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The Fascinating Escape Story of Slave Henry ‘Box’ Brown

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

The Fascinating Story of the Virginia Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

The Fascinating Story of the Virginia Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom

It Was an Ordinary Wooden Box Containing Something Unexpected

The wooden box prominently displayed the caption ‘This Side Up with Care’ but the baggage handlers ignored it as they rudely shoved it onto the steamship deck with those words exactly on the bottom.

Had they opened the box, they would have been surprised to learn that the box contained Henry Brown, a Richmond slave who was mailing himself to freedom.

In March 1849, Henry Box Brown, a slave paid $86 to ship himself into a 3-foot by 2-foot crate from his master’s home in Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia. The box was lined with baize, a coarse woolen cloth with a small hole on one side for Brown to breathe. It was nailed and tied with straps and Brown carried with him a packet of biscuits and a can of water.

Brown was fully prepared to ‘conquer or die’ on his mission as he traveled 350 miles over 27 hours by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, a delivery wagon that deposited the box in the office of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society just before the office closed for the day.

Brown reportedly jumped out the box and greeted the abolitionists Passmore Williamson, James Miller McKim, and the rest of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee by saying.

“How do you do, gentlemen?”

Brown was fully prepared to ‘conquer or die’ on his mission as he traveled 350 miles over 27 hours by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, a delivery wagon that deposited the box in Philadelphia.

Brown was fully prepared to ‘conquer or die’ on his mission as he traveled 350 miles over 27 hours by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, ferries, and finally, a delivery wagon that deposited the box in Philadelphia.

The Incredible Story of Henry Box Brown

At the age of 15, Brown had begun working for a tobacco company. Technically he was a slave and was not allowed to leave the premises, but the work was that of an errand boy and much better than the fate of the other blacks in the 1840s in America. So, he continued to work there into his 30s with little complaint.

But then circumstances changed for the worst once the owner died. His four sons now in charge of all business, sold all their father’s assets that included the slaves working in the tobacco plantation. And it was a helpless, heart-breaking moment in Brown’s life as he stood there watching his wife Nancy, children, and other slaves pass by on their way out of town to work for the new owners.

It was at that point Brown decided, he was going to be free. And it was not long before he hit upon the indigenous idea of escaping in a box as he said later.

The idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.”

On March 29, 1849, Brown started his journey in a wooden crate 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2.6 feet deep with a ‘hole’ opposite his face for air and fortified only with a can of water and biscuits.

On March 29, 1849, Brown started his journey in a wooden crate 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2.6 feet deep with a ‘hole’ opposite his face for air and fortified only with a can of water and biscuits.

Henry Box Brown Plans His Escape

Brown enlisted the aid of James C.A. Smith, a free black, and Samuel Smith, a white storekeeper who helped him for a price of $86 that Brown shelled out from his meager savings as an errand boy. Ironically Samuel himself kept slaves but he agreed to ship Brown to Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller McKim.

On March 29, 1849, Brown started his journey in a wooden crate 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 2.6 feet deep with a ‘hole’ opposite his face for air and fortified only with a can of water and biscuits. During the 27- hour journey, the box was turned upside down on several occasions and handled roughly. As Brown wrote later.

“I was resolved to conquer or die; I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets, and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with the pressure of blood upon my head.”

McKim and his group of abolitionist friends were awaiting their special delivery and gathered around the box as it reached their office in Philadelphia. The box was broken open and barely had Brown finished greeting the gentlemen, he passed out in exhaustion.

Henry Brown had finally won his battle for liberty.

Henry "Box" Brown became active in the Anti-Slavery Society and became one of their most important speakers. In 1849 he published his memoirs Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown that was well-received across America.

Henry "Box" Brown became active in the Anti-Slavery Society and became one of their most important speakers. In 1849 he published his memoirs Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown that was well-received across America.

After the Escape

Not only did Henry’s escape made the Northern states aware of the plight of the slaves in the Southern states, but his escape provided the much-needed impetus to the slaves languishing in the South in search of a better life. Though it’s not known how many more slaves followed suit shipping themselves in boxes to freedom, his accomplice Samuel Smith managed to make ‘box transportation’ as his full-time business before he was finally arrested.

Henry "Box" Brown became active in the Anti-Slavery Society and became one of their most important speakers. In 1849 he published his memoirs Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown that was well-received across America. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, Brown moved to England, fearing arrest but later returned to the United States in 1875.

Henry Box Brown is a perfect example of exemplary courage coupled with creativity. Sometimes mere courage is not enough to come out of the rut. Henry Brown had to ‘reinvent himself by ‘thinking out of the box to lead a better life. When asked in his later life about who gave him the creative idea to seek freedom in a box, he simply said.

“It is the ‘Higher Power’ who helped me seek freedom in a box and continue life as a freeman, to do the impossible!”

Sources

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 16, 2021:

Thanks Denise

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 16, 2021:

Thanks, Bill for your kind comments.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 16, 2021:

I've heard of Henry Box Brown before and it always gives me chills to think of the lengths people had to go to just to be free. Thanks for the reminder of such stories.

Blessings,

Denise

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on August 16, 2021:

I believe I read about him before. When it comes to topics you're creative even when you don't "think outside the box."

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 16, 2021:

I love this story, Ravi! Talk about determination! Can you imagine being crammed into that box for that long. Bravo! Thanks for sharing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 16, 2021:

Thanks Umesh

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 16, 2021:

Yes, Chitrangada Slavery has no place in today's world and let us hope this message gets passed to people who really need to absorb it.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on August 16, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on August 16, 2021:

Very interesting. Well presented Ravi.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 16, 2021:

A really fascinating escape story, of Henry Brown.

Slavery has no place in the modern civilised World. It is so painful to watch the news, as it’s happening now—You know what I am referring to.

Thank you Ravi Ji, for sharing this story of courage.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 16, 2021:

That was an ingenious escape for Henry Brown. I am glad that he survived. I wonder if he was ever able to be reunited with his family?

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