In his day, Henry “Box” Brown was a celebrated stage magician who incorporated performance into his lectures on abolitionism in the United States and England. Much of what we know about him comes from his memoir, the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (1851).
Brown was born enslaved in 1816 at the Hermitage plantation near present-day Cuckoo, Virginia. Brown recalled a memory of his childhood when the plantation owner, John Barret, told him and his siblings “All you children run into the house now, for its going to thunder.” The children ran for shelter, and the rain began. Not realizing Barret saw the rain clouds coming from a distance, Brown believed Barret had the ability to conjure rain until he was eight years old.
Brown learned his first sleight-of-hand tricks around the age of nine from a man enslaved on the same plantation. This man, known as Tricky Sam, informally performed the tricks as a way of entertaining each other.
Henry Brown eventually married a woman named Nancy, who was enslaved at a nearby plantation. They had four children together before they were forcibly separated. Angry and vowing to escape, Brown later said “I felt my soul call out to Heaven to breathe a prayer to Almighty God.” And then, in response, he heard a voice say “Go get a box, and put yourself in it.”
From this, Henry Brown developed a plan to have himself mailed as freight to a free state. With the help of a carpenter named Samuel Smith, they built a box three feet long, two feet wide, and two-and-a-half feet tall with three small air holes and lined with a woolen felt cloth. On March 29, 1849, Brown climbed into the finished box with a small container of water, a few biscuits, and a tool for poking additional air holes in the box if needed. The crate was closed and addressed to William Johnson, a barber in Philadelphia who was an operator in the Underground Railroad.
A note was added to the box indicating “Right side up with care.” Despite this caution, the box was roughly handled by the Adams Express company on its way from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia. The box arrived a day later, and a small gathering of abolitionists were in attendance. Worried that Brown had died en route, one of the members present knocked on the box and asked, “All right?” to which Brown immediately responded, “All right, sir.” The lid was quickly removed, and Brown stepped out of the box and into freedom for the first time in his life. From that moment, he was known as Henry “Box” Brown.
Fearing bounty hunters, Brown soon left Philadelphia for New Bedford and Boston where he began speaking at public rallies about his life in Virginia and his escape. His story appeared in several major publications and Brown quickly became a leading voice within the abolitionist movement. He supported himself through the speaking fees charged at the rallies and lectures.
Brown toured across the northeast until the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 which made it easier for those who escaped enslavement to be captured and returned to the South. After he narrowly avoided capture in Providence, Rhode Island in August, 1850, Brown left the United States for England and began touring there. To garner publicity for his talks, Brown had himself shipped from Bradford to Leeds in a box that was opened in front of a large audience.
Brown was still touring England in 1865 when slavery was constitutionally abolished in the United States. He adapted his touring program, continuing to tell the story of his escape while also presenting magic tricks. His most popular trick was a sack escape. Brown would climb into a large canvas sack that would then be drawn closed, wrapped in chains, and secured with a padlock. Within five minutes, Brown would extricate himself from the sack.
Unfortunately, Brown was never reunited with his wife and children. He remarried in England in 1855 and he and his new wife, Jane Floyd, started a family together. Jane and their children would eventually join Henry on stage as performers in his magic act.
England was experiencing a new golden age in the performance of magic at this time, and Brown began teaching himself tricks that had been exposed by the press, including the popular spirit cabinet trick performed by the famous Davenport Brothers. In this trick, a member of the audience would tie the performer to a chair in one side of the cabinet. Various musical instruments would be placed in the other side of the cabinet. The doors would be closed, and the instruments could be heard and other surprising acts of spiritualism would be witnessed. Opening the doors, the performer would be seen still tied to the chair.
Magic featured more and more prominently in Brown’s public appearances over the years, and around 1875 he returned to the United States and continued touring there. Illusionist and collector Harry Houdini acquired and saved a number of the original playbills and tickets for Brown’s performances in his collection, which came to the Ransom Center in 1958. These rare pieces of ephemera provide valuable insights into the content of Brown’s performances.
A playbill from the Horns Assembly Rooms in Kennington, England from March, 1868 hails Brown as “King of all Mesmerisers and Professor of Magic.” The program also suggests that in addition to sleight-of-hand tricks, he was performing ‘electro-biology’ tricks – a subgenre of hypnotism. Tickets for these performances in Kennington reveal that the presents given away each night of the performance included “coffee pots, tea pots, brooches, scarf pins, wedding rings, silver spoons, etc.” Give-aways such as these were enormously popular marketing techniques for variety performances in England and the United States, especially effective in drawing women and families to shows at a time when theatre could sometimes be seen as crass or morally dangerous.
A later playbill from Harris’ Hall in Woonsocket, Rhode Island dated February 8, 1878 shows how Brown’s act developed in complexity over the previous decade. Billed as a professor, and performing at a relatively early 5pm for schools, Brown’s program consisted of:
Destroying and restoring a Handkerchief, astounding feat with the Sword and Cards, the wonderful Flying Card and Box Feat, Burning Cards and Restoring them again, the most Wonderful and Mysterious Doll, the Inexhaustible Hats, the wonderful experiment of passing a Watch through a number of Boxes, the extraordinary feat of Flying Money, the Inexhaustible Pan, the instantaneous Growth of Flowers, the Enchanted Glass, etc., etc.
The playbill notes that Mr. Brown will be exposing spiritualism tricks, presumably performing the Davenport Brothers cabinet trick. His wife, “Madame Brown,” introduced Henry Brown’s second-sight trick, and the performance concluded with their daughter, Annie Brown, performing the early sack escape trick.
Ephemera like this is exceedingly rare. Much of what is known about Brown and his magic act comes from contemporary newspaper accounts, which suggest that he and his family continued performing until at least 1889.
Henry “Box” Brown is largely remembered today for his extraordinary escape narrative, but lately more attention is being given to his later career as an acclaimed stage magician. You can learn more about Professor Brown here:
- Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (Lee & Glynn, 1851)
- William Still’s The Underground Rail Road (Porter & Coates, 1872)
- Jeffrey Ruggles’ The Unboxing of Henry Brown (Library of Virginia, 2003)
- Jim Magus’ Magical Heroes: The Lives and Legends of Great African American Magicians (Magus Enterprises, 1995)
- For children, Susan Buckley’s Escape to Freedom: The Story of Henry Box Brown (Heinemann, 2013)
- Harry Ransom Center’s Research Guide on Magic & Illusion