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The Story of Henry “Box” Brown

“… having satisfied myself of the value of freedom I resolved to purchase it whatever should be its price,” so Henry states in his autobiography. Henry, born a slave in 1816 in Virginia, desired freedom greatly, and once, when his owner was nearing death, the owner “sent for my mother and me to come to his bedside; we ran with beating hearts and highly elated feelings, not doubting [… ] but that he was about to confer upon us the boon of freedom,” (but he was disappointed).

However, the one deciding factor of his desire for freedom was his witnessing of the cruelties of slavery, and his knowledge that there was a possibility of liberty for himself. Somewhere in the mid-1830’s, he had married a slave woman, with promises from her owner that she would not be sold. However, some years later found her and their children on the road, en route to a new master to whom she had been sold, and Henry could do nothing about this separation. Thus became his passion for his liberty, in which he found the bravery to risk the punishment of death.

“… had I never heard the name of liberty or seen the tyrant lift his cruel hand to smite my fellow and my friend, I might perhaps have dragged my chains in quietude to the grave…. ” After the separation from his family, Henry became intent on escaping to freedom. He stated his intentions to the shoemaker Samuel Smith, a white man, who fortunately was sympathetic: “The man asked me if I was not afraid to speak that way to him; I said no, for I imagined he believed that every man had a right to liberty.

” Henry was obviously a passionate soul with much strength of character. On March 23, 1849, before daybreak, carrying a bladder full of water, Henry had himself nailed into a wooden crate 2 and 2/3 feet deep, 2 feet wide and 3 feet long. Along the way, on one occasion, when his box was placed with his head down, which was very difficult for him, “… an hour and a half [… ] seemed like an age to me, but I was forgetting the battle of liberty, and I was resolved to conquer or die.

” Henry arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was retrieved from his box by four anti-slavery officials. In Philadelphia he became an active abolitionist. Henry was of a noble and altruistic character as well, and he desired that all his people attain liberty. After Henry got his freedom, he wrote his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown,” with the view of furthering the goals of the abolitionists.

He also exhibited in Northeastern Unite States a panorama called “Mirror of Slavery,” where he depicted the cruelties of slave life. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, he fled to England, where he continued to exhibit his panorama. In England he remarried and became a magician performer. After 25 years in England, he returned to the United States.


The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown: Electronic Edition. (1999). Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved August 9, 2006, from

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