Henry Box Brown

Henry Box Brown (1815 or 1816–after February 26, 1889)

Henry Box Brown was an abolitionist lecturer and performer. Born a slave in Louisa County, he worked in a Richmond tobacco factory and lived in a rented house. Then, in 1848, his wife, who was owned by another master and who was pregnant with their fourth child, was sold away to North Carolina, along with their children. Brown resolved to escape from slavery and enlisted the help of a free black and a white slaveowner, who conspired to ship him in a box to Philadelphia. In March 1849 the package was accepted there by a leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. As a free man, Brown lectured across New England on the evils of slavery and participated in the publication of the Narrative of Henry Box Brown (1849). In 1850, a moving panorama, Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, opened in Boston. That same year, Brown, worried that he might be re-enslaved, moved to England, where he lectured, presented his panorama, and performed as a hypnotist. In 1875, he returned to the United States with his wife and daughter Annie and performed as a magician. Brown's date and place of death are unknown, but his legacy as a symbol of the Underground Railroad and enslaved African Americans' thirst for freedom is secure. MORE...

 

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.

In Richmond about 1836 Brown married Nancy, a slave owned by a different master, and together they had three children. The family joined the First African Baptist Church, where Henry Brown sang in the church's choir. He had become a skilled tobacco worker and earned enough money through overwork to set up his family in a rented house. Then, in August 1848, Nancy Brown's master sold her and their three children to another master in North Carolina. At the time, she was pregnant with a fourth child.

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.

On March 23, 1849, the Smiths sealed Brown into a wooden box three feet long, two and one-half feet deep, and two feet wide, and conveyed the package as "dry goods" from Richmond to Philadelphia. On the steamboat transfer up the Potomac River to Washington from the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad's terminus at Aquia Creek, Brown was turned head down in the box for several hours and nearly died. At other transfers the box was roughly handled, but he endured silently. He later wrote that he "was resolved to conquer or die," even as "I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head." Even as he thought he might die, Brown heard a man telling another that he had been standing too long and needed a place to sit; "so perceiving my box, standing on end, he threw it down and then two sat upon it. I was thus relieved from a state of agony which may be more easily imagined than described."

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

At the end of May Brown appeared before the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, where his daring escape was celebrated as proof that slaves desired liberty, and he was renamed Henry Box Brown. He had a fine voice and performed the hymn of thanksgiving that he had sung on his arrival in Philadelphia. That summer he appeared at antislavery gatherings. Published sheets with the lyrics to "Song, Sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the box" and "Escape from Slavery of Henry Box Brown" were probably sold by Brown after his performances. Early in September 1849 the Narrative of Henry Box Brown, written by Charles Stearns, was published in Boston. Brown and Stearns toured New England selling the book and delivering antislavery lectures into the early part of November 1849.

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.

On August 30, 1850, with passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill imminent, Brown was assaulted on the street in Providence, Rhode Island. Believing himself at risk of being captured and returned to Virginia under the law, Brown, along with Smith, sailed to England in October 1850. They exhibited the panorama in Liverpool from November 12 to December 5, 1850, showed it in Manchester from December 14, 1850, to January 1, 1851, and toured Lancashire and Yorkshire through the spring. Early in May 1851 the "First English Edition" of the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself was published in Manchester.

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.

Major Works

  • 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)

Time Line

  • 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.
  • March 23, 1849 - Henry Brown enlists the help of a free black and a white slave owner and is sealed in a wooden box and shipped to Philadelphia.
  • March 24, 1849 - Henry Brown, a slave from Richmond who was shipped the day before in a box to Philadelphia, is delivered to the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Having risked death to make the journey, he emerges a free man.
  • May 1849 - Late in the month, Henry Brown appears before the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, where he speaks of his escape from slavery. He adopts the name Henry Box Brown.
  • May 8, 1849 - Samuel Smith, a white shoemaker who had helped Henry Brown escape from slavery, attempts another shipment of slaves from Richmond to Philadelphia. He is discovered and arrested.
  • September 1849 - Charles Stearns's Narrative of Henry Box Brown Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide is published in Boston. Brown and Stearns tour New England selling the book and delivering antislavery lectures into the early part of November.
  • September 25, 1849 - James C. A. Smith, a free black who had helped Henry Box Brown escape from slavery, is arrested for attempting another shipment of slaves. A subsequent trial results in a divided panel of magistrates and Smith joins Brown in Boston by December.
  • 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.
  • January 1850 - The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph probably reproducing an image created for a moving panorama, is published in Boston and becomes one of the earliest of many pictorial representations of Brown's escape from slavery.
  • April 11, 1850 - The moving panorama, Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, opens in Boston. Brown and James C. A. Smith, a free black who had helped him escape slavery, exhibit in New England throughout the summer.
  • August 30, 1850 - Henry Box Brown is assaulted on the street in Providence, Rhode Island. With passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill imminent, he believes himself to be at risk of being captured and re-enslaved in Virginia.
  • October 1850 - Henry Box Brown flees the United States to avoid being re-enslaved by the Fugitive Slave Law and travels to England with James C. A. Smith.
  • November 12–December 5, 1850 - Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, a moving panorama, exhibits in Liverpool, England.
  • December 14, 1850–January 1, 1851 - Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery, a moving panorama, exhibits in Manchester, England.
  • May 1851 - Early in the month, the "First English Edition" of the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself is published in Manchester.
  • 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.
  • 1878 - At the beginning of the year, Henry Box Brown performs at Milbury and Worcester, Massachusetts.
  • 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.
Further Reading
Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond, Virginia: Library of Virginia, 2003.
Spencer, Suzette. "International Fugitive: Henry Box Brown, Anti-Imperialism, Resistance,and Slavery." Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation, and Culture 12, no. 2 (2006): 227–248.
Still, William.The Underground Rail Road; a Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & C. Narrating the Hardships Hair-Breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others, or Witnessed by the Author; Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders, and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road.Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company. 1970.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Passing Beyond the Middle Passage: Henry "Box" Brown's Translations of Slavery." Massachusetts Review 37, no. 1 (1996): 23–44.
Wood, Marcus. "All Right: The Narrative of Henry Box Brown as a Test Case for the Racial Prescription of Rhetoric and Semiotics." American Antiquarian Society: A Journal of American History and Culture 107, no. 1 (1998): 65–104.
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.