Barret was born on November 29, 1786, in Richmond, the fifth of six sons and seventh of eight children of John Barret and Mary Strachan Barret, and lived in the city all his life. His father was a native of Louisa County who became a Richmond merchant during the 1780s and served as mayor in 1791–1792 and again in 1793–1794. Family tradition relates that William Barret became ill while attending the Richmond Theatre with friends on the evening of December 26, 1811, and went home. Shortly thereafter the theater caught fire and seventy-two people died, including several of his friends.
As a young man Barret joined the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a prestigious militia company. He and his comrades marched to Portsmouth amid rising tensions after the British warship Leopard attacked the American frigate Chesapeake in 1807, but they saw no action. During the War of 1812 the unit mustered several times in anticipation of British attacks but never engaged in hostilities. Barret rose from private to orderly sergeant during the company’s diligent but relatively uneventful service.
Henry Box Brown’s Escape to Freedom
In this lithograph published about 1850, escaped slave Henry Brown emerges from "a Box 3 feet long, 2–1/2 ft. deep, and 2 ft. wide" in the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, holding a prybar, looks on at left. To attain his freedom, Brown had himself shipped in a box from Richmond in 1849. The story of his escape was widely publicized, and he adopted the name Henry Box Brown.
This illustration depicts the compact box—"3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet wide, 2 feet 6 inches high"—in which the enslaved man Henry Brown shipped himself from Richmond to Philadelphia. Brown wrote and copublished with Charles Stearns 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 (1849). This image was included in the book, which was published in Boston. The accompanying text notes that the box held "a fellow mortal [who] travelled a long journey, in quest of those rights which the piety and republicanism of this country denied to him …"
An advertisement for Adams & Co's Express in Richmond includes an illustration that depicts a steam locomotive pulling two railroad cars. This was published in the Richmond Directory and Business Advertiser, for 1852.
In 1849, enslaved Henry Brown, with the help of several comrades, had himself shipped in a box from Richmond via Adams Express and delivered to Philadelphia, where he was a free man.
Early in the 1850s Barret enlarged his factories, and in 1860 he produced 590,000 pounds of tobacco. His firm was one of the ten or twelve largest in the city, which then dominated the chewing tobacco industry in the United States. Barret’s best-known brand, called Negro Head, was a rich mixture prepared from carefully chosen strains of tobacco and large quantities of molasses. He marketed it in England and Australia.
Barret was a wealthy bachelor in 1844 when he built a tasteful and elegant house at the corner of Fifth and Cary streets. The most discerning student of Richmond’s residential architecture, Mary Wingfield Scott, stated that Barret’s house marked “the high point of Classic Revival architecture in Richmond.” On December 11, 1845, he married Margaret Elizabeth Williams Palmer, the widow of James Keith Palmer. They had no children. The Barrets were fond of society, literature, music, and travel. Margaret Barret died on May 6, 1852, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Barret retired about the time the Civil War began. Although never the largest tobacco manufacturer in Richmond, he was one of the wealthiest. He had already invested a large portion of his profits, and he prudently placed the bulk of his wealth in England. His apparent decision to avoid any considerable investment in Confederate bonds enabled him to remain one of the richest men in the city until he died. Barret provided lavishly for his many nieces, nephews, and friends when he composed his last will on April 8, 1869. His estate may have been worth the half-million dollars estimated in a local newspaper. After theup in April 1865, his surviving Richmond real estate alone was still worth more than $34,000. Even after all his generous bequests were doubled and distributed, enough remained to provide $50,000 for each of three Richmond orphanages: the Richmond Male Orphan Society, the Female Humane Orphan Association, and Saint Paul’s Church Home.
Barret’s life ended tragically. Always fearful of fire following his lucky escape in 1811, he took unusual precautions with his stoves and fireplaces, but after breakfast on January 20, 1871, while lighting his pipe, Barret set fire to the hem of his dressing gown and was almost immediately engulfed in flames. He died a few hours later and was buried beside his wife in Hollywood Cemetery.