Henry “Box” Brown was an escaped slave who took an inventive route to gain his freedom. After three decades of enslavement, Brown cleverly mailed himself in a wooden box to abolitionists in the North in order to become a free man. Brown was born into slavery in 1815 in Louisa County, Virginia.
As a teenager, he was sent to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory, but was forced to live apart from his wife and their three children. Brown’s wife was pregnant when he learned that her master sold his family to a plantation in North Carolina.
Unable to rescue them, Brown concocted a plan to escape to Philadelphia, a free state. A devout man of Christian faith Brown asked a fellow churchmember James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free Black man, to help. A white man who felt sorry for Brown then contacted James Miller McKim, a white abolitionist and member of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.
Samuel Smith, a white sympathizer, placed Brown in a wooden box that was “ 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide,” using the Adams Express Company to send the box on March 23, 1849. The box was marked “dry goods” and Brown only had a small bottle of water and biscuits to sustain him.
There was a hole cut in the box for air, and it was lined with cloth. The 27-hour trip was dangerous, with Brown fearing at one point he would die. He arrived in Philadelphia and was shipped by a delivery service to the abolitionists awaiting his arrival.
Open exiting the box Brown reportedly uttered a “How do you do, gentlemen?” before reciting a Psalm. Sadly, Smith’s plan was discovered on May 8 of the same year and he was arrested. The other Smith was also charged but did not serve any time. Abolitionists hoping to use the same method of escape for other slaves, urged Brown to keep quiet about how he did it.
Instead, Brown publicly told the tale, which angered Frederick Douglass and other prominent abolitionists. Brown became a well-known performer who crafted a popular stage show about his escape, which eventually landed him in England where he married again.
Brown is known for his speaking out against slavery and his feelings about the state of America. In his Narrative, he offers a cure for slavery, citing increased number of slaves voting, electing a new president, and for the North to speak out against the “spoiled child” of the South. He became an abolitionist, working closely with Douglass, who wished that Brown had been more subtle about the method of his successful escape so that more slaves could have been saved the same way. Instead, when Samuel Smith attempted to free other slaves in 1849, they were arrested.
Brown stayed on the British show circuit for twenty-five years, until 1875. In the 1860s, he began performing as a mesmerist, and some time after that as a conjuror, under the show names Prof. H. Box Brown and the African Prince. Leaving his first wife and children in slavery (though he had the means to purchase their freedom), he married a second time to a white British woman, and began a new family.
In 1875, he returned to the U.S. with a family magic act. There is also a later report of the Brown Family Jubilee Singers.
There are scant details on Brown’s death.