every town and city on the island during that period. To earn a living, Brown also entered the British show circuit for twenty-five years, until 1875, leaving the abolitionist circuit after the start of the American Civil War.[8] In the 1860s, he began performing as a mesmerist, and some time after that as a conjuror, under the show names of "Prof. H. Box Brown" and the "African Prince."

In England Brown married a white British woman and began a new family. In 1875, he returned with his family to the U.S. with a group magic act. A later report documented the Brown Family Jubilee Singers.


The date and location of Brown's death are not known. The last record of Brown is a newspaper report of a performance by him at Brantford, Ontario, Canada dated February 26, 1889.[1]



I waited patiently for the Lord
And he, in kindness to me, heard my calling
And he hath put a new song into my mouth
Even thanksgiving — even thanksgiving
   Unto our God!

Blessed-blessed is the man
That has set his hope, his hope in the Lord!
O Lord! my God! great, great is the wondrous work
   Which thou hast done!

If I should declare them — and speak of them
They would be more than I am able to express.
I have not kept back thy love, and kindness, and truth,
   From the great congregation!

Withdraw not thou thy mercies from me,
Let thy love, and kindness, and thy truth, always preserve me
Let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad!
   Be joyful and glad!

And let such as love thy salvation
Say always — say always
The Lord be praised!
   The Lord be praised!

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Spenser, S. (January 1, 2012). "Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889)". Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Retrieved May 17, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Robbins, Hollis (2009). "Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry "Box" Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics". American Studies 50: 5. doi:10.1353/ams.2011.0045. 
  3. ^ Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself, p. 5, text online at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
  4. ^ Brown, p. 60
  5. ^ Robbins, Hollis (Summer 2009). "The Deliverance of Henry "Box" Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics.". American: 5–25.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help);
  6. ^ Brown, Henry, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, (Revised version with introduction by Richard Newman, foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
  7. ^ Cite error: The named reference robbins was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  8. ^ a b Spencer, Suzette. "Henry Box Brown". Retrieved March 8, 2013. 
  9. ^ Ruggles, Jeffrey, The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Library of Virginia, 2003.
  10. ^ Brown, pp. 66–90
  11. ^ ""Henry Box Brown"". The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Retrieved November 18 2014.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  12. ^ Historical Marker Honors Local Man Who Escaped Slavery. Newsplex.com (May 22, 2012). Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  13. ^ Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938–Present | Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Ala.org. Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  14. ^ Healy, Patrick (October 4, 2010). "An Unlikely Tony Kushner World Premiere, Courtesy of NYU". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ Qualls, Sean. (March 5, 2012) News from Sean Qualls: Another *Starred Review (BCCB) for Freedom Song. Seanqualls.blogspot.com. March 5, 2012.
  16. ^ Wix.com BlackBox created by RobUnderhill based on business-consulting-express | Wix.com. Robunderhill.wix.com. Retrieved on December 7, 2013.
  17. ^ Brown, Henry (1849). "Song, sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the box". Boston, MA: Laing's Stream Press. 


External links[edit]