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Columns at museum's entrance

The Amazing Escape and Subsequent Escapades of Henry Box Brown

Robyn Asleson
February 6, 2018
A lithograph of a man coming out of a box
Resurrection of Henry Box Brown, at Philadelphia / Robert Langton / 1851 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution 

In March 1849, agents of the shipping firm Adams & Co. Express took charge of a seemingly ordinary wooden box in Richmond, Virginia. It was bound for the Philadelphia office of the Quaker abolitionist Passmore Williamson and guaranteed to arrive in two days or less.  Incredibly, a man was inside that box, huddled in a space measuring just three feet long, two and-a-half feet deep, and two feet wide. Henry Box Brown (c. 1816–1897) had been born into slavery and might have lived out his days in bondage had his wife and three children not been callously sold away from him and sent to North Carolina. Determined to escape or die, Brown threw caution to the wind with a desperate plan. "The idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state."

Brown's risky plan was made possible by the intense competition among private shipping firms, which vied for customers through promises of dependably speedy service at cheap rates and with a blind eye toward the contents of packages. These terms enabled abolitionists to flood the South with "incendiary" anti-slavery publications, and they allowed Henry Brown to flee an intolerable life and embark on a course of continual self-reinvention.

Though clearly marked "right side up with care," Brown's box was violently upended and tossed about during his grueling twenty-seven-hour journey to Philadelphia. Against all odds, he safely reached his destination on March 24, 1849 to the astonishment and relief of his waiting accomplices, who instantly declared him "the greatest man in America." For his part, Brown declared himself a new man—no longer plain Henry Brown, but Henry Box Brown. The engraved frontispiece to the British edition of Brown's memoir, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851), re-creates the stunning moment of his "resurrection."

By June 1849 Brown had joined the lecture circuit of the Anti-Slavery Society and was traveling from town to town telling his story, singing hymns, and demonstrating his box trick with theatrical flair. The following April he began displaying "The Mirror of Slavery," a panorama of forty-nine scenes that included his famous escape as well as  those of Ellen Craft and Henry Bibb. 

Following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850, Brown fled to England, where he continued his lecturing, panoramic display, and box demonstration. Gradually distancing himself from abolitionism, he pursued an acting career—albeit in typecast roles. In 1857 he traveled to provincial English theaters to perform "three of his original Dramas": The Nubian Captive; or, Royal Slave; The Fugitive Free; or, The Escape from Slavery; and Pocahontas; or, the English Tar and Indian Princess.

 During the 1860s and 1870s Brown performed as a magician and mesmerist, first in England and later in the United States and Canada. As his final act of self-reinvention, he assumed the persona of "Professor Brown," presenting lectures on animal magnetism, biology, sociology, tricology (the study of the hair and scalp), and micology (the study of fungi) while still performing magic and recounting the story of his long-ago escape to freedom in a box. Over his long career as a magician, Henry Box Brown's favorite trick was clearly the first one he ever performed: that of disappearing, and then reappearing as someone else.

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