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Henry Box Brown, b. 1816 and Charles Stearns
Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery, Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery. By Charles Stearns
Boston: Brown and Stearns, 1849.


Henry Box Brown (b. 1816) was born in Louisa County, Virginia, and was a slave for thirty-three years before escaping to Philadelphia in a three-by-two-foot box. His life as a slave was relatively free from physical abuse by his slaveholders. His first owner was John Barret, a former Richmond mayor. Upon Barret's death, Brown was enslaved by William Barret, John's son. Brown was fed, clothed, and given spending money, much to the amazement of slaves on neighboring plantations. However, despite this relatively liberal treatment, he suffered many trials and much heartache as a slave. In his narrative, Brown explains that the horrors of slavery were not limited to physical abuse alone. The pains he suffered were tortures of the heart and soul, as illustrated by the sale of his wife and children. This act of cruelty drove Brown to escape. Assisted by friends, and trusting in divine providence to deliver him safely, Brown arrived in Philadelphia jarred, but in one piece. After his escape, he traveled across New England delivering antislavery lectures, and he also showcased a moving panorama called "Henry Box Brown's Mirror of Slavery" in 1850. He moved to England later that year in fear of the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed soon after. He exhibited the panorama in Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, and Yorkshire through the spring of 1851 and continued to lecture. Brown returned to the United States from England in 1875 with his new wife and daughter Annie, and he performed as a magician. The date and location of his death are unknown.

Charles L. Stearns (1809-1867), a wealthy merchant and abolitionist, was Brown's biographer. Stearns earned a fortune early in his career as a shy, conservative Massachusetts businessman. He organized the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee in 1856, and when the Civil War began, he used his money to work for emancipation and then civil rights. After the Emancipation Proclamation, he began organizing the Freedman's Bureau. He also created organizations to lobby for the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. Recognized by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and given a commission as a major, he became the Assistant Adjutant General for the Recruitment of Colored Troops in 1863. Stearns had many famous and influential friends, including the Emersons, the Alcotts, William Lloyd Garrison, and Andrew Johnson.

The Narrative begins with a preface explaining that readers should not expect "to hear and see some new thing" to amuse and entertain in its pages but that readers will "be made acquainted with the horrid sufferings" of slavery and Brown's triumphant escape (p. v). Just as Lazarus astonished people in New Testament times when he emerged from the grave, overcoming death, Brown's emergence from his escape box evoked a similar response in its symbolic denunciation of slavery. Brown also includes an original hymn of thanksgiving in the preface, setting a tone of praise and deliverance fully articulated at the Narrative's conclusion. Brown explains that there are two sides of slavery: that of disturbing violence and abuse and that of "comparative freedom" (p. 11). His narrative presents the so-called "beautiful side of the picture of slavery" because of "partial kindness" on the part of his master, John Barret (p. 12). Brown was never whipped, and he never went naked or hungry. He explains that "It was not for fear of the lash's dreaded infliction, that I endured that fearful imprisonment," but rather "those inner pangs which rend the heart of fond affection" (p. 12).

Perhaps the best illustration of Brown's relatively humane treatment while enslaved is the description of his travels to a granary in a neighboring county. While he and his brother were there delivering grain to the mill, a number of resident slaves "turned and gazed earnestly" upon Brown and his brother. The slaves in Yansinville county were amazed to see them dressed in shoes, vests, and hats, and said they had "never seen negroes dressed that way before" (p. 22).

When their first master was dying, the Brown brothers were summoned to his bedside. The young boys were excited, as they "expected to be set free when he died" (p. 31). However, he simply commanded that they be obedient to his son, William, who would inherit them as his own. Brown was thirteen years old at the time.

Brown spent the next several years in the Richmond, Virginia, tobacco plant owned by William Barret. Slaves there worked fourteen hours a day in the summer and sixteen in the winter. Brown exerted himself "to the utmost to please Barret who rewarded him with a new suit of clothing, spending money, and a continued immunity to the whip (p. 36).

In 1836, when Brown reached his twenties, he fell in love with Nancy, a woman enslaved by a Mr. Lee, who worked for the local bank. Brown explains that their "friendship ripened into mutual love," and they soon after asked for permission to be married (p. 47-8). Brown was able to pay his wife's new slaveholder fifty dollars a year to persuade him to keep her in his ownership, as well as seventy-two dollars to rent a house for their family, which grew to include three children.

In August of 1848, as usual, Brown left his wife and three children at home, where Nancy worked washing the clothes of her slaveholder's family. But when he returned, he learned that they had been sold to another slaveholder, a Methodist minister from North Carolina. Brown went to his master and begged for help in retrieving his family members but was told only that "you can get another wife" (p. 53).

Extremely distressed by this betrayal, Brown resolved to escape. He burned his finger with vitriol oil and claimed that he was too injured to work in order to excuse himself from work and buy time to plan his escape. In 1849, he heard in his mind these words: "Go and get a box, and put yourself in it" (p. 59). Stearns includes a footnote with his confidence in the truth of this account, writing, "Reader, smile not at the above idea, for if there is a God of love, we must believe that he suggests steps to those who apply to him in times of trouble" (p. 59).

Brown hired a carpenter to build a box and enlisted his friends Samuel Smith, a white Massachusetts native, and James C. Smith, a free African-American dentist and merchant, to help him make his escape. The Smiths put him in the box and shipped it to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. The journey was physically exhausting and dangerous, as Brown spent much of it on his head, upside down, despite the "this side up with care" memo on top of the box. Brown did not bring any food or water besides a water bladder to "bathe [his] neck with, in case of too great heat" (p. 60). After several hours of "terrible pain" in which death seemed an "inevitable fate," Brown arrived at his destination (p. 61).

After a short time in Pennsylvania, Brown proceeded to Massachusetts, where he spoke at an anti-slavery rally in Boston. There he won the moniker "Henry 'Box' Brown". Brown continued to fight for abolition by publishing his narrative and touring New England to promote it with antislavery lectures in the fall of 1849. He did the same in England the following year.

The Narrative concludes with an endorsement of an essay written by Stearns that follows. Brown admits that Stearns's subject matter "may not be as interesting as the account of my sufferings," but proposes that any reader with the pure intentions of helping his "brethren in bondage" will "not be unwilling to hear what he may say to you" (p. 66).

Works consulted: Blackett, R.J.M., Building an Antislavery Wall, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1983, 25; Brooks, Daphne, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006; Emerson, Ralph W., "Tribute to George L. Stearns" in Cambridge Sketches, by Frank Preston Stearns, 115-7, Teddington: Echo Library, 2006; Encyclopedia Virginia. "Henry Box Brown.," accessed Nov. 18, 2011.; Heller, Charles E, Portrait of an Abolitionist: a Biography of George Luther Stearns, 1809-1867, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996; Switala, William J., Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001; Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, "Passing Beyond the Middle Passage: Henry ‘Box' Brown's Translations of Slavery," Massachusetts Review 37.1, 1996.

Rebecca Johnson

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