Henry “Box” Brown was born into slavery in 1816. He and his family worked on a plantation in Louisa County, Virginia.
Henry’s experience as a slave was one of the better ones. In his autobiographry, he describes his slave master as, “…uncommonly kind, (for even a slaveholder may be kind),” and added that he was revered almost as a god amongst the slaves.
But one day, after Henry had grown up, married and had kids of his own, things took a bad turn. After the plantation sold his wife and children off to a different slave owner, Henry remembers having a “heavenly vision” that told him to mail himself to freedom.
So, with the help of abolitionist C. A. Smith and a sympathetic local shop keeper, Henry devised a plan to ship himself to a free state via the Adams Express freight and cargo company.
Henry paid $86 (more than half of all of his savings) to Smith to set everything up. Smith contacted a pastor in Philadelphia who suggested that they mail the crate to the offices of a Quaker merchant known as Passmore Williamson.
When the day arrived to put the plan in motion, Brown burned his hand down to the bone with sulfuric acid to get out of work for the day. Then, he slipped off to meet up with Smith and begin his harrowing journey.
Henry was in the crate for a harrowing 27 hours. During this time, the 3-foot long crate traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, and railroad again before finally making the last leg of its trip in a delivery wagon.
Although the crate was marked with “this side up” and “handle with care”, Henry reported that the crate was often handled roughly and even stored upside down a few times.
But despite all of the trauma, Henry was able to avoid detection, making it to Philadelphia relatively unscathed.
When he emerged from the crate in the office of Passmore Williamson, he said,”How do you do, gentlemen?”, and then proceeded to sing a Bible psalm that he had chosen for his first taste of freedom.
Henry went on to play a major role in the abolition movement until the Fugitive Slave Act forced him to flee to England in 1850. While in England, Henry became an entertainer, performing as an illusionist and conjurer, among other mystical and magical acts.
He remarried while in Britain, and returned to the United States in 1875 with a full family magic act. There is no record of Brown’s death, but the last known record of his life comes from a newspaper article dated February 26, 1889 talking about a recent show Brown had put on in Ontario.
Years later, while describing the daring plan that eventually led to his freedom, Henry explained why he was willing to take on such huge risks:
“If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”