It goes without saying that slavery—whether in the 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century Americas with Africans and Native Americans, or present-day human trafficking in places like India—has always been, and will always be, an atrocity. Indeed, it marked one of the darkest periods of history in America in particular, as countless human beings were treated like property with whom their owners could do as they pleased.
From the beginning of the practice in the early days of America’s colonization to its official end in 1865, the vast majority of slaves suffered terrible fates. Yet there were a few stories of those who were able to escape their terrible situations and do spectacular things.
Henry Brown was just one of those people. While his story was certainly an unusual one, it also displayed incredible ingenuity and resilience!
Henry Brown was born into slavery in Virginia around 1816. Despite the circumstances, he showed promise from a young age; he worked at a tobacco factory at age 15 and displayed a skill with the trade, as well as remarkable intelligence.
He was even given the responsibility of relaying messages and running errands, which provided him with valuable glimpses into the outside world. Nonetheless, he feared beatings as much as any other slave, and was regularly subjected to intense verbal abuse. He was devastated when his expecting wife and three children were sold to a North Carolina plantation, despite his owner’s assurances that this would never happen. “I began to get weary of my bonds,” Henry said, “and earnestly panted for liberty… which, by the cruel hand of tyranny, I, and millions of my fellow-men, had been robbed.”
Luckily, Henry had a connection in Samuel Smith, the white owner of a local shop. The slave had $166 in savings, and paid $86 to Samuel for his help in literally mailing himself to the shopkeeper’s friends in Philadelphia. The ingenious plan that followed, however, can be entirely credited to Henry.
LibertyBison / Wikimedia Commons
Henry was able to excuse himself from work for a day on March 29, 1849 when he “accidentally” burned his hand right down to the bone with sulfuric acid. He then squeezed himself into a box that was about three feet long, two feet wide, and two-and-a-half feet deep with nothing but a few biscuits, a full waterskin, and a small drill just in case he’d need more ventilation than the three holes that were already in the box. Though the box read “This Side Up With Care,” nobody paid those instructions much mind as he was jostled to and fro. At one point, the box was turned upside-down so all of his weight was applied to his head and neck. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” wrote Henry later, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.”
Finally, a whopping 27 hours and 350 miles later, Henry reached his destination at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. “Is all right within?” asked the members of the society. “All right,” replied Henry weakly, before they released him. He stood up—and promptly fainted.
Samuel W Rowse / Wikimedia Commons
After being housed in different places throughout a few states, Henry co-wrote a book about his experiences with ghostwriter Charles Stearns; his story sold 8,000 copies in two months and earned him the moniker of Henry “Box” Brown. He also became quite an entertainer, performing a panoramic live show on stage that recounted his journey and displayed 49 canvas scrolls that told tales of slavery from the horror of slave ships to the brutality of plantations. “The real life-like scenes presented in this panorama, are admirably calculated to make an unfading impression on the heart and memory, such as no lectures, books, or colloquial correspondence can produce,” wrote attendee Justin Spaulding.
Sadly, things didn’t have quite the happy ending. Samuel and John C.A. Smith, who helped him escape, were sent to prison for their part, forcing Henry to emigrate to England in fear of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He married an Englishwoman and continued to live there for 25 years.
Henry once again found a life in the theater, performing his “Mirror on Slavery” show while also developing personas like the “African Chief,” wearing extravagant jewelry and clothing while pretending to be descended from African royalty. It was as much about politics as it was about entertainment, magic, and spectacle, performing Houdini-like feats of escape. He brought the act back to the United States with him in 1875, touring the U.S. and Toronto, where he passed away in 1897.
What an unbelievably eventful and interesting life that Henry “Box” Brown lived. While his story certainly was not typical, it’s great to see at least one story of slavery that ended triumphantly.
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