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.
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.
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.' "
Accompanied onstage by Benjamin F. Roberts, a black abolitionist, who would lecture on "The Condition of the Colored People in the United States," Brown toured the North testifying about the evils of slavery and repeating the details of his imaginative mode of escape. Brown — a great storyteller with a gifted voice for song — was for a short time the darling of the abolitionist circuit.
Douglass' irritation with Brown stemmed not so much from a sense of rivalry (since Douglass had dominated the fugitive-slave category on the abolition lecture circuit since 1845) as it did from Douglass' worry that disclosure of Brown's novel method of escape might keep other slaves from employing a similar strategy, alerting authorities to the possibility that crates could contain a fleeing slave.
But as Ruggles explains, revelation of Brown's method of escape wasn't really his fault: "Douglass wasn't entirely correct in blaming the Garrisonians [abolitionists] for revealing the box method. They had tried to keep quiet about Brown's escape, but word leaked out in a Vermont newspaper and soon an article appeared in the New York Tribune. That article alerted the Adams Express Company and a second box escape from Richmond, attempted by both Smiths in May, 1849, was intercepted. It was only after articles about that failure had appeared in many newspapers that the Boston abolitionists went public about Brown's escape at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in late May 1849."
Regardless of how it happened, Douglass proved to be right about the effects of disclosure: Upon discovery of the rescue attempt of a second slave on May 8, 1849, Samuel Smith, the white shopkeeper who had helped Brown, was arrested, and served six and a half years in the Virginia state penitentiary for doing so. A few months later, on Sept. 25, James Smith would also be arrested for an attempt to help still another slave to escape in the same way, though he would be acquitted in a trial, after which he joined Brown in Boston. (Another slave, a woman named Rose Jackson, was willingly smuggled by her owners from Oklahoma in a box over the Oregon Trail in the same year that Brown escaped, but she was allowed to emerge each night.)
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put an end, for a time, to Brown's celebrity, at least on this side of the Atlantic. After being assaulted twice on the streets of Providence, R.I., Brown — like many other prominent fugitive slaves — fled to England in October 1850, to avoid arrest by a slave-catcher.
There, he published a second edition of his slave narrative in Manchester in 1851, this one "written by himself." (The first edition had been dictated to, and heavily edited by, a white abolitionist named Charles Stearns. John Ernest's edition, published in 2009, is the authoritative text.) Ever the showman, Brown soon became a most colorful feature on the British lecture circuit, traveling with his moving panorama from Liverpool to Manchester. He even re-enacted his escape, at least partially.
Jeffrey Ruggles writes that "Ads for Henry Box Brown stated that he would get into the original box as a part of his exhibition, but the only instance known of him actually being conveyed in his box was from Bradford to Leeds in May 1851." The Leeds Mercury reported that on May 22, 1851, as Ruggles discovered, " 'He was packed up in the box at Bradford' and 'forwarded to Leeds' on the 6 P.M. train. 'On arriving at the Wellington station, the box was placed in a coach and, preceded by a band of music and banners, representing the stars and stripes of America, paraded through the principal streets of the town.' "
Ruggles explained that this didn't amount to a replication of Brown's original trip, however: "The distance was much less than Richmond to Philadelphia. For this event, Brown was in the box for two-and-three-quarter hours, and James Smith accompanied him outside the box the whole way, so it was neither as long nor as harrowing as his journey to escape. The box was taken to a theater where Brown emerged onstage."
How He Changed With the Times
Brown was a complicated figure. There is some evidence that he could have purchased the freedom of his wife, Nancy, and their children, but chose not to. He married an Englishwoman and returned to the stage, performing for the remainder of the decade throughout Great Britain, in a traveling one-man version of Black History Month. The consummate multiplatform performer, Brown created a number of personas to match his skills as a narrator, singer, magician, hypnotist, electro-biologist and "boxing" champion, among them "The African Prince," "The King of All Mesmerizers" and "Professor H. Box Brown."
Finkelman and Newman report that Brown's British act featured "a large moving panorama to depict the history of black people in Africa and America, as he lectured on 'African and American Slavery.' He often appeared as an 'African Prince' as he melded antislavery sentiments and propaganda, popular history and entertaining theatrical production." Not one to miss a marketing opportunity, Brown took advantage of the raging Civil War, introducing to his act in 1862 "a new lecture and panorama called the 'Grand Moving Mirror of the American War.' " Near the end of the war, in 1864, Brown transformed himself once again, this time into a magician, billing himself as "Mr. H. Box Brown, the King of All Mesmerisers."
In 1875, at the age of 60, Brown returned to the United States, touring New England with his show, now called "The African Prince's Drawing-Room Entertainment." To the end, Brown advertised himself as "the man 'whose escape from slavery in 1849 in a box 3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet wide, 2 feet six inches high, caused such a sensation in the New England States, he having traveled from Richmond, Va. To Philadelphia, a journey of 350 miles, packed as luggage in a box." The last reference to Brown appeared in the Brantford, Ontario, newspaper on Feb. 26, 1889, advertising one of his performances. There is no record of his death — his last great disappearing act.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.