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

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 Brown nearly died on the 27-hour trip: At one point, he was turned upside-down for several hours. His sole relief came when two passengers, wanting to talk, tipped the box flat to sit on it. The box was flipped again when it was boarded on a train in Washington, D.C. Brown had no choice but to remain silent and not move, no matter how the box was positioned.

Some 24 hours later, as Robbins describes, traveling by wagon to the depot, hefted by express workers from wagon to railcar, to steamboat, to another wagon, to another railcar, to a ferry and the once again by railcar, Brown finally arrived at the depot in Philadelphia. Three hours later, Brown’s box was taken by wagon to the Anti-Slavery Committee’s offices on North Fifth Street in Philadelphia. No one could know if their cargo was alive or dead. The four waiting abolitionists, including McKim, tapped on the lip of the crate four times, the signal that all was clear. 

Finkelman and Newman describe what happened next: “A small, nervous group, including William Still, the African-American conductor of Philadelphia’s Underground Railroad, pried open the lid to reveal … the disheveled and battered Henry Brown, who arose and promptly fainted,” but not before exclaiming, “How do you do, gentlemen!” Revived with a glass of water, Brown sang Psalm 40: “Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me!” McKim noted that the trip “nearly killed him,” and that “Nothing saved him from suffocation but the free use of water … with which he bathed his face, and the constant fanning of himself” with his hat. He managed to breathe through the three small holes that he bore in the box with a gimlet. Brown called his trip “my resurrection from the grave of slavery.” 

Henceforth, the word “Box” would become Henry’s self-chosen legal middle name, with no quotation marks around it. His friend, James Smith, however, did gain a nickname from the adventure: He became known as James “Boxer” Smith.

How His Fame Grew 

Henry Box Brown had done what no slave anywhere had ever done before: He had mailed himself to freedom. Overnight, Brown became quite the celebrity on the abolitionist lecture circuit, much to Frederick Douglass’ annoyance. He and his friend James Smith became a standard feature at abolitionist rallies, reciting the incredible saga of his escape, singing songs he wrote, as well as his psalm of deliverance, and selling his book, which was published just a few months after his escape. Woodcuts of his head popping out of the wooden crate were widely circulated. Even a children’s book contained a chapter about his incredible escape.

Brown was not only an effective speaker; you might say that he was also the entrepreneur of entrepreneurs on the fugitive-slave circuit. In an email, his biographer Jeffrey Ruggles said that “Brown’s imagination and creativity were akin to his entrepreneurial contemporary,” P.T. Barnum, though on a much smaller scale, of course. With a loan of $150 from the wealthy white abolitionist, Gerritt Smith, and in collaboration with the artist Josiah Wolcott, Brown created a “large, didactic panorama, ‘The Mirror of Slavery,’ which consisted of thousands of feet of canvas, divided into scores of panels painted with scenes depicting the history of slavery.” 

Brown debuted his routine in Boston, along with James Smith. The panorama was a hit: As Christine Crater reports, “The Boston Daily Evening Traveller hailed it as ‘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.’ “