How many times did kids of the 1950s and 1960s see cartoons in which one of the characters like Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck mail himself to someone and then pop out of the box to give the recipient a big wet kiss or hand him a stick of dynamite with the fuse lit. We all laughed and because it was a cartoon overlooked the impossibility of anyone mailing a person anywhere. It only stood to reason that no one could survive being sealed in a box and delivered by mail. It was all just a cartoon.
The fact of the matter is, however, that someone actually did survive being mailed. And it wasn’t done just for a laugh or even an exploding cigar. The purpose was far more serious. It was done to escape a life of slavery. The man who made the journey by mail was Henry “Box” Brown and, yes, the nickname “Box” comes from the box he traveled in. Here is his story.
Henry Brown was a black man and a slave in Virginia, born in 1815, 45 years before the Civil War. When he was 15, his relatively kind owner died and the man’s slaves were sold. Brown was sold to a new owner who put him to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond. Brown was a hard worker and exceeded his production quota. The factory actually paid him some money, which he saved. In 1836 he married another slave, Nancy, who was a domestic servant. Over the next 12 years they had three children.
HENRY "BOX" BROWN IN LATER LIFE
But in 1848 one of the most evil aspects of the system of slavery was visited upon Brown and his family. His wife and children were sold to a plantation owner in North Carolina. Brown, as a skilled worker in the tobacco factory, was not sold and stayed in Richmond. There is no evidence that Brown ever saw his wife or children again.
Brown, who obviously was intelligent and strong willed, resolved to escape slavery, and, in 1848, that meant a clandestine and perilous journey to one of the non-slave states in the North or even to Canada. Slaves seeking to escape had two basic options. They could buy or steal the identity papers of a freed slave and impersonate him or her until they could cross the border. In that pre-photography era, all the papers could include as identifying information was a description of the freed slave, so impersonation was possible. But there were only so many sets of papers available and competent forgery was not as easily practiced as shown in modern movies. Alternatively, a slave could undertake, without protective papers, a perilous and clandestine journey on foot from the South to the freedom of the North, perhaps traveling hundreds of miles at night, hungry, and subject to being seized at any time. Over time, both Northern and Southern abolitionists and bold former slaves like Harriett Tubman came to help in these escapes, but even so, only about a hundred thousand of the almost four million slaves counted in the South in the 1860 census made it to freedom before the Northern military victory in 1864.
Although he was undoubtedly smart and bold enough to make the journey on foot, Brown found a unique alternative way to make his escape. He arranged to have himself shipped from his home town of Richmond to an abolitionist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Of course, it would be 125 years before modern express delivery companies like UPS and FedEx came into existence and guaranteed next-day delivery, but rapid delivery of freight was already a growing business in mid-nineteenth century, post-industrial revolution America. Railroads were being built like crazy, replacing horse-drawn wagons and canal boats as the primary means of the transport of goods. By 1850 the U.S. had almost 9,000 miles of railroad track capable of carrying freight. Most of it was along the Atlantic seaboard. Express companies were springing up to arrange such rapid transfers by rail and other required means and earn a fee in the process.
So enters Adams & Company Express into the story of Henry “Box” Brown’s bid for freedom.
Adams & Company specialized in arranging rapid delivery of goods by the new rail system. Transport between the manufacturing centers of the South, like Richmond, and the growing population centers of the North, like Philadelphia, was increasing quickly. Adams & Co. arranged shipping in these markets and went so far as to guarantee that a box delivered to its office in Richmond at certain times of day would arrive at its office in Philadelphia within 24 hours. (Modern delivery companies look out!)
Brown saw a way to take advantage of this guarantee. Only a brave man would be able to do so, but no one can accuse Brown of not being brave. He got in touch with a Richmond abolitionist named Samuel Smith. Smith was a shoe and dry goods maker and often shipped goods to the North. Although he owned slaves, Smith was an ardent foe of the slavery system. In what might seem like a scene from a cartoon Brown persuaded Smith to arrange to package Brown up in a wooden box and ship him to another ardent abolitionist, James Miller McKim of Philadelphia (father of famous New York skyscraper architect Charles McKim). Brown gave Smith $84 for his help and postage. And so Brown’s incredible journey began.
Before shipping Brown off, Smith wrote McKim to make arrangements for McKim to claim the box when it arrived. Smith planned to telegraph McKim to warn him the box was on its way because, of course, it needed to be claimed immediately. Very rapid delivery of telegrams was expected in the mid-nineteenth century, so the telegram would easily outrun the train. The U.S. already had 12,000 miles of telegraph lines by 1850, and that did not include the long distance wires that would accompany the transcontinental railroads west since they had not yet been built. Smith could warn McKim of Brown’s arrival long enough in advance that the box could be collected and opened as soon as it arrived at the Adams & Company office.
On March 22, 1848 Smith carefully sealed Brown in the box, which had been equipped with three small air holes. More would have been suspicious in a box containing dry goods. Brown took along a cow’s bladder full of water. Smith marked the 3 foot by 2 foot by 2 ½ foot box with a “THIS SIDE UP” sign and drove the box in his wagon to the Adams & Company office at the rail yard in time to catch the proper train.
Twenty-seven hours later he was released from the box in McKim’s house in Philadelphia. He tried to stand up and almost fainted but, faint or not, he was free. It was not easy for him in the little box, not like the cartoon characters who obviously were not discommoded at all by their journey through the postal service. Brown’s box traveled by eight different conveyances from Smith’s house in Richmond to McKim’s house in Philadelphia, and they were not uniformly comfortable, if any of them were at all.
The first leg of the journey must have been the least taxing. Smith, knowing Brown was in the box, would have taken care in its loading and unloading and during the short drive to the rail yard. The brief pause in the Adams & Company office before being loaded onto the baggage car on the midnight train was surely easy. Likewise, the train ride to City Point on was relatively smooth and quick. It was at City Point the trouble started. The box was put on a steamboat to head down river and to the next rail connection. When the box was put on board, the cargo handlers ignored the “THIS SIDE UP” sign and turned the box on its head. Brown was suddenly upside down in the tiny box. Gradually, the blood ran to his head. He felt his eyes would pop out or he would die of a brain hemorrhage. He dared not make a sound, and he hung on, silent, braced in the box on his head. After a while he was able to shift his weight a bit silently and got some relief, but he was still upside down for a protracted period of time. Finally, when he was near giving up, fate intervened and two cargo handlers looking for a place to sit and smoke tuned the box on its side and sat down. It was not perfect, but it was a hugely welcome relief.
When the boat docked the box was tossed on a wagon to move to the rail yard. It was bruising and very uncomfortable, but at least he was not on his head. The short wagon ride took the box to the rail yard where it was positioned with other freight for loading on the train. After a while, during which other freight was loaded, Brown heard someone say, “Leave the rest of these. There is no more room.” For a few minutes it looked as if he would be left behind for who knew how long. Then, just before the train left someone else said that certain boxes were Adams & Company overnight express freight and had to be accommodated. Brown’s box was put on board—once again upside down, but before the train left, it was turned on its side and other freight piled on top. After a brief transfer to a ferry, the box was back in a railroad freight car and now headed for Philadelphia.
Smith’s telegram to McKim was delivered, and McKim, not wishing to arouse suspicion by showing up himself in the middle of the night to collect a package he could have sent an employee for, instructed one of his employees to take a wagon and collect a box of dry goods addressed to McKim at the Adams & Company office. McKim did not tell the employee the contents of the box. Seeing no urgency and apparently acting under the belief that the freight company office would not be open until the next morning, the employee delayed going to the rail yard for at least three additional hours. There was Henry Brown, lying on his side in a box for an additional three hours. Then the loading and ride to McKim’s house was no easy affair. The employee did not know that a live human being was in the box, so like the other handlers, thinking it contained cloth and the like, he simply tossed it onto the wagon bed and drove normally, that is not being particularly careful, back to McKim’s house.
McKim was convinced that the box carried into his living room contained a dead body, but he asked the code word question agreed to with Smith and Brown in their correspondence: “All right within?” and to his vast relief heard a disembodied voice say, “All right, sir.”
BROWN EMERGES ALIVE!
Brown made it to freedom, and began to give talks about his journey and the evils of slavery. While McKim and his fellow abolitionists were happy Brown had made it, they were very mad at him for revealing how he had done it. They professed later to want to get other slaves out of the South by express, and felt if the authorities knew about the method they could close this bolt hole for good. Perhaps it was a bit of hubris on Brown’s part, but he resented their efforts to quiet him. He may have thought, rightly so, that not very many people could stand the physical and psychological torture long enough to get to the North as an express package. And he was right. On at least two subsequent occasions Brown’s Richmond, Virginia abolitionist friends tried to ship other slaves to the North, but they were unable to endure the discomfort and revealed themselves by grunts and the like. Eventually, Southern officials began requiring more vigilance of shipments of “appropriate” size to the North, and efforts to rescue slaves by express delivery ceased.
Brown’s journey was not over, however. In 1848 he was safe in Pennsylvania, but in 1850 he once again had to flee. This time he traveled to England which had abolished slavery. We sometimes forget that the U.S. Constitution originally provided that Southern slaves, even if they escaped to the North, were still slaves. A 1793 Act of Congress required the authorities in non-slave states to return runaway slaves to their owners. Northern states resisted and passed laws intended to interfere with the federal position. Congress, in what was perhaps a misguided effort to prevent the slave question from tearing apart the Union (which, of course, it did) passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That act required law enforcement officials in all states to arrest and return fugitive slaves. In fact arresting offices were required to be given bonuses for each capture. Citizens were forbidden to give food or shelter to a fugitive slave. Officials and citizens alike could be imprisoned and fined substantially for violations of this draconian law. Persons accused of being a fugitive slave were not entitled to a jury trial or even to testify at any proceeding. All that was needed was a sworn statement by someone claiming to be their owner and it was off to the workhouse. Little wonder there was a huge uproar in the North.
Understandably, Brown took ship for England. There he spoke publicly about the evils of slavery and his experience, but by 1864 seems to have dropped from sight. There is some indication that he returned to the U.S. in 1875, but nothing more appears about him. Others in the drama surrounding the end of slavery in the U.S. may be better known, such as Harriett Tubman who, in peril of her life, guided at least 300 slaves to freedom in the North; but the combination of intelligence, physical strength and pure panache embodied in Henry “Box” Brown may be unique.
BROWN'S PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF THE ADVENTURE FROM 1849