Henry “Box” Brown was born, enslaved, on a Virginia plantation in 1815. After his family was sold, Brown committed himself to escaping from bondage. He had himself shipped in a wooden box from Virginia to Philadelphia, where slavery had been abolished.
Henry “Box” Brown was born enslaved in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1815. At the age of 15, he was sent to work in a tobacco factory. Although he married and had four children, he was unable to live with his family. In 1848, his wife and children were sold to a plantation in North Carolina. This devastating loss fueled Brown’s fervor to escape from slavery.
Brown, an active member of a local church, enlisted two fellow parishioner’s, to aid him in his escape. Brown’s plan was to have himself shipped as cargo from Richmond to Philadelphia, where slavery had been abolished.
Parishioner, Samuel Smith shipped a box containing Brown on March 23, 1849. The box, labeled “dry goods,” was lined with cloth and had a single hole cut in the top for air. 27 hours later, the box arrived at the headquarters of the Philadelphia Anti‑Slavery Society. Emerging from the box, Brown recited a psalm.
Following Brown’s successful escape, Samuel Smith attempted to ship more enslaved people to Philadelphia on May 8, 1849. His plan was discovered, however, and he was subsequently arrested.
Given the dangers of making Brown’s escape public, some abolitionist leaders—including Frederick Douglass—argued that it should be kept confidential. Others argued that the story would inspire other innovative and daring escapes. Brown made the decision to publicize his experience. Brown developed his stage show to include a panorama on the institution of slavery. In 1850, the “Mirror of Slavery” show opened in Boston. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act later that year, Brown moved to England with his panorama. In 1875, Brown returned to the United States with his wife and child. He performed as a magician to make a living. As part of his stage act, he emerged from the original box in which he had traveled to freedom.