A Slave Mailed to Freedom
The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia
Henry "Box" Brown was a 19th century Virginia slave who perhaps devised the most ingenious method ever of escaping the bonds of servitude. He shipped himself to Philadelphia in a wooden crate.
Brown was born in 1815 in Louisa County Virginia. In 1830 Brown found himself working in a Virginia tobacco factory. While in Richmond, he witnessed the aftermath of Nat Turner’s failed slave revolt. Whippings, beatings and hangings became everyday occurrences.
It was also in Richmond he met and married another slave, Nancy. The couple had three children. However, in 1848, his family was sold to a slave trader in North Carolina. Brown was later to claim there was nothing he could do about it.
With the help of several white friends Brown concocted a plan to ship himself in a box, 3 feet long and 2 feet wide to Philadelphia where an abolitionist by the name of James McKim had agreed to receive the box. To get out of work and allow himself to be shipped Brown burned his hand with sulfuric acid.
The first leg of Henry’s journey began on March 23, 1849, by wagon. But during his 27 hour trip he was to transfer numerous times between railroad, steamboat, wagon and ferry. Several times Brown’s crate was handled roughly and placed upside-down.
In that position blood flowed to his head and his face and eyes began to swell. After almost 2 hours Brown began to think he might not survive the situation. Fortunately two men came along, turned it right side up and used it for a seat.
The crate containing Brown arrived and was opened by McKim and other members of thePhiladelphia Vigilance Committee with great pomp and circumstance. When Brown emerged from the box, his first words were "How do you do, gentlemen?" He continued by singing a psalm from the Bible.
Brown’s stunt made him an instant celebrity and his new found status helped him to become a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. It was at a Boston antislavery convention in May 1849 where he was given the nickname "Box." Later, Charles Stearns wrote his autobiography,Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown which was released twice. The first was released in Boston in 1849 and the second a few years later inManchester, England.
Brown later lost the support of the abolitionist community. Frederick Douglass a former slave and noted abolitionist lecturer commented it would have been better had Brown had kept quiet about his escape so more slaves could have escaped in the same manner.
To support himself, Brown exhibited a moving panorama titled "Mirror of Slavery," a moving canvas scroll of scenes depicting slave life, until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and he was forced to flee to England. Brown toured the British show circuit with his antislavery panorama for the next 10 years.
In the 1860s, he began performing as a hypnotist and sometime magician billing himself as the "King of all the Mesmerizers” and using the stage names Prof. H. “Box” Brown and the African Prince. He still occasionally showed the Mirror of Slavery.
But being in the national spotlight brought attention to the fact he had left his first wife and family in slavery. He received a lot of criticism from the public. At the time he left them he claimed he was powerless to affect their release due to lack of money. However, this was no longer the case since he could now afford it, but he didn’t.
Instead, he remarried to a white British woman, and began a new family. Brown returned to America in 1875 where he and his family performed a magic act.
On February 26, 1889 an Ontario newspaper reported the family performing at Brantford. No later information on them has ever been found. The date and location of Henry Box Brown's death remains a mystery.
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