Resurrection of Henry Box Brown

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Resurrection of Henry Box Brown
Unknown Artist (after a lithograph by Peter Kramer, 1851)
Page 83
William Still. The Underground Railroad: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, and Letters. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.
H 5832 .839
Newberry Library

What could possibly be happening in this strange picture? It is one of the most unbelievable stories of the Civil War period. Henry “Box” Brown made headlines in 1849 when he escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia. With the help of friends and abolitionists, Brown got away by actually packing and mailing himself to the North! The box traveled by wagon, railroad, and ferry; often handlers put the box upside-down. But Brown remained totally quiet. The box arrived in Philadelphia twenty-seven hours later, making Brown a free man. When the lid was removed, he said, “How do you do, gentlemen?” and quoted some Bible verses to celebrate his escape. 

After the passage of a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Brown fled to Britain, where slavery was illegal, to avoid recapture under this law. There he became a showman, and for many years performed his story for audiences. Brown’s journey was recounted in William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, which tells the stories of over 150 slaves who fled their masters. The illustration you see here appeared in this book. Still, along with the other men in the picture, were active in Philadelphia's Underground Railroad movement and helped plan Henry Brown’s escape. You can see Still helping to remove the lid from the wooden box. The other men hold tools that they might have used to free Brown from his confinement. Still also assisted many other former slaves escape to freedom, and so he is often called “the father of the Underground Railroad.” Brown’s story is somewhat comical, but it was also deadly and dangerous; he showed the risks slaves would take to gain their freedom.

1. Describe the dress and the expressions of the men. What does the artist’s decision to represent all the men—including Brown—in the same type of clothing tell you about his views of slavery?

2. The caption says “The Resurrection of Henry “Box” Brown.” What is meant by the word resurrection? What does the caption tell you about the life of Henry “Box” Brown?

3. Obviously, the artist wasn’t there when Brown got out of the box. Do you think the artist did a good job of telling the story? Why is this a good moment to show?

Further reading:
Brooks, Daphne. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of Henry Box Brown: Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide, with Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery. Boston: Brown & Stearns, 1849.

Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond, VA: The Library of Virginia, 2003.

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-Breadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others or Witnessed by the Author: Together with Sketches of Some of the Largest Stockholders and Most Liberal Aiders and Advisers of the Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago