Henry Box Brown was born into slavery in 1816 in Louisa County, Virginia. Brown’s enslaver was a former mayor of Richmond, Virginia John Barret. In 1830, at the age 15, Brown was separated from his family and sent work in tobacco factory in Richmond, Virginia.
Brown married Nancy, a washerwoman, who was also a slave, the couple had three children together. Brown work hard to keep his family together, but in 1848, his wife and children was abruptly sold away to North Carolina. Using overtime money, Brown decided to arrange for his freedom. Brown found an ally in a white sympathetic shoemaker Samuel Smith, who agree to help. Brown constructed a wooden crate box that was three feet long and two feet six inches deep with two air holes. Brown and Smith devised a plan to have him shipped to the free state of Philadelphia by Adams Express Company, known for its confidentiality and efficiency. Brown was able to save up $166, he paid $86 to Samuel Smith.
Smith went to Philadelphia to consult with members of Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society on how to accomplish the escape, meeting with minister James Miller McKim, William Still, Cyrus Burleigh. He corresponded with them to work out the details. They advised him to mail the box to the office of Quaker merchant Passmore Williamson, who was active with the Vigilance Committee.
On March 23, 1849, Brown burned his finger to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) to get out of work. In Richmond a 200 pound Brown loaded himself with a small portion of water, a few biscuits, and a gimlet to drive more air holes in the box (if needed), into the wooden box, with the words displayed “dry goods”. The package went left Richmond and from there the package moved via horse-drawn carriage to the rail depot of the Richmond-Fredericksburg-Potomac Railroad. Brown’s freight car was off-loaded 56 miles north on the Potomac River’s Aquia Landing and then placed aboard a Potomac River steamboat and shipped 40 miles upriver into Washington D.C. Here, the “package” transferred to the Washington & Baltimore Train Depot and passed by rail through Baltimore, arriving 149 miles later in the Port of Philadelphia on March 24, 1849. A local Philadelphia carting firm delivered “the package” to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. Delivered in 27 hours, Brown was welcomed by Philadelphia abolitionists led by Underground Railroad organizer, William Still and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. When Brown was released, one of the men remembered his first words as “How do you do, gentlemen?” He sang a Psalm from the Bible, which he had earlier chosen to celebrate his release into freedom.
Brown survived the journey and became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society, he wrote his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown” in 1851. He then created a panorama called “Mirror of Slavery,” a moving scroll of scenes depicting slave life and his unusual escape. The panorama was exhibited in free states of America before he fled to England to avoid the Fugitive Slave Act. In England, Brown’s panorama, helped foster anti-slavery sentiment. In 1862, he began performing more light-hearted shows, with ventriloquists and singers.
By 1875 Brown had returned to New England and married a second time. He lectured under the name Professor H. “Box” Brown until his death. Henry Box Brown died in Toronto on June 15, 1897. Tax records and other documents indicate that he continued to perform into the early 1890s, but no performance records have been found. The last known performance by Brown is a newspaper account of a performance with his daughter Annie and wife Jane in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, dated February 26, 1889.