On March 30, 1849, a group of white men in Philadelphia breathlessly opened a wooden crate, carefully prying open the slats. Inside, was a black man. He was Henry Brown, a Virginia slave, who by unlikely and clever means had just completed a 27-hour journey. Brown had shipped himself to freedom.
In a custom-made box—three feet and one inch long, two feet wide, and two and a half feet deep— Brown had endured 350 miles of rough and painful carriage by way of numerous steamships, trains, and wagons.
Before the gathered recipients — members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society — opened the box, one knocked at its surface and inquired, “Is all right within?” Brown summoned a feeble “All right.” The scurrying assembly released the five hickory hoops binding the container shut. Soaked, contorted, sore, and exhausted, a relieved Henry Brown rose from the box, and immediately fainted.
At age 15, Henry Brown began working in a tobacco factory. He showed an early talent for the trade, and with a reputation for competence and intelligence, he was eventually entrusted with the responsibility of running errands and relaying messages. This connection to the outside world would prove essential to his escape.
But “privileges” aside, Brown endured harsh overseers, living in constant fear of the lash and was subject to never-ending verbal abuse and degradation.
The final straw came when, despite his owner’s promise, Brown’s pregnant wife and three children were sold to a plantation in North Carolina. Hours after he had dined with his family at the breakfast table, they were forever torn asunder, the semblance of a life he had built was uprooted. Betrayed, estranged, and dehumanized, Brown had had enough. “I began to get weary of my bonds,” he remembered, “and earnestly panted for liberty…which, by the cruel hand of tyranny, I, and millions of my fellow-men, had been robbed.”
Brown knew a white shopkeeper named Samuel Smith. Himself a slaveowner, Smith would prove an unlikely agent in the slave’s escape mission. For a fee — $86 out of Brown’s $166 savings to be exact — Smith assisted Brown and traveled to coordinate Brown’s delivery, by mail, to his friends in Philadelphia.
Now it was up to Brown to carry out the plan.
On March 29, 1849, he burned his hand to the bone with sulfuric acid, in order to be excused from work for the day. He then set himself in the box with the most threadbare of accommodations. He carried three things: a bladder of water, a few biscuits, and a small drill, should he need to make more holes than the three already provided for ventilation. Along the sides of the box were the instruction, “This side up with care.”
The suggestion was heartily ignored. Throughout his dark, hot, and uncomfortable sojourn, Henry Brown was tossed and thrown about in the box. In his own account, he provides the reader with scenes reminiscent of a perverse comedy.
In one episode, he anxiously overhears a pair of shippers decide to leave his box in storage overnight, only to hear a worker swoop in to insist that as an express package, it must go that day. In another, Brown’s box is packed among cargo vertically so that he is turned upside down, his head and neck bearing the weight of his body. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” he wrote, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.” He has no choice but to resign himself to this pain: if he jostled the box to a better position, he risked blowing his cover.
He endures this agonizing position for an hour and a half, before overhearing two passengers speak about their desire to sit down. They turn the box over for a makeshift bench, relieving Henry Brown of his torment. He overhears them wonder what might be inside the box beneath them. One ponders “the mail.” In his autobiography, Brown wryly notes that, in fact, there is a “male” inside.
At the end of his 27-hour journey, Brown, somewhat worse for the wear, reached his intended recipients at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society.
He was first housed by a Quaker named Passmore Williams, and later in the household of Lucretia and James Mott. He went on to New York and then Boston to meet other abolitionists and luminaries (William Still, author of The Underground Railroad, helped coordinate Brown’s escape, and later immortalized it in his book). Brown gave lectures to abolitionists and sympathizers all over the northern states. Soon after, he wrote an autobiography, with the help of ghostwriter Charles Stearns. It sold 8,000 copies in two months, and he would thereafter carry the name Henry “Box” Brown.
Brown began performing a panoramic stage show, in which he reenacted his own crusade and exhibited 49 canvas scrolls depicting scenes of slavery, from the slave ship to the terrors of the plantation. Attendee Justin Spaulding commended that “the real life-like scenes presented in this panorama, are admirably calculated to make an unfading impression on the heart and memory, such as no lectures, books, or colloquial correspondence can produce.”
Unfortunately, it did not take long for Henry Box Brown’s newfound life to destabilize. His associates in the escape, Samuel and John C.A. Smith, were later arrested and jailed for separate attempts to liberate slaves by shipping them to the north. Fearing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required governments and citizens in free states to help return escaped slaves to their owners, Brown traveled to Britain for asylum.
He lived there for 25 years, marrying an Englishwoman, and continued to make a living in the theater. He performed not only his Mirror on Slavery show, but developed alter-egos like the “African Chief,” a supposed descendant of African royalty who wore elaborate garments and jewelry. Later came his attraction to mesmerism, and Brown’s performing career evolved from political spectacle to magician’s show. Beyond hypnotism, some acts included Houdini-esque escapes from shackles, objects disappearing in boxes, and a sleight-of-hand trick in which a nail in his palm was replaced by an acorn.
Brown moved back to the States in 1875, and brought his magic act to stages across the U.S. and Canada. He died in Toronto in 1897, leaving a four-decade legacy as a performer, fueled by the same wild creativity that had helped set him free years before.