Early Years and Escape
Henry Brown was born in either 1815 or 1816 at the Hermitage, a plantation about ten miles from Yanceyville in Louisa County. Unlike many slaves who knew neither their parents nor their siblings, Brown spent his formative years with his parents (whose names are unknown) and his four sisters and three brothers. They all were slaves belonging to John Barret, a former mayor of Richmond. After Barret's death on June 9, 1830, Brown was separated from his family and sent to Richmond to work in the tobacco factory of Barret's son William Barret, whose property he became. Brown's brothers and sisters were sent to various plantations, except for Martha, who, according to Brown, was kept by William Barret as his "keep Miss," or mistress.
After mourning his loss for several months, Brown resolved to escape from slavery and conceived an unusual method. Through James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black and fellow member of the church choir, he contacted Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker and sometime gambler, who agreed for a price to help Brown escape. (Ironically, Samuel Smith himself owned slaves.) The three men rejected several possible means before Brown had the inspiration to be shipped in a box by rail to Philadelphia. Samuel Smith accordingly contacted James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society who was involved in Underground Railroad activities.
After the parcel finally arrived in Philadelphia early on March 24, McKim took delivery at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where the box was opened with great trepidation. After twenty-six hours' confinement, Brown emerged, alive and free. "I had risen as it were from the dead," Brown wrote.
Career in Boston and England
Samuel Smith attempted another shipment of slaves from Richmond to Philadelphia on May 8, 1849, but was discovered and arrested. That November he was sentenced to six and one-half years in the state penitentiary. James C. A. Smith had aided Smith in the attempt but avoided arrest until September 25, 1849. A divided panel of magistrates enabled him to escape conviction. James C. A. Smith had joined Brown in Boston by December.
Late in 1849 Brown engaged the Boston artist Josiah Wolcott and others to begin work on an ambitious moving panorama about slavery. In January 1850 The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph probably reproducing an image created for the panorama, was published in Boston and became one of the earliest of many pictorial representations of that scene. On April 11, 1850, the moving panorama, Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, opened in Boston. Brown and Smith exhibited in New England throughout the summer.
In June 1851 Brown's and Smith's partnership ended after a bitter dispute involving money and Smith's complaint that Brown had made no effort to purchase his own family. Smith strongly criticized Brown in letters to prominent American abolitionists as well as to those English activists who had helped them get started in that country. Out of both necessity and choice Brown moved from the abolitionist circuit entirely into English show business. He exhibited his panorama throughout England during the 1850s, developing the character of the African Prince as another part of his persona and dressing in fine clothes and jewelry. In July 1852 Brown won a libel case against a newspaper that had published racial slurs about his performances. By 1859 he had remarried and with his wife, name unknown, was also exhibiting a panorama of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. About that time Brown began to perform as a mesmerist, entertaining audiences with the actions of persons under his hypnotic influence. As late as 1864, when billing himself in Wales as the "King of all the Mesmerisers," he still occasionally showed the Mirror of Slavery.
Death and Legacy
In 1875, accompanied by his wife and daughter Annie, Brown returned to the United States. Billing himself as "Prof. H. Box Brown," he performed as a magician. He carried over from his previous shows his portrayal of the African Prince and continued to climb into his original box. The Browns performed at Milbury and Worcester, Massachusetts, at the beginning of 1878, and an extant handbill announces a performance at Brookline on May 9, 1878. An Ontario newspaper reports a performance at Brantford on February 26, 1889. No later information on them has been found. The date and location of Henry Box Brown's death are not known.
More than a century later, the man who escaped slavery in a box has become a symbol of the Underground Railroad, and his confinement and triumphant emergence from the box have inspired works by several contemporary artists. Brown has been featured in a short film, at least two plays, an opera, and an exhibit at a wax museum. The writer Anthony Cohen paid homage to Brown's courage by traveling from Philadelphia to New York inside a box. Brown's famous passage to freedom was not a thing apart from the rest of his life, and he displayed the attributes that enabled him to succeed as a fugitive time and again during his long career as a performer.
- Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself; With Remarks upon the Remedy for Slavery by Charles Stearns (1849)
- Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851)
1815 or 1816 - Henry Brown is born at the Hermitage, a plantation about ten miles from Yanceyville in Louisa County.
June 9, 1830 - John Barret of Louisa County dies. He was the owner of Henry Brown and his four sisters and three brothers. Henry Brown is separated from his family and sent to Richmond to work for Barret's son William.
1836 - Henry Brown, a slave working for William Barret in Richmond, marries a slave named Nancy. She is owned by a different master. Together they will have three, and possibly four, children.
August 1848 - Nancy, who is the wife of Henry Brown and who is owned by another master, is sold away from Richmond to North Carolina. At the time she is pregnant with the couple's fourth child.
November 1849 - Samuel Smith, a white shoemaker who attempted a second a shipment of slaves from Richmond to Philadelphia, is sentenced to six and one-half years in the state penitentiary.
December 14, 1850–January 1, 1851 - Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, a moving panorama, exhibits in Manchester, England.
June 1851 - Henry Box Brown's business partnership with James C. A. Smith, a free black who had helped him escape slavery, ends after a bitter dispute involving money and personal disagreements. Smith's animus forces Brown off the abolitionist circuit and into show business.
July 1852 - Henry Box Brown wins a libel case against an English newspaper that published racial slurs about his performances.
1859 - By this year, Henry Box Brown is remarried in England and exhibiting a panorama of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He also begins to perform as a mesmerist.
1875 - Accompanied by his wife and daughter Annie, Henry Box Brown returns to the United States where, billing himself as "Prof. H. Box Brown," he performs as a magician.
May 9, 1878 - A handbill announces a performance by Henry Box Brown at Brookline, Massachusetts.
February 26, 1889 - A newspaper reports a performance by Henry Box Brown at Brantford, Ontario. This is the last known record of Brown. The date and location of his death are unknown.
2001 - A metal replica of the box that Henry Box Brown used to make his escape to the North is installed at Canal Walk in downtown Richmond.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Spencer, S., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889). (2013, December 9). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Brown_Henry_Box_ca_1815.
- MLA Citation:
Spencer, Suzette and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 7, 2008 | Last modified: December 9, 2013
Contributed by Suzette Spencer and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Suzette Spencer is assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison.