History Thread: Henry Brown’s Special Delivery

Henry Brown was born in Virginia in 1815. He grew up in a household that was deeply religious, and like many slaves his Christian faith carried him through the ordeal of bondage. After years of working at a Richmond tobacco factory, Brown married a slave woman, Nancy, and had three children. Brown made enough money through his factory to job to purchase a private residence in Richmond, obtaining a degree of freedom few slaves obtained.

But Brown and his family were still slaves, still subject to the whims of their masters. His wife’s master, a man named Cottrell, initially proved willing to allow the Brown family’s unusual arrangement – largely because Brown paid him a monthly sum to look the other way. Dealing with a man so mercenary with human life, though, was a dicey proposition; and at some point, twelve years into their marriage, Cottrell sold Nancy and their children to another master, leaving Brown alone.

Brown was devastated. “My agony was now complete, she with whom I had travelled the journey of life in chains, for the space of twelve years,” he wrote, “and the dear little pledges God had given us I could see plainly must now be separated from me for ever, and I must continue, desolate and alone, to drag my chains through the world.” But the event steeled Brown to “snap in sunder those bonds by which I was held body and soul.” If he couldn’t recover his family, he would at the very least claim his own freedom.

In his memoirs, Brown described what happened next: “One day, while I was at work, and my thoughts were eagerly feasting upon the idea of freedom, I felt my soul called out to heaven to breathe a prayer to Almighty God. I prayed fervently that he who seeth in secret and knew the inmost desires of my heart, would lend me his aid in bursting my fetters asunder, and in restoring me to the possession of those rights, of which men had robbed me; when 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.” He used money he’d saved to persuade a freed Black man, James Smith, and a white man named Samuel A. Smith, to help him pull off this improbable feat.

Brown paid the Smiths $86 for their trouble, and to cover the cost of his own postage. In March 1849, Samuel Smith decided to ship this precious cargo (the box measured 3 by 2.67 by 2 feet and was marked “Dry Goods”) using the Adams Express company rather than the US Postal Service, knowing the Adams’ reputation to never interfere with their customer’s mail. Smith addressed the package to Passmore Williamson, leader of the abolitionist Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, and equipped Brown with a small ration of water, a few biscuits and an augur with which to bore holes for air. The box made its way north in a little over 27 hours, with the Adams Company using a combination of wagons, trains and steamboats to ensure speedy delivery.

On March 30, 1849 the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee received its curious package. Present were Williamson, a white Quaker, William Sill, the Black organizer of Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad and others. As they jimmied open the package, Brown dramatically popped out, greeting his rescuers with the phrase, “How do you do, gentlemen?” He then celebrated his freedom by singing Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.”

Overnight, Brown became a celebrity in the North. He contacted Frederick Douglass, who helped Brown move to Massachusetts and establish career as an antislavery lecturer. He published two narratives of his escape, which were widely read, and also advocated both abolition and universal suffrage, more radical even than his fellow abolitionists. Brown even became a stage actor, performing in a play which dramatized his life and escape.

At some point, Brown was contacted by the owner of his wife Nancy, who offered to sell him back his family. Brown did not respond to the request; as much as the decision pained him, Brown no longer trusted either the words or money of white slavers, and he never saw his family again. His escape also had one other unfortunate side effect. So widely publicized was his method of escape that Southern postmasters began to examine packages more closely. Samuel Smith, Brown’s friend and benefactor, was arrested soon afterwards after he was caught repeating the trick with another slave.

Brown fled to England after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 endangered his continued freedom. He continued his acting career and also lectured with an animated panorama illustrating the. After the Civil War ended slavery, he remarried a white woman, Jane, and became a magician who toured England and the United States with feats of prestidigitation that, as much as they amused audiences, could only seem banal compared to his own Great Escape. Brown died in Toronto in 1897, leaving behind one of the Underground Railroad’s most colorful stories.