Which Slave Mailed Himself to Freedom? Really!

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Find out how a 200-pound man survived the trip in a coffin-like box.

From the Collection of the New-York Historical Society
From the Collection of the New-York Historical Society

Editor’s Note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 30: What is one of the most novel ways a slave devised to escape bondage?

Here you see a man by the name of Henry Brown,
Ran away from the South to the North,
Which he would not have done but they stole all his rights,
But they’ll never do like again.
Chorus:  Brown laid down the shovel and the hoe,
Down in the box he did go; No more slave work for Henry Box Brown,
In the box by Express he did go.
–“Song Composed by Henry Box Brown on His Escape From Slavery,”
Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself 

Job ben Solomon, as we saw in an earlier column, was the first and probably the only slave who literally wrote his way out of American slavery. He penned a letter in Arabic to his father, from his jail cell in Maryland, which led quite circuitously to its translation at Oxford, England, and then to his purchase, release and repatriation to Senegambia in 1734 — only after a stop in London where he was feted by British royalty and the intellectual elite, had his portrait painted and a book about his remarkable escapades published. 

But another slave plotted his own escape from bondage in even more astonishing and harrowing way, and his name was Henry Brown.

If Job ben Solomon expressed his desperate quest for freedom in a letter, Henry Brown expressed his own desperate desire to be free in an even more novel form: He actually mailed his own body from slavery to freedom, from Richmond to Philadelphia, from the slave state of Virginia to the free state of Pennsylvania, a distance of 250 miles.

Brown was the ultimate “escape artist,” as Daphne Brooks brilliantly labels him in her book Bodies in Dissent. He was a precursor, she argues, to Houdini. And as we shall see, he not only performed his amazing — and quite dangerous — escape once, but reprised part of the journey during a lecture tour in England. But I get ahead of my story.

Henry Brown was born into slavery on a plantation called “The Hermitage” in Louisa County, Va., around 1815, fairly close to Charlottesville, where Thomas Jefferson was still living at Monticello. Upon his master’s death, when Brown was 15, he was sent to work for his late owner’s son, William, in his tobacco factory in Richmond. In about 1836, he married another slave (curiously, with their owners’ consent), a woman named Nancy, who was owned by a bank clerk. Brown was able to rent a house for his family. Together, they had three children. 

Over time, Nancy was sold twice. Her third owner, Samuel Cottrell, actually charged Brown $50 a year to keep Nancy from being sold. But in August 1848, Cottrell sold Nancy anyway, along with their three children, to a Methodist minister in North Carolina. Brown raced to the jail where his family was being held, but it was too late. As they were shuffled through the streets of Richmond, Brown held Nancy’s hand for four miles. Nancy and the three children were marched on foot along with 350 other slaves, in the horrendous second Middle Passage, all the way to North Carolina. Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child. The two would never see each other again.