In 1848, Henry Brown was a slave in his 30s who had spent almost 20 years working on a Virginia plantation. There, he met his wife and had three children with her. Tragically, the plantation owner sold Brown’s wife and children to another slave owner, leaving Brown powerless to intervene.
By March of the following year, Brown was determined to escape the plantation, slavery, and the oppressive conditions in the American South. With approximately $160 and few legal options, Brown had to think creatively. Instead of the Underground Railroad, which was the popular route to freedom for many American slaves, Brown chose the conventional railroad system. All he needed was some assistance and a large crate, as he planned to mail himself to freedom on March 23, 1849.
Brown entrusted half of his savings — $86 — to James C. A. Smith, a Southerner who supported the abolitionist cause. Smith then reached out to James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia-based Presbyterian minister and leader in the movement. McKim agreed to accept a package from Smith, which, if all went according to plan, would contain Brown. To avoid work, Brown deliberately burned his hand with sulfuric acid and then entered the crate. For the next 27 hours, he was under the care of the Adams Express Company, a shipping company at the time, as he journeyed from Richmond to Philadelphia in his crate. During his trip, Brown traveled by wagon, rail, ferry, and steamboat, eventually arriving at his destination, alive and free.
Brown’s extraordinary feat made him a symbol of the anti-slavery movement, but his prominence was short-lived. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass criticized Brown for publicizing his escape method, believing that it hindered others from using the same strategy. More significantly, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in September 1850, mandating the return of runaway slaves to their masters. Consequently, Brown fled to England and became a traveling performer. While he returned to the United States after the Civil War, his notoriety had faded, and the details of his death remain unknown to this day.