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The Story Of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, The Slave Who Mailed Himself To Freedom

by Penn Collins

February 22, 2017

In a box measuring 37” long by 24” wide by 30” deep, a slave named Henry Brown traveled 350 miles over 27 hours from Virginia to Philadelphia to regain his freedom

At the age of 15, Brown had begun working for a tobacco company, afforded the liberty to relay messages and run errands off-premise, yet still facing corporal punishment and strict control over his ability to leave the property. Brown was aware that these constraints still made for a desirable alternative to the fate that many other Blacks suffered in the 1840s. so he continued to work there into his 30s with little complaint.

However, circumstances changed drastically following the passing of the relatively permissive plantation owner. His four sons, now in charge of all business, sold his wife and three children to a plantation in North Carolina, never to see them again. To escape the hardships of slavery, he found a white business acquaintance – and a slaveowner – named Samuel Smith who, for $86, would help Brown escape slavery through passage to the north. 

Burning his own hand with acid, Brown was excused from work on March 29th of 1849. He placed himself in the confining crate with nothing but water, biscuits, and a drill should the holes he drilled for air prove insufficient. 

According to his own account, the box was rotated several times over the course of its journey. He found himself upside-down in the box with his head, neck and shoulders bearing his full weight of his body for hours at a time.

He wrote: 

“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.”

It was only when two workers turned the box over to use as a seat that the extreme discomfort ended. 

After 27 hours, he arrived in Philadelphia only, to learn that his uncrating had been promoted as quite the spectacle by his addresses at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. His new life was one of comfort and admiration. He gave speeches in the north, even writing an autobiography for accommodating, sympathetic, and grateful audiences in the free states. 

However, his past returned to haunt him as he learned that his accomplice in Virginia, Samuel Smith, had been arrested for aiding in the liberation of slaves. A recently-passed effort, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, required anyone aware of Brown’s past – which was pretty much everyone in the north – to aid in returning him to slavery in the south. 

Brown fled once again, this time to England. He found a career in theatrical representations of his struggle and journey to freedom. He married there and ultimately returned, with his family, to North America in 1875, first to America, then north to Canada before his death in 1897. 

Not only was Henry “Box” Brown instrumental in sharing the plight of southern slaves to northern residents, but he proved to be a pioneer with his inventive manner of finding his way to a new life. Though it’s not known how many more slaves followed suit shipping themselves in boxes to freedom, but charges at the time suggested that his accomplice, Samuel Smith, had turned it into a full enterprise prior to his arrest. 

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The Story Of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, The Slave Who Mailed Himself To Freedom