The Slave Who Mailed Himself to Freedom


The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia by Samuel W. Rowse (Wikipedia)

As I hope you learned from history class, the slavery of the antebellum South was all kinds of messed-up. Naturally, slaves went to great lengths to escape their lives of bondage. While many fled via the Underground Railroad, one particular slave took a more inventive route: he mailed himself to freedom

Born on a Richmond plantation, Henry “Box” Brown (1816 – after 1889) spent his life working under a series of masters throughout Virginia, and dreaming of freedom. When he was 33, he hatched a plan to [shut] myself…in a box, and [get] myself conveyed as dry goods to [freedom].” With backing from a sympathetic white shopkeeper, Brown set his plan into motion.

To escape via the mail, Brown first needed a box. He asked a local carpenter to build him one 3 ft long, 2 ft wide and 2.5 ft high. Into this box he would squeeze himself, some provisions, and a drill to bore air holes. On March 23, 1849, the box was nailed shut, and, with Brown inside, was shipped by wagon to Rocketts Landing, a nearby port. A waiting steamboat would convey the box to Washington, where it would be placed aboard a train to Philadelphia—and freedom. 

Needless to say, the trip wasn’t exactly a pleasure cruise. When the box reached Rocketts Landing, careless dock workers heaved it aboard ship upside-down. Brown, cramped inside his box, remained on his head for over 90 minutes; he later claimed that the ordeal nearly killed him. Throughout the trip, Brown’s box was often sat upon by passengers, and his disguise was often endangered when they guessed what the box might hold. 

Brown arrived in Philadelphia late the next day and was shipped to the office of the city’s Anti-Slavery Society. There, surrounded by abolitionists, he emerged from his box weak, dehydrated, but free. Brown had been in the box for 27 hours; he called his emergence “my resurrection from the grave of slavery.” 

Brown devoted most of the rest of his life to abolition. He went on the lecture circuit—adopting “Box” as his middle name—and published an autobiography detailing his escape. After Brown had a falling-out with Frederick Douglass, he went on the road as a magician, touring the Eastern States and parts of Canada. He died sometime in 1889.


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