Numerous organizations and individuals supported the Underground Railroad. The daring escape of Henry “Box” Brown relied on the help of an unlikely ally: the mail.
Born in the early 1800s at a plantation near Yanceyville, Va., Brown was sent to Richmond at age 15 to work on a tobacco farm. He married Nancy, a slave owned by a different master. The couple had three children and were expecting their fourth when Nancy was sent to work in North Carolina. Brown stood powerless as his pregnant wife and children shuffled past in a coffle gang. He never saw them again.
Portrait of Henry Box Brown, print from Narrative of Henry Box Brown (1849).
Brown mourned for months before “the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed . . . to a free state,” he related in Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Free blacks, members of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and other Philadelphia-based abolitionists discussed and resolved Brown’s plan.
Having procured a wooden box from a friendly carpenter, Brown knocked off from work by pouring “oil of vitriol” (sulfuric acid) on his finger. Then Brown – 5-foot-10 and more than 200 pounds – squeezed into what he described as a wooden box 3 feet long, 2½ feet deep, and 2 feet wide. This side up with care was emblazoned on its side.
Labeled as “dry goods” and sent north by rail, steamboat, and wagon, Brown encountered the gentleness so often associated with mail carriers, then and now.
“The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia,” print (undated).
“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,” Brown recalled of being placed wrong side up by porters.
Upon hearing “We are in port and at Philadelphia,” Brown felt his spirits lift. “I was only 27 hours in the box, though traveling a distance of 350 miles.”
Taking delivery of the box at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society’s office, William Still, a prominent Underground Railroad conductor, and others nervously gathered.
Cover of Narrative of Henry Box Brown (1849).
Still later wrote: “All was quiet. The door had been safely locked. The proceedings commenced. . . The witnesses will never forget that moment. Saw and hatchet quickly had the lid off, and the marvelous resurrection of Brown ensued. Rising up in his box, he reached out his hand saying, ‘How do you do, gentlemen?’ The little assemblage hardly knew what to do or think at that moment. He was about as wet as if he had come up out of the Delaware.”
The ordeal earned him the sobriquet “Box,” which he used for the remainder of his life. Recounting his daring escape at antislavery rallies in New England before the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act risked his forcible return to Virginia, Brown set sail – as a passenger – to England, where he primarily worked as a performer and mesmerist.
In 1875, Brown returned to the United States, where he would often climb back into his original box during performances. He died in Toronto in 1897.
For researchers seeking to learn more about Henry Box Brown, HSP has a copy of the 1849 Narrative of Henry Box Brown (call number E 441 .A58 v.99 no.16), as well as other publications on him, such as Henry’s Freedom Box (call number PZ 7 .L48 2007) and The Unboxing of Henry Brown (call number Biog E 450 .R84 2003).
HSP’s collections document the experiences and representations of African Americans from the colonial era to the present. HSP’s archivists created a subject guide to these materials – including manuscripts, books, pamphlets, serials, prints, broadsides, other graphics, and microfilm – to help researchers navigate the collections.
Join HSP for a free workshop on March 9, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. exploring new resources available for genealogists researching African American ancestors.
Stay tuned as we share more stories throughout this year’s Black History Month.