On an early spring morning in 1849, an enslaved Black man named Henry Brown folded himself into a three-foot by two-foot wooden crate. Twenty-seven hours and 350 miles later, he arrived at the home of William Johnson, a Philadelphia barber who collaborated with the Underground Railroad, a network of people, safe houses, and routes that guided enslaved people to freedom.
The American postal service was on its way to becoming an advanced information highway, and abolitionists had quickly grasped its potential. As they flooded southern states with anti-slavery writings, those in favor burned bags of mail and postmasters picked out abolitionist materials. The fledgling postal service was thrust into the center of a national argument about free speech, censorship, and enslavement.
Amid this turmoil, a private shipping company called Adams Express delivered Brown to Johnson’s house. Brown was born into slavery and spent his first 35 years as the legal property of a Virginia plantation owner. In August 1848 he came home from work to discover his wife and their three children had been sold to a minister in North Carolina. As he prayed for guidance, he later wrote, he heard the words: "Go and get a box, and put yourself in it."
When he emerged from his journey, Brown was a sensation with a nickname to match: Henry “Box” Brown. His novel escape made him a folk hero, a wanted fugitive, and a public speaker. To Hollis Robbins, a scholar of African American literature, Brown became the best example of the power of the United States mail delivery.
‘Deliverers of freedom’
In the mid-2000s, Robbins attended a lecture about Henry Brown at Yale University. The speaker compared Brown’s journey to the Middle Passage, the route that brought enslaved men and women on cramped, disease-ridden ships from Africa to the New World. As the lecturer spoke about Box’s suffering en route to Pennsylvania—the cramped conditions, the flips, the rough treatment of the box—Robbins was dismayed.
As she saw it, postal workers were “the deliverers of freedom.” Robbins, whose grandfather worked aboard the Railway Mail Service, was doing her dissertation on American bureaucracies. One chapter, which she’d titled “Fugitive Mail,” was about Brown.
For Robbins, now dean of the School of Arts & Humanities at Sonoma State University in California, advances in mail delivery made Brown’s escape possible—and the postal service provided a tool to chip away at slavery’s stronghold.
A national postal service has been part of the fabric of America since the Constitution was ratified in 1789. But from the beginning, “Southern political interests always kept a close eye on U.S. mail policy,” Robbins wrote in “Fugitive Mail.” It wasn’t hard to see the mail’s power to threaten the South’s economic system.
Early on, enslaved Africans had been used to deliver mail, but a rebellion led by enslaved people in the Caribbean sowed fear in the southern United States. In 1802, Postmaster General Gideon Granger laid out these concerns in a letter to a Georgia senator:
“The most active and intelligent [slaves] are employed as post riders…By traveling from day to day, and hourly mixing with people…they will acquire information. They will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. They will, in time, become teachers to their brethren…One able man among them, perceiving the value of this machine, might lay a plan which would be communicated by your post riders from town to town and produce a general and united operation against you.”
That spring, Congress banned enslaved people from delivering the mail.
By the mid-1830s, northern abolitionists had latched onto the postal system to advance their movement. At the time, about 100 newspapers that advocated abolition were being printing in the North. A campaign to deliver their arguments into the hands of editors, religious leaders, and other sympathetic individuals in the South resulted in a steady stream of newspapers, leaflets, and exposés headed south.
Mail bags carried activism to southern voters and enslaved men and women alike, revealing widespread criticism of slavery and encouraging the enslaved to rise against the system. It also brought details of life under bondage to the North. Slavery, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “does not love the whistle of the railroad; it does not love the newspaper, the mailbag, a college, a book…”
“The assumption,” says Robbins, “was that freedom was going to come from unfettered access to the mail—to communication.”
In 1831, Nat Turner had organized a rebellion of enslaved people in Virginia, and this mail campaign, just a few years later, terrified southern landowners. In 1835 mobs broke into the Charleston, South Carolina, post office and set alight a pile of abolitionist newspapers. Thousands of people gathered at the bonfire, burning papers and effigies of northern leaders.
Southern politicians went to Congress demanding the postal service curb abolitionist materials. The contents, they argued, challenged the laws of the southern states forbidding dissemination of inflammatory messages. Congress asserted that postmasters were not allowed to refuse to deliver mail and issued a fine and prison time for those caught doing so. But some southern states passed regulations on the materials anyway, and postmasters were known to pick through mailings.
Still, hundreds of thousands of abolitionist mailings arrived in southern states each year. These campaigns may have served to deepen the national divide, uniting Southerners against the meddlesome North.
“It was a raucous time of the federal government and states debating whether to control this communication network,” says Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. “It’s about who’s controlling the information [and] the fear is really about the political discourse when people start to exchange opinions.”
While the federally appointed postmaster general turned a blind eye to selective mail delivery, abolitionists began using private companies. These companies weren’t subject to the federal debates and had a business interest in ensuring safe delivery.
The Adams Express Company had made a name for itself for reliability, speed, and privacy. To prove this, the company would publicly ship boxes of gold dust mined in the California Gold Rush to banks on the East Coast. This attracted abolitionists and eventually the attention of the men who planned Henry Brown’s escape.
The wooden box made for Brown was three feet long, two feet wide, and included, replete three air holes. On March 29, 1849, he folded himself into the box with a container of water, some biscuits, and a sharp tool for making more air holes. The box was moved by train cars, steamboats, ferries, and wagons. Though marked “This side up with care,” it had been flipped in transit, and Brown spent some of the trip on his head, convinced he might die. Unsure if the parcel’s occupant had survived the journey, its receivers tentatively rapped on the box. “All right?”
“All right, sir,” came the reply.
Brown’s escape was lauded as a modern miracle. The United States was still 12 years away from abolishing slavery, but its nascent shipping network was strong enough to deliver a man in little more than a day.
“His message was that this medium worked,” says Robbins. “And that parcel delivery—that American progress—had not yet ended slavery, but it had enabled delivery from the South to the North, and it enabled these communication networks that soon would bring freedom and emancipation.”
A year later, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and a close call with a bounty hunter forced Brown to leave America. He toured England, often traveling in a replica of his original box, which was opened in front of live audiences. He created “The Great Panorama of American Slavery,” and sometimes toured alongside other previously enslaved men and women.
As a child on the plantation, Brown had learned magic skills from another enslaved man, and he used them now to build a whole act. On stage he performed mentalism, escapes, sleight of hand, and hypnotism.
Brown was a Trojan Horse, a stowaway, and the reveal of a magic trick, but leading abolitionists weren’t sure what to make of him. Frederick Douglass