Inside the box, it was dark—the devil's dark. And cramped.

He tried not to move. He tried not to breathe.

But the three-foot-long wooden crate, marked "This Side Up with Care," had been tossed onto the train car without much thought for warnings.

With the tracks pulsing beneath him, he now hung feet-side-up. And the blood rushed to his head, dammed only by his eyes.

The pressure built—

The veins in his temples throbbed—

And he worried his head might burst. He attempted to lift his hand to his face but his limb wouldn't budge.

Then, as his thoughts turned quietly to death, he heard men's voices. One complained to another of having traveled a long way and needing a rest. The box crashed down to its side and the two sat on top of it.

Inside, his blood reversed course. His breath returned.

What do you suppose is in there? one of the men asked.

The mail, the other replied.

And he was right. The box was addressed to Philadelphia—

Or, put another way, to freedom.


Born enslaved about 1815, Henry Brown grew up with his parents and seven siblings in Louisa County, Virginia. But in 1830 their master died. What happened next was all too common in the lives of slaves across the American South—

The family split up.

Everything that had brought young Henry Brown love and comfort in his life was, in an instant, destroyed.

It wouldn't be the first time.

Most of Brown's siblings were sent to live on various plantations. Brown himself, and one of his sisters, became the property of their previous master's son, William Barret. Henry labored in Barret's Richmond tobacco factory. His sister became Barret's mistress.

Life eventually settled down again. In 1836, Brown married Nancy, a woman owned by another master.

They had three children.

They joined an African Baptist church and Henry sang in the choir.

He earned money by working extra time in the factory and set his family up in a rented house.

Come the summer of 1848, Henry Brown and his family were—in his own words—"as well situated as slaves could be."

One morning in August he left for work as usual. But while he was gone, pregnant Nancy and the children were taken from their home. They were put on the auction block and sold, then thrown into a slave jail awaiting transport to their new home in North Carolina.

"I cannot express, in language, what were my feelings on this occasion," Brown later wrote. "I was not anticipating their loss."


This was the life of a slave, even one as "well situated" as Henry Brown. He was married and had kids. He was able to earn money and live independently.

"My master treated me kindly," Brown later wrote, "but he still retained me in a state of slavery."

Which pretty much got to the heart of it. No matter what your situation, your body was not your own. Your marriage wasn't either. Or your family.

Henry Brown, though, had reason to feel particularly betrayed. He had paid his wife's owner money "on the expressed condition," he wrote, "that he should not sell her to any person but myself."

Now she was gone.

And when he gathered some things to take to her and the kids in jail, a friend intercepted him. "They plan on seizing you, too," the friend told him.

In desperation Brown went to his own master. He begged him to purchase his wife and kids. But this man—this Christian man, as Brown noted bitterly—turned him away.

Go back to work, he said.

For the second time in his life, Henry Brown had lost everything.


Brown began to think of escape. He pondered it during the day and dreamed of it at night. Hungry to fill the hole left by his parents, his siblings, his wife, and his kids, he "feasted upon the idea of freedom."

That's how he described it, anyway.

While saving his money he thought through various escape scenarios but made no quick moves.

Then one day Brown had an epiphany while working at the tobacco factory.

"The idea suddenly flashed across my mind," he later wrote, "of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state."

It was a preposterous idea. How would he fit? How would he breathe? Who would mail the package and who would receive it?

What if—en route—someone were to turn him upside down?

Brown took the extraordinary but necessary risk of bringing two people in on his plan. James Smith was a free black man who sang in the church choir with Brown. Samuel Smith, of no apparent relation, was a white shoemaker and slave owner. He agreed to help for the price of $86.

Together the three drew up a plan.

Even if it worked, Henry Brown could never fully recover what had been stolen from him. But if it failed—

That would have meant losing everything for the third time.

How does one even go on after that?

There is little evidence that Brown gave the possibility much thought.


Samuel Smith wrote a letter to the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. The other two conspirators hired a carpenter to build a wooden box with air holes and a pouch of water. Worrying that he might be missed at the tobacco factory, Henry Brown doused his finger with sulfuric acid.

"In my hurry," he later wrote, "I dropped rather much and made it worse than there was any occasion for. In fact, it was very soon eaten in to the bone."

He showed the gruesome injury to his supervisor, who gave him permission to take time off.

Now was the time to put the plan into action. "The box which I had procured was three feet one inch wide, two feet six inches high, and two feet wide," Brown later wrote, "and on the morning of the 29th day of March, 1849, I went into the box."

He had his water and even a tool for boring more air holes if necessary.

"Being thus equipped for the battle of liberty," he wrote, "my friends nailed down the lid and had me conveyed to the Express Office, which was about a mile distant from the place where I was packed."

Almost immediately someone turned the box on its end, leaving Henry Brown to hang heels up.


Brown spent more than twenty-four hours in his box—

A piece of mail wending its way from Richmond to Philadelphia—

350 bumpy, often terrifying miles, by train and by carriage.

He struggled to breathe. He suffered the effects of an acid-soaked finger.

But it was the last time in his life Henry Brown was an object, nothing more than a piece of property to be shipped.

Upon arrival his box was placed on a wagon and taken to the house where an anti-slavery activist had arranged delivery.

Brown later described what happened next:

A number of persons soon collected round the box after it was taken in to the house, but as I did not know what was going on I kept myself quiet. I heard a man say "let us rap upon the box and see if he is alive;" and immediately a rap ensued and a voice said, tremblingly, "Is all right within?" to which I replied—"all right." The joy of friends was very great; when they heard that I was alive they soon managed to break open the box, and then came my resurrection from the grave of slavery. I rose a free man.


In the months and years that followed, Henry Brown became something of a celebrity. He changed his name to Henry Box Brown and published not one, but two memoirs. He sang professionally and published the sheet music to a song he had supposedly sung while emerging from his box. In 1850 the put together a moving panorama entitled Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slaveryand presented it in Boston and across New England.

That same year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making it easier for masters to reclaim their escaped slaves. So Brown sailed to England, where he worked as a magician and a hypnotist.

Professor H. Box Brown, available to mesmerize individually or in groups.

And everywhere he went he carried that box of his.

Everywhere he went, he popped out—


And reliving that exquisite moment of freedom.

A kind of magic was at work, he seemed to be telling his audience, for a man to reinvent himself this way. From slavery to celebrity in just over twenty-four hours and 350 miles.

But it required remembering the trauma of slavery first.

Of being in the dark—the devil's dark.

Never forget my family, Henry Box Brown seemed to be saying. Never forget my dear wife Nancy, my three kids, and the little one on the way.