Have you heard about Henry Box Brown? His escape story was so incredible that it almost seemed like fiction – even in the 19th Century.
From his birthday in 1816 through his early adult life, Henry lived in slavery. He was fortunate to grow up with his family; his mother taught him and his siblings about the Christian faith. Around age fifteen, Henry was sent to Richmond from a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia – hired out to work in a tobacco factory.
In Richmond, Henry married Nancy, an enslaved woman. Their marriage was not legally recognized by law or their masters, but they lived together and had three children. Henry managed to rent a house for his family in Richmond and paid to keep his wife and children from being sold. Tragically, the masters chose to ignore the agreement with Henry and sold Nancy and children one day when Henry was at work.
Betrayed, Henry decided it was time to escape to freedom. With the help of a freeman – James C.A. Smith – and a white man – Samuel A. Smith – Henry entered the Underground Railroad in a novel way. He decided to ship himself by the Adams Express Company from Richmond to Philadelphia after making arrangements with sympathetic abolitionists in that northern city.
On March 29, 1849, Henry climbed into the crate, cradling his injured hand. The previous day he had purposely burned his hand to the bone with an acid, which had convinced the oversee at the tobacco factory to allow Henry to miss a few days of work.
What happened next was recorded in a letter from James Miller McKim in Philadelphia to his friend and fellow abolitionist, Sydney Howard Gay, who lived in New York City. Both men were part of Henry’s journey on the Underground Railroad.
The Primary Source
Phila March 26 /49
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 hooped, marked “this side up” by overland express, from the city of Richmond!! Did you ever hear of any thing in 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 the achievement you ought to see the box and hear all the circumstances. The box is in the clear 3 ft 2 inches long; 2 ft 8 in deep; + 1 ft 11 in wide. It was a regular old store box such as you see in Pearl St. 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 quanty [sic] if which he took in with him in a beef’s bladder, and with which he bathed face, and the constant fanning of himself with his hat. He fanned himself unremittingly all the time. The “this side up” on the box was not regarded, and he was twice put with his head downwards – 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 the steamboat, where people were sitting and standing about the box, and where any motions inside would have been over heard and have led to discovery; he was therefore obliged to keep his position for 20 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 the coroner. You can better immagine[sic] 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 lbs and is almost 5 ft 8 in in height, and as you will see a noble looking fellow. He will tell you the whole story. Please send him on to Francis Jackson, Boston, with this letter to save me the time it would take to write another.
And now I have one request to make for Heaven’s sake don’t publish this affair or allow it to be published. It would compromise the Express, and prevent all others from escaping in the same way.
He was boxed up in Richmond at 5 a.m. on Friday : shipped at 8 + I opened him up at 6 (about day-light) next morning.
Francis Jackson will doubtless be able without difficulty to find a place for him. He will be invaluable to somebody. He has a sister in New Bedford.
Want to see the original letter? Click here!
Freedom and Creating A New Life
He gave himself a new name in freedom: Henry Box Brown. He joined the Anti-Slavery Society, became good friends with Frederick Douglass, and started sharing publicly about his amazing escape. Henry wrote two autobiographies – the first appeared in 1849 in Boston and the second released in 1851 in England. He vocally advocated for abolition and called for political and legislative change to end the horrors of slavery in the United States. Strangely, Henry chose not to redeem his wife and children from bondage, even when given a clear opportunity.
When the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 allowing freedmen to be dragged back to slavery, Henry sailed for England and spent the next ten years touring and showing an antislavery panorama (a “moving picture” – images on canvas that turned slower across a stage). In 1855, he legally married Jane Floyd, a Cornish woman, and they had several children.
After the Civil War and the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States and ended the need for his abolition talks aimed at America, Henry became a showman. Calling himself “Professor H. Box Brown” or “African Prince,” he toured Britain performing “magic acts.” Henry and his family journeyed to the United States, bring a family magic act and later delighting audiences with song performances.
Documents suggest that Henry and his family continued their stage acts for their livelihood through the 1890’s. In Toronto, Canada, on June 15, 1897, Henry Box Brown died, leaving behind the accounts of his daring escape and decades of laughter and songs in lands of freedom.