Brown, Henry “Box”
Born: 1815, in Louisa County, Virginia
Died: Unknown, possibly 1879
Vocations: Author, Activist
Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Keywords: The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown
Abstract: Henry Box Brown was born in 1815 in Virginia, a slave. After being sent to Richmond, Virginia, he met and married another slave named Nancy. The couple had four children. After Nancy and Brown’s children were sold to a trader, Brown decided to escape slavery. He mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia in a box, and survived. He went on to become a public anti-slavery activist, using a moving panorama. In 1849, he published the widely popular Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Brown went to England for some years, remarried, and returned to the United States where he spent his last years performing magic acts before fading out of public awareness.
“I entered the world a slave,” remarked Henry Brown, looking back on his childhood. Brown was born in 1815 on a plantation called Hermitage in Louisa County, Virginia. Unlike many slaves, Brown spent his childhood with his parents and seven siblings, the family sharing a close relationship. The conditions on the Hermitage plantation were relatively better than those on some of the other neighboring farms. Brown was never whipped at the Hermitage, and he and the other slaves were well-fed and well-clothed. However, like most slaves, his situation was not secure—he recalls his mother’s words in his memoir, The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown: “My son, as yonder leaves are stripped off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”
When Henry Brown was about fourteen years of age, John Barret, the master and owner of the Hermitage, fell ill and hired an overseer who did not treat the slaves as comparatively mildly as Barret had. This change did not set well with Barret’s son, Charles, who bought and freed a number of his father’s slaves. Upon John Barret’s death in 1830, however, Henry Brown went to one of Barret’s other sons, William. His mother’s prediction was fulfilled as her children were separated between four plantations. He, his sisters Jane and Martha, and his mother went together to the plantation of William Barret.
William Barret had a farm in Louisa as well as a chewing tobacco factory in Richmond, where Brown was sent to work. Attending church regularly, he soon became very close to one of the members, Nancy, a woman belonging to a local bank teller named Hancock Lee. The two married in 1836, but one year later, Lee sold Nancy to a saddler named Joseph H. Colquitt. In his Narrative, Brown recalls that Colquitt was “an exceedingly cruel man, and he had a wife who was, if possible, still more cruel,” and who abused Nancy “not because she did not do her duty, but because…her manner was too refined for a slave.” Brown did his best to keep Nancy near him. Colquitt eventually sold Nancy to another saddler named Samuel Cottrell. Brown regularly paid Cottrell whatever small wages he made from the tobacco factory. In return, Cottrell promised to keep Nancy and their children. However, when Cottrell demanded more money than Brown had, he sold them.
Nancy Brown was pregnant with their fourth child. “My poor wife burst into tears,” he later recalled. He was working at the Barret’s factory when news arrived that his wife and children were being sent to auction. His family was sold for $1, 050 to a slave trader. Barret granted Brown permission to see them before they were taken away. Leaving work, he waited on a street in Richmond for the coffle to pass. He glimpsed his oldest son, and found Nancy being led on a long chain of slaves. Henry Brown walked with his wife for four miles. “Both our hearts,” he recalled, “were so overpowered with feeling that we could say nothing, and when at last we were obliged to part, the look of mutual love which we exchanged was all the token which we could give each other…I was obliged to turn away in silence.” Brown grieved his tremendous loss and for a time stopped attending church. Having lost what little joy his life offered, he began to plan an escape. But he could not do it alone.
Brown made the acquaintance of Samuel A. Smith, a local shoemaker who was fond of gambling. Smith had owned slaves before meeting Brown, but the two developed a sort of business deal. About five months after his family had been stripped from him like leaves from a tree, as in his childhood his mother had warned, Henry Brown came to Smith with the idea of escaping. He offered Smith every penny he had saved since, which amounted to about fifty dollars. How to go about it, however, was troublesome. In his Narrative, he remembers praying and contemplating, and “there darted into my mind these words, ‘Go and get a box, and put yourself in it.’”
Smith was skeptical, but eventually gave in to the idea of mailing Henry Brown to the North. He contacted J. Miller McKim, a leader in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, who agreed to accept the package. Smith commissioned a carpenter to build a wooden box, about three feet long, two and half feet deep, and a foot wide. After much worry, planning, and correspondence between Smith and McKim, Henry Brown folded himself into the crate and, on March 23, 1849 at about eight o’clock in the morning, began his journey to freedom.
