Early Years and Escape
Henry Brown was born in either 1815 or 1816 at the Hermitage, a plantation about ten miles from Yanceyville in Louisa County. Unlike many slaves who knew neither their parents nor their siblings, Brown spent his formative years with his parents (whose names are unknown) and his four sisters and three brothers. They all were slaves belonging to John Barret, a former mayor of Richmond. After Barret’s death on June 9, 1830, Brown was separated from his family and sent to Richmond to work in the tobacco factory of Barret’s son, whose property he became. Brown’s brothers and sisters were sent to various plantations, except for Martha, who, according to Brown, was kept by William Barret as his “keep Miss,” or mistress.
In Richmond about 1836 Brown married Nancy, a slave owned by a different master, and together they had three children. The family joined the First African Baptist Church, where Henry Brown sang in the church’s choir. He had become a skilled tobacco worker and earned enough money through overwork to set up his family in a rented house. Then, in August 1848, Nancy Brown’s master sold her and their three children to another master in North Carolina. At the time, she was pregnant with a fourth child.
After mourning his loss for several months, Brown resolved to escape from slavery and conceived an unusual method. Through James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black and fellow member of the church choir, he contacted Samuel Alexander Smith, a white shoemaker and sometime gambler, who agreed for a price to help Brown escape. (Ironically, Samuel Smith himself owned slaves.) The three men rejected several possible means before Brown had the inspiration to be shipped in a box by rail to Philadelphia. Samuel Smith accordingly contacted James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia leader of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society who was involved in Underground Railroad activities.On March 23, 1849, the Smiths sealed Brown into a wooden box three feet long, two and one-half feet deep, and two feet wide, and conveyed the package as “dry goods” from Richmond to Philadelphia. On the steamboat transfer up the Potomac River to Washington from the ‘s terminus at Aquia Creek, Brown was turned head down in the box for several hours and nearly died. At other transfers the box was roughly handled, but he endured silently. He later wrote that he “was resolved to conquer or die,” even as “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.” Even as he thought he might die, Brown heard a man telling another that he had been standing too long and needed a place to sit; “so perceiving my box, standing on end, he threw it down and then two sat upon it. I was thus relieved from a state of agony which may be more easily imagined than described.”
After the parcel finally arrived in Philadelphia early on March 24, McKim took delivery at the office of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, where the box was opened with great trepidation. After twenty-six hours’ confinement, Brown emerged, alive and free. “I had risen as it were from the dead,” Brown wrote.
Career in Boston and England
At the end of May Brown appeared before the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston, where his daring escape was celebrated as proof that slaves desired liberty, and he was renamed Henry Box Brown. He had a fine voice and performed the hymn of thanksgiving that he had sung on his arrival in Philadelphia. That summer he appeared at antislavery gatherings. Published sheets with the lyrics to “Song, Sung by Mr. Brown on being removed from the box” and “Escape from Slavery of Henry Box Brown” were probably sold by Brown after his performances. Early in September 1849 the Narrative of Henry Box Brown, written by Charles Stearns, was published in Boston. Brown and Stearns toured New England selling the book and delivering antislavery lectures into the early part of November 1849.
Samuel Smith attempted another shipment of slaves from Richmond to Philadelphia on May 8, 1849, but was discovered and arrested. That November he was sentenced to six and one-half years in the state penitentiary. James C. A. Smith had aided Smith in the attempt but avoided arrest until September 25, 1849. A divided panel of magistrates enabled him to escape conviction. James C. A. Smith had joined Brown in Boston by December.
Late in 1849 Brown engaged the Boston artist Josiah Wolcott and others to begin work on an ambitious moving panorama about slavery. In January 1850 The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph probably reproducing an image created for the panorama, was published in Boston and became one of the earliest of many pictorial representations of that scene. On April 11, 1850, the moving panorama, Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery, opened in Boston. Brown and Smith exhibited in New England throughout the summer.
On August 30, 1850, with passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill imminent, Brown was assaulted on the street in Providence, Rhode Island. Believing himself at risk of being captured and returned to Virginia under the law, Brown, along with Smith, sailed to England in October 1850. They exhibited the panorama in Liverpool from November 12 to December 5, 1850, showed it in Manchester from December 14, 1850, to January 1, 1851, and toured Lancashire and Yorkshire through the spring. Early in May 1851 the “First English Edition” of the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself was published in Manchester.
In June 1851 Brown’s and Smith’s partnership ended after a bitter dispute involving money and Smith’s complaint that Brown had made no effort to purchase his own family. Smith strongly criticized Brown in letters to prominent American abolitionists as well as to those English activists who had helped them get started in that country. Out of both necessity and choice Brown moved from the abolitionist circuit entirely into English show business. He exhibited his panorama throughout England during the 1850s, developing the character of the African Prince as another part of his persona and dressing in fine clothes and jewelry. In July 1852 Brown won a libel case against a newspaper that had published racial slurs about his performances. By 1859 he had remarried and with his wife, name unknown, was also exhibiting a panorama of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. About that time Brown began to perform as a mesmerist, entertaining audiences with the actions of persons under his hypnotic influence. As late as 1864, when billing himself in Wales as the “King of all the Mesmerisers,” he still occasionally showed the Mirror of Slavery.
Death and Legacy
In 1875, accompanied by his wife and daughter Annie, Brown returned to the United States. Billing himself as “Prof. H. Box Brown,” he performed as a magician. He carried over from his previous shows his portrayal of the African Prince and continued to climb into his original box. The Browns performed at Milbury and Worcester, Massachusetts, at the beginning of 1878, and an extant handbill announces a performance at Brookline on May 9, 1878. An Ontario newspaper reports a performance at Brantford on February 26, 1889. Research done by the scholar Martha J. Cutter has shown that by that time Henry Box Brown was living in Toronto, where he died on June 15, 1897. He was buried in Necropolis Cemetery there.
More than a century later, the man who escaped slavery in a box has become a symbol of the Underground Railroad, and his confinement and triumphant emergence from the box have inspired works by several contemporary artists. Brown has been featured in a short film, at least two plays, an opera, and an exhibit at a wax museum. The writer Anthony Cohen paid homage to Brown’s courage by traveling from Philadelphia to New York inside a box. Brown’s famous passage to freedom was not a thing apart from the rest of his life, and he displayed the attributes that enabled him to succeed as a fugitive time and again during his long career as a performer.
- 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 by Charles Stearns (1849)
- Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851)