147: Henry ‘Box’ Brown, escaped slave turned showman

An article from guest contributor Kathy Chater.*

Henry Brown was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia around 1815.  His first master was relatively kind but when he died his son was less agreeable.  Brown married a fellow slave but when her master determined to sell her and her children by Brown his own master refused to purchase her.  It was this that determined Brown to escape to the North.  With the help of a free negro, James Smith, Brown was nailed into a box and posted to abolitionists in Philadelphia.  His journey lasted 27 hours.  This novel method of escape made him a media star on the abolitionist circuit and he became known as Henry Box Brown.

In 1850  the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law meant that escaped slaves were no longer safe in the North and Brown, like many others, decided to come to Britain.  He landed in Liverpool in November 1850 and began to tour England along with James Smith. Under the auspices of local ministers of religion, he showed a panorama depicting the horrors of the slave trade, conditions in the USA and the West Indies and related his own dramatic flight.  He concluded by singing a song about his escape. He was generally enthusiastically received, often having to put on extra performances to satisfy demand.  He published a second, revised version of his autobiography in 1851 in Manchester.

Not everyone was bowled over.  In 1852 the Wolverhampton Herald printed two long, hostile critiques, calling his presentation “a gross and palpable exaggeration”, detailing apparent errors and condemning the “foppery, conceit, vanity, and egotistical stupidity of the Box Brown school”, describing him as a bejewelled ‘darkey’.  Brown sued for libel.  He claimed he had been earning between £50-£70 a week – a significant amount at a time when the average wage was about £1 per week – and had lost income. The jury found for him and he was awarded £100 damages and 40s costs.  Coming less than a year after his arrival in Britain, this must have been a sweet moment for a former slave.

A show-biz element had always been prominent in Brown’s presentations.  Brown and Smith, who was more puritanical, fell out.  By 1859 Brown had added another panorama to his repertoire.  Depicting Africa, America and the Holy Land with the Indian Mutiny, it was presented by Mrs Box Brown.  Mrs Box Brown was Jane Floyd, the daughter of a Cornish tin worker.  They were married in 1855 and the couple had at least three children. By 1864 Brown had moved into mesmerism, what today is called hypnotism.  The Western Daily Press found his appearance in Merthyr Tydfil “ludicrous” but the public loved him. In 1871 the census shows the family act was so successful they were able to employ a servant, no doubt another sweet moment for a former slave.  By 1874, however, Brown was being called a “veteran entertainer”, mainly playing to juvenile audiences.  It was time to pack up and seek another market. The Brown family returned to America.  The last known mention of them comes in 1889 in Canada . What happened after was not discovered until July 2016 when it became clear that Brown died in Toronto (Canada) on 15 June 1897. The widow Jane lived with a daughter and her husband and duly appears in the United States census of 1900, 1910 and 1920.

* Kathleen “Kathy” Chater is an independent historian and genealogist who lives in London. Her Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c. 1660-1807 was published by Manchester University Press in 2009. Her Henry Box Brown: From Slavery to Show Business was published by McFarland in 2020.

Jeffrey Ruggles’s The Unboxing of Henry Brown (Richmond VA: 2003) is well illustrated and covers Brown’s British tours.


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