Henry "Box" Brown
(1815 or 1816 – after 1889) was a 19th century Virginia
slave who escaped to freedom by arranging to have himself
mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a wooden crate. For
a short time he became a noted abolitionist speaker and
later a showman, but later lost the support of the
abolitionist community, notably Frederick Douglass, who
wished Brown had kept quiet about his escape so that more
slaves could have escaped using similar means.
With the help of James C. A. Smith and a sympathetic white
storekeeper named Samuel Smith (no relation), Brown devised
a plan to have himself shipped to a free state by Adams
Express Co. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to
Smith, who contacted Philadelphia abolitionist James Miller
McKim, who agreed to receive the box. Brown burned his hand
with oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) as an excuse for
During the trip, which began on March 23, 1849, Brown's box
traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again,
railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon.
Several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers placed
the box upside-down or handled it roughly, but Brown was
able to remain still enough to avoid detection.
The box containing Brown was received by McKim, William
Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance
Committee. When Brown was released, one of those present
remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He
then sang a psalm from the Bible he had previously selected
for his moment of freedom.
Brown became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery
Society. He was bestowed the nickname of "Box" at a Boston
antislavery convention in May 1849, and thereafter used the
name Henry Box Brown. He published two versions of his
autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown;
first in Boston in 1849 and the second in Manchester,
England in 1851 [See
Bibliography]. Brown exhibited a moving panorama
titled "Mirror of Slavery" in the northeastern United States
until he was forced to move to England after the passage of
the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Brown toured Britain with
his antislavery panorama for the next 10 years, performing
several hundred times a year and visiting virtually every
town and city over that period.
Brown stayed on
the British show circuit for twenty-five years, until 1875.
In the 1860s, he began performing as a mesmerist, and some
time after that as a conjuror, under the show names Prof. H.
Box Brown and the African Prince. Leaving his first wife and
children in slavery (though he had the means to purchase
he married a second time to a white British woman, and
began a new family. In 1875, he returned to the U.S. with a
family magic act. There is also a later report of the Brown
Family Jubilee Singers.
The cause and
date of his death are unknown. The last record of Brown is a
newspaper report of a performance by Brown at Brantford,
Ontario, Canada on 26th February 1889.
Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia,
a lithograph by Samuel Rowseby -- published in 1850
Advertisement in the Shrewsbury Chronicle
December 9th 1859,
“PANORAMA OF THE SLAVE STATES — Our Music Hall will be
opened next week with the celebrated panorama of Africa and
America with illustrations of Negro life, by Mr. Box Brown,
who was born a slave, and as it appears, was packed in a box
as luggage and conveyed 350 miles to escape slavery. This
panorama has lately been exhibited at Bridgenorth, Broseley,
Wenlock .. before the clergy and leading gentry, who speak
very highly of the entertainment”.