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Brown, Henry “Box”(1815–?) - Abolitionist, house servant, factory worker, Chronology, Ships Himself to Philadelphia, Becomes an Abolitionist Lecturer

brown’s smith children nancy

Henry “Box” Brown got his nickname “Box” after he mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, antislavery office in 1849 in order to escape from slavery. His method of escape was so unusual that his story was told repeatedly. Brown, who was unlettered, got the abolitionist Charles Stearns to write down his autobiography for him. It was first published just several months after his escape and revised and reissued in England in 1851.

In his narrative Brown explains that he was born in 1815 on the Barret plantation in Louisa County, Virginia, about forty-five miles from Richmond. Brown describes the cruelties of the institution of slavery but in many ways favorably compares his youth in slavery to that of other slaves, minutely describing an encounter at a mill when he and his brother impressed other slaves with their attire. He explains that as a lad he usually worked in the master’s household serving him and his wife. When Brown was fifteen years old, his master died, and Brown’s family members were divided between the owner’s four sons. Brown’s bitterest complaint about slavery throughout his narrative is the devastation it caused in the African American family. Taken to Richmond by William Barret, Brown began to work long hours in a tobacco factory. His new master regularly set aside small sums of money as a reward for Brown’s work. Brown was no spendthrift so he was able to amass some savings.

As Brown matured he became a part of the Richmond African American community and joined the choir at a local church. After several years he decided that he had earned enough resources working at the tobacco factory to be able to have a family and settle down. Brown got permission to marry a house slave named Nancy on the condition that he find a place to live. With the help of a free black man, Brown was able to procure a house and marry Nancy. Even though Brown and Nancy were happily married and had several children, Nancy regularly suffered because of the uncertainties of her enslavement. Even while she continued to live with Brown, she was sold several times and abused by some of her mistresses. Brown was forced to try to stabilize his wife’s situation with his own resources, but as a slave he had no rights to defend himself or his family. Whites repeatedly cheated him. Ultimately, his wife’s owner decided to sell Nancy and her children to owners in an undisclosed location. Since children followed the condition of the mother—if the mother was a slave, then her children were owned by her master—Brown, enslaved himself, had no say over their disposition. Brown pleaded with all concerned for mercy, including Nancy’s master and his owner. He tried to secure adequate resources to purchase his wife and children himself but to no avail. After twelve years of marriage Brown’s wife and family were sold away and he had no idea where they had gone. To add to the calamity, some whites also took everything Brown owned out of his house.


1815 Born on the Barrett plantation in Louisa County, Virginia

1830 Brown’s master dies; William Barret inherits Brown and takes him to Richmond to work in a tobacco factory

1835 Marries a house slave named Nancy and has several children

1849 Nancy and the children are sold by their master; with the aid of accomplices Brown is shipped in a box and arrives in Philadelphia twenty-seven hours later; Brown publishes his narrative with the help of abolitionist Charles Stearns later that year

1850 Develops his panorama and exhibits it in various northern cities; moves to Liverpool, England in October

1852 A second English edition of Brown’s narrative is published in Bilston (last recorded event of his life)

Ships Himself to Philadelphia

In despair Brown devised a plan to get away from enslavement. He went to a carpenter to ask him to construct a shipping crate three feet and one inch long, two feet and six inches deep and two feet wide for his two hundred pound, five foot eight inch body. On March 19, 1849, with the help of two allies, James Caesar Anthony Smith, the same free black man who helped Brown to buy his home, and Samuel A. Smith, a white sympathizer, Brown was shipped in a crate marked “THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE” to William H. Johnson in Philadelphia. Sometimes during his twenty-seven hour trek to Philadelphia by sea and overland the handlers obeyed the crate directions but other times he found himself on his side and even upside down with the blood vessels bulging in his forehead. Brown had drilled several small air holes in the box and took the drill along in case he needed more air. He also took along some water with which he repeatedly bathed his face. To cool himself he was able to fan himself continually with his hat.

Brown’s Philadelphia accomplices awaited his arrival at the Adams Express Company offices. They feared that his crate would turn out to be a coffin. Nevertheless, when they heard that the box had arrived, they went to get it and brought it to the antislavery offices on North Fifth Street. Several witnesses, including the African American Underground Railroad conductor, William Still, were present for the opening of the crate. To their utter amazement, Brown emerged alive.

Becomes an Abolitionist Lecturer

The abolitionists were so excited by Brown’s daring escape that they broadcast news of it far and wide. Brown began speaking on the antislavery circuit about his escape and about the horrors of slavery. After spending a brief time with abolitionists in the Philadelphia area, Brown moved on to New Bedford, Massachusetts, and then to Boston. Subsequently, his two allies in Richmond were arrested and tried. Astonishingly, the free black man, J. C. A. Smith, with the aid of an expensive attorney, was acquitted. Samuel Smith, the white man, was sentenced to prison. After serving his sentence for seven years and surviving several assassination attempts behind bars, he moved to the North and was celebrated by a grateful Philadelphia African American community. At a ceremony honoring Samuel Smith, the leaders presented him with a money gift they had collected to help him get a new start.

Soon after Brown’s escape, with the aid of wealthy abolitionists, Brown developed a traveling exhibit—called a panorama—which he used to expose the evils of slavery while he told the story of his escape. J. C. A. Smith moved to the North to join Brown and they continued on the speaking circuit together. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Brown feared he would be captured especially after an attempt by slave catchers to nab him and Smith in Providence, Rhode Island. Consequently, he and Smith fled to England and arrived in Liverpool in October 1850. There Brown continued to tell of his exploits and tour with his panorama. He published a revised version of his narrative in 1851 and a second English edition in 1852. Little is known of him after 1852. There the historical trail grows cold.

Brown, Herbert Charles [next] [back] Brown, Helen Gurley - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Helen Gurley Brown

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