Brown tells us in his slave narrative that he begged his own master to purchase his family but his master refused: “I went to my Christian master … but he shoved me away.”
Devastated and overcome with the most acute sense of his own sheer powerlessness, Brown sought solace and guidance through prayer. “An idea,” he reported, “suddenly flashed across my mind.” And what an idea it was! Perhaps only God — or an official at the expanding express delivery service in America — could have fashioned such a bizarre plan: “Brown’s revelation,” Paul Finkelman and Richard Newman write in their entry on him in The African American National Biography, “was that he have himself nailed into a wooden box and ‘conveyed as dry goods’ via the Adams Express Company from slavery in Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia.”
How was he to realize such a bold, and wild, idea? How would he avoid suffocation in this coffin-like encasement? What about claustrophobia? How long could a human being live in a box without dehydration? Not to mention deal with his body functions? As Brown’s biographer, Jeffrey Ruggles, explains in The Unboxing of Henry Brown, Adams Express advertised the one-day trip from Richmond to Philadelphia, a distance of 250 miles — but only if the package encountered no glitches, no delays. If so, the trip could take much longer. Could a human being survive such a trip? Or would his crate turn into his casket?
How He Did It
Though only 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Brown at the time weighed 200 pounds, so this was not going to be an easy thing to accomplish, and impossible, of course, without a lot of assistance. Two friends, both named Smith, decided to help Henry with this crazy scheme: James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black man who sang with Brown in the choir of First African Baptist Church, introduced Brown to Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker and gambler. Brown paid Samuel Smith $86 to help him.
Through James Smith’s intervention, a black carpenter named John Mattaner built the wooden box — “complete with baize lining, air holes, a container of water and hickory straps” — to fit Brown’s rotund frame. Samuel Smith corresponded with James Miller McKim, the Philadelphia abolitionist (and the father of future famed architect, Charles McKim) for guidance. McKim asked Smith to address the package to James Johnson, 131 Arch Street.
As Henry Brown scholar Hollis Robbins writes in a 2009 American Studies article, “Smith’s correspondence with McKim about the timing of the trip, particularly his attention to the breakup of the ice on the Susquehanna [River], indicates his — and perhaps Brown’s — practical understanding of the conditions necessary for the box to arrive swiftly enough for Brown to survive the journey.” The entire box measured only 3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet wide and 2 feet 6 inches high. Brown burned his hand with sulphuric acid (oil of vitriol) so he could justify taking the day off without raising suspicion. He took along a few biscuits, or crackers, and a small bladder of water to sustain him.
With “This Side Up With Care” painted on the container, at 4:00 a.m. on March 23, 1849, Brown’s friends loaded his boxed self onto a wagon, and delivered it to the depot. In his slave narrative, Brown describes his harrowing journey, including the sickening effect of traveling much of the journey upside-down, head-first, in spite of the label on the box. One wrong move, one unguarded sound or smell, would lead to his detection, capture, imprisonment and return to slavery, and perhaps to the Deep South.