Not that it was an easy voyage. Though the box was marked “This side up with care,” almost immediately he was carelessly placed right side down, with all his weight on his head and shoulders. On the steamboat, the box was out in the open. Some of the passengers sat upon it as they waited. In tremendous pain, Henry Brown never made a sound. In his Narrative, he recalls that “In this dreadful position, I remained the space of an hour and a half, it seemed to me, when I began to feel of my eyes and head, and fount to my dismay, that my eyes were almost swollen out of their sockets.” After some time, he grew numb and unable to move his arms, and feared he would soon die. Finally, one of the passengers suggested to a companion that they lay the box flat, which would provide room for them both to sit down, and greatly relieved Brown.
At four o’clock that afternoon, the steamboat reached Washington, where Brown’s box would be put on a train heading to Pennsylvania. Because the box was so heavy, the men in charge of transferring baggage shoved it off the wagon. Brown felt himself roll several times before landing, as he recorded in his Narrative, “on the end where my head was. I could hear my neck give a crack, as if it had been snapped asunder, and I was knocked completely insensible.” And still, during that fall, Henry Brown refrained from crying aloud. After regaining consciousness, Brown was again positioned head-down on the freight car headed north. Just when he felt himself passing out, the train stopped to pick up more cargo, and in the rearrangement, Brown’s box was righted.
Without noting in his Narrative any other traumatic happenings during the remainder of his voyage, Henry Brown finally arrived in Philadelphia at five o’clock on the morning of March 24. As planned, he was delivered to McKim at the Anti-Slavery office. McKim was terribly worried that Brown did not survive the trip, which would be a horrible outcome for a number of reasons. First, everyone in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society wanted the mission to be successful and for Brown to find freedom. But if the box had become Brown’s coffin, McKimm and his peers would be held legally accountable for conspiring to aid an escaping slave, not to mention of what would they do with the body?
But the trip had been a success. McKim recalls in a letter to an abolitionist friend that, upon opening the box, a weary and suffering Henry Brown half rose, reached out his hand, and announced, “Good morning, gentlemen!” It was a glorious moment; some of the members were so overjoyed and amazed that they could hardly speak.
But Henry Brown was not legally free. According to both Virginia and Federal law, he was still considered the property of William Barret. He stayed with a number of abolitionist allies in Pennsylvania, New York, and then Massachusetts. The abolitionists tried to keep his story mum, but such exciting tales are bound to spread. On April 12, 1849, less than a month after Brown’s arrival to Philadelphia, Vermont’s Burlington Courier newspaper published a vague, handed-down version of Brown’s adventure, entitled “Wonderful Escape of a Slave.” Soon, other newspapers grabbed the story.
With his experiences becoming public, Brown, who was now regularly attending gatherings of the American Anti-Slavery society, chose to speak of his journey in his own words. It was only two months after he’d arrived to Philadelphia when he took the stage at the largest abolitionist gathering in Boston. An article in the National Anti-Slavery Standard noted that “his adventures and the fortitude with which he passed through an unparalleled journey of suffering and extraordinary danger, exalted a thrill of sympathy and admiration in every one who listened…the finale of this simple tale was received with deafening shouts.” And so began Henry Brown’s career as a public abolitionist speaker.
Many people, including Miller McKim, encouraged Brown to document his story in the form of a book. In Boston, he met an anti-slavery abolitionist printer named Charles Stearns, who agreed to take dictation from Brown, who, like most slaves, was unable to read or write, and to print the book. In September of 1849, the Narrative of Henry Box Brown arrived. Frederick Douglass, a well-known escaped slave, activist, and writer, criticized Brown for revealing the details of his escape. In his narrative My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass said “Had not Henry Box Brown attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum.” Brown began to tour New England, orating and selling his book, which had grown relatively popular.
By the year’s end, Brown had saved enough money to begin a new ambition: a moving abolition panorama. Such theatrical presentations were common in 1849, but never before had one been constructed for anti-slavery measures. Brown chose a poem by Charles C. Green entitled “The Nubian Slave,” which he had painted with illustrations on canvas on the panorama. In The Unboxing of Henry Brown, author and historian Jeffrey Ruggles describes the poem as “an antislavery romantic tragedy, the poem in its title and conception reflected contemporary interest in ancient Egypt…the Nubians are a dark-skinned people, and the westerners whose writings helped inspire an interest in ancient Egypt linked the Nubians with Egyptian slavery.” After much preparation and help from anti-slavery friends, the panorama, called “Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery,” opened in Boston on April 11, 1850.
Containing both illustrations of “The Nubian Slave” and Henry Brown’s oral narration of different scenes from the poem, the panorama was a huge success. Large crowds gathered to view Brown’s Mirror, and newspapers applauded. The Boston Daily Evening Traveller named it “one of the finest panoramas now on exhibition…many people would walk a long way to see this curious specimen of American freedom…We wish all the slaveholders would go and view their system on canvas.” Soon, Brown took his moving panorama on the road throughout New England.
However, Brown’s business became increasingly dangerous. In the summer of 1850, Henry Brown was attacked while walking down a street in Providence, Rhode Island. While he managed resist being shoved into their carriage, the men left him badly beaten. That autumn, the Fugitive Slave Bill was passed, which would make it much easier for slaveholders to take back escaped slaves who had fled north. Urged by his anti-slavery friends, Brown decided to attempt to leave America and travel to England, where he could more safely continue his exhibit, and finally be free of William Barret.
On October 7, 1850, Henry Brown and James C. A. Smith, a free man who had been Brown’s friend and business partner during the panorama exhibitions, departed from New York and arrived in Liverpool. While it is unclear exactly what arrangements the two made regarding situating upon arrival, it is likely that they had settled connections. The two arrived on Friday, November 5, and by the following Tuesday, an article in the Liverpool Mercury headlined “A Fugitive Slave in Liverpool,” and wrote that Brown was “a fine intelligent-looking man” and that “these two men have landed on our shores almost penniless… [and the boat will not release the panorama] unless they receive assistance from some benevolent friends of the colored race.” A Mr. Blazehot stepped forward to aid Brown and Smith, and the men regained the panorama and began exhibition in Liverpool and then Manchester, this time incorporating music into their act.
After so much success with the panorama in Europe, Brown was able to publish a new English edition of his Narrative in 1851. However, about this time Brown and Smith quarreled about money. They combined their incomes, but Smith accused Brown of taking all the money. Smith also criticized Brown for not attempting to aid his wife and children. With money, Smith argued that he could purchase his family. However, Brown never attempted to do so. Brown fired Smith, and the two never reconciled.
Henry Brown continued to travel and exhibit the panorama, but his show became more a business venture than an anti-slavery abolitionism tool, employing themes of the Italian opera and promising great entertainment. However, wherever Henry Brown toured, he always brought and exhibited the original box in which he had mailed himself.
In 1859, he remarried, though accounts reveal few details of his second bride. According to Jeffrey Ruggles, she performed with Henry Brown, and was rather talented. She was English, and Ruggles suggests that she was white, and that “a final aspect to the Brown’s entertainment derives from the probability that Mrs. Brown was white, and that Annie [their daughter] was biracial.” Brown performed in England for ten years before trying his hand at magic acts, mesmerism, and electro-biology. Panoramas had gone out of style, and the resourceful businessman Brown kept himself ahead of the game.
In 1875, he and his family moved to the United States. In Massachusetts, Brown began his act entitled “the African Prince’s Drawing-Room Entertainment” as “Prof. H. Box Brown.” The three Browns performed together. Magic acts were growing in popularity in both England and America, and while it appears that Brown did well enough, he did not become a famous conjurer. Thus, reports of his activity gradually vanished from newspapers and other records. We know little of the last days of his life—even of exactly when Henry Brown died, or of what cause.
His legacy, however, is strong. In 1984, his story appeared in National Geographic. Henry Brown’s tale has appeared in many children’s books. Exhibits across America at places such as the Henry Ford Museum, the Greenfield Village Museum, B&O Railroad Museum, and Baltimore’s Great Blacks in Wax Museum honor his voyage. Many children’s publications have adopted his journey, including stories in Cousin Ann’s Stories for Children, Highlights for Children Magazine, Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom, and Storyworks Magazine. Although Henry Box Brown encountered horrible obstacles and tremendous losses in his lifetime, his history is one of persistence and resourcefulness, and in the end, he came through right side up.
- The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Boston: 1849.
- Brown, Henry Box. The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. New York: Oxford UP, 2002.
- Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom ; Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1994.
- “A Fugitive Slave in Liverpool.” Liverpool Mercury 5 Nov. 1850.
- McKim, James Miller. “Dear Friend.” Letter. 28 Mar. 1849. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell, New York.
- “Mirror of Slavery.” Boston Daily Evening Traveller 29 Apr. 1850.
- National Anti-Slavery Standard 7 June 1849.
- Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003.
- “Wonderful Escape of a Slave.” Burlington Courier [Burlington] 12 Apr. 1849.
This biography was prepared by Christine Ariella Crater, Spring 2011. (source)