As you know, lately I’ve been reading Kate Thomas’s Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters (2012).
In footnote 32, on page 25, Thomas writes, “The mail also played an important role in accruing the subjectivity and citizenship denied to the enslaved in America. For an account of how slaves used the mail to outwit slave-masters and the infamous case of a slave mailing himself to freedom, see Hollis Robbins, “Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry ‘Box’ Brown”, American Studies (2009)”.
Henry Brown was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1815. He married and had four children, all of whom (including his wife) were sold to a North Carolina plantation in 1848, away from Henry. Unsurprisingly, this fueled his desire to escape slavery at all costs.
Brown was a member of a local church, and enlisted the help of a friend to help mail him to abolitionists in the north. The friend was named James Caesar Anthony Smith, which is rather appropriate, given how Brown was smuggled out of enemy territory: Cleopatra escaped danger by being delivered to Julius Caesar rolled up in a rug, smuggled right under her enemy’s noses.
James Smith had a white contact, named Samuel Smith (no relation), who agreed to help Henry Brown for a price. I’m not sure what that price was, nor how Henry was able to pay it. Regardless, Samuel Smith boxed up Henry in a giant wooden crate on March 23, 1849, and mailed him to an anti-slavery society in Philadelphia. The box, labeled “Dry Goods”, had a single hole cut in the top for air, and took 27 hours to be delivered by a combination of wagon, rail, steamboat, and ferry. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not bad at all, considering it’s 250 miles from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia, PA (never mind the time it takes to process the mail).
Despite the fact that it only took a day to deliver, it must have been hellishly uncomfortable. The box was 3 feet long, 2 feet 8 inches deep, and 2 feet wide. He must have been doubled in half to fit. It was lined with some coarse cloth, but that probably didn’t help much. All he brought with him was a single skein of water and a few biscuits.
Despite being labeled “This Side Up”, the box was tossed around roughly on the trip. Henry Brown was turned upside down several times, once for so long that the amount of blood rushing to his head made him fear he was going to die.
Upon the box being opened to what I’m sure were some very surprised abolitionists, Henry Brown emerged singing a psalm.
Let’s look at this ridiculous lithograph from 1850 by Samuel Rowse:
I’m not sure why their heads are so out of proportion with their bodies. They look like Victorian Bratz dolls.
Meanwhile, down south, the two Smiths attempted to mail more slaves to freedom, but their plans were soon discovered and they were arrested. Only Samuel Smith served any time, being jailed for six-and-a-half years. James Smith was miraculously not charged, and managed to escape not long thereafter and join Henry in Boston.
Abolitionist leaders in the north, including Frederick Douglas, thought it would be best to keep Brown’s escape quiet, since it may alert people in the south to start examining large shipments more closely.
However, others (including Henry Brown) decided that it may inspire slaves to attempt escapes of their own, showing them how one could succeed. He went public with his story, going on stage to lecture all around the north.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, which allowed slave owners to apply to a Federal marshal to catch their runaway slaves, no matter where they were. Northern states were required to comply with this law, even though slavery was abolished in the north. Fearing that he may be retaken (especially given his conspicuous status on the lecture circuit), Henry Brown fled to England.
In England, he married again, this time to a white English woman, and had a daughter. He received a great deal of criticism for not purchasing his first wife and four children. Their fate is unknown.
He returned to the States 25 years later with his English wife and daughter, supporting them through performing as a magician. One of his staple acts was emerging from the original wooden box in which he was mailed. He likely died in 1889.