Weird History
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The Insane Story of The Slave Who Literally Mailed Himself To Freedom

Updated September 23, 2021 15.1k views14 items

The life of Henry "Box" Brown is so notable because he was an Antebellum-Era Virginia plantation slave who managed to mailed himself to freedom in a wooden box. The big question here is: how did he do it? Easy! He had the help of abolitionists on both ends of his journey. However, his story does not end there. What did Henry "Box" Brown do once he reached freedom? He spoke out against the institution of slavery, worked as a magician, and lived a very interesting life. Among other Henry "Box" Brown facts are his marriage to a white Englishwoman as well as the fact that Frederick Douglass didn't like him. 

Henry "Box" Brown was born around 1816 in Virginia, and lived in several other countries until his death in Canada in 1897.

  • He Was Born Into Slavery In Virginia

    Photo: Henry Box Brown/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Henry "Box" Brown was born in the state of Virginia in either 1815 or 1816. (Although records were kept of plantation slaves - which Brown was - they weren't always accurate when it came to recording births). In 1808, the United States banned all slave imports, meaning that any new slave workers had to be those who were born on American soil. It sounds ridiculous now, but at the time, many southern states encouraged slave "breeding" programs, treating them like cattle. Plus, Virginia was one of the harshest slave states, full of labor-intensive tobacco growing plantations. Slaves in this state were also not permitted to learn how to read and write. 

  • He Had A Wife And Three Children Who Were Sold On The Slave Market

    Photo: Brantz Mayer/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    At some point prior to 1848, Henry "Box" Brown married a fellow slave - a woman named Nancy who was owned by another slave holder. He had to obtain permission from both his owner and hers in order for the marriage to be officiated. Although slaves didn't legally marry like free people did during the time (there were no government forms or marriage licenses involved in their unions) a ceremony still took place. Brown and Nancy went on to have several children, all of whom were considered the property of Nancy's owners. She was also sold more than once during their marriage. One of her owners, Samuel Cottrell, took money from Brown in exchange for promising not to sell her and the children again. Of course, he went back on his word and sold them in August, 1848. Brown never saw them again, and historians have not located them in any existing plantation records. 

    Brown was criticized later in his life for not doing more to find his wife and children. People believed that since he made money on the lecture circuit and, later, for his stage performances, surely he could have found them and purchased them their freedom. 

  • He Mailed Himself In A Handmade Wooden Crate That Was Three Feet Long By Two Feet Wide

    Photo: Samuel W. Rowse/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    After his wife and children essentially vanished (they were sold to a plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia), Henry "Box" Brown came up with a plan to escape. He hired a local abolitionist and storekeeper, Samuel Smith, as well as a free Black man named James C.A. Smith, to help him with his scheme. James C.A. Smith built Brown a wooden box that was three-feet long, two-feet wide, and around two-and-a-half-feet deep. It was just large enough to hold a man, albeit one in a very uncomfortable, knees-bent position. Samuel Smith mailed the crate - using his storefront as a cover - to Philadelphia. 

  • The Day That He Escaped, He Badly Burned His Hands - On Purpose

    Photo: Dirk Valkenburg/Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

    Before Henry "Box" Brown could begin his escape, he first had to come up with a legitimate plan to get out of the fields that day. Only very extreme injuries could keep a slave from working - things like sprained ankles and pulled muscles weren't enough of an excuse. So, Brown pulled out some sulfuric acid, also known as oil of vitriol, and burned his hands very badly, practically to the bone. This was enough to get out of that day's work. However, he still had to travel in his box to freedom with his hands hurting due to the burns, as there was no way that he could receive any first aid while in transit.