Henry Brown was born into slavery in 1815 or 1816 on a plantation called Hermitage, in Louisa County, Virginia. At the age of 15, he was sent to work in a tobacco factory in Richmond. In his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself, he describes his owner: “Our master was uncommonly kind, (for even a slaveholder may be kind) and as he moved about in his dignity he seemed like a god to us, but notwithstanding his kindness although he knew very well what superstitious notions we formed him, he never made the least attempt to correct our erroneous impression, but rather seemed pleased with the reverential feelings which we entertained towards him.”
Brown was married to another slave named Nancy, but their marriage was not recognized legally. They had three children born into slavery under the partus sequitur ventrem principle. Brown was hired out by his master in Richmond, Virginia, and worked in a tobacco factory; renting a house where he and his wife lived with their children. Brown had also been paying his wife’s master not to sell his family, but the man betrayed Brown, selling pregnant Nancy and their three children to a different slave owner
With the help of James C. A. Smith, a free black man, and a sympathetic white shoemaker (and likely gambler) named Samuel A. Smith (no relation), Brown devised a plan to have himself shipped in a box to a free state by the Adams Express Company, known for its confidentiality and efficiency. Brown paid $86 (out of his savings of $166) to Samuel Smith. Smith went to Philadelphia to consult with members of Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society on how to accomplish the escape, meeting with minister James Miller McKim, William Still, and Cyrus Burleigh. He corresponded with them to work out the details after returning to Richmond. They advised him to mail the box to the office of Quaker merchant Passmore Williamson, who was active with the Vigilance Committee.
To get out of work the day he was to escape, Brown burned his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). The box that Brown was shipped in was 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide and displayed the words “dry goods” on it. It was lined with baize, a coarse woolen cloth, and he carried only a small portion of water and a few biscuits. There was a single hole cut for air, and it was nailed and tied with straps. Brown later wrote that his uncertain method of travel was worth the risk: “if you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”
During the trip, which began on March 29, 1849, Brown’s box was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon, being completed in 27 hours. Despite the instructions on the box of “handle with care” and “this side up,” several times carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown remained still and avoided detection.
The box was received by Williamson, McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on March 30, 1849, attesting to the improvements in express delivery services. When Brown was released, one of the men remembered his first words as “How do you do, gentlemen?” He sang a psalm from the Bible, which he had earlier chosen to celebrate his release into freedom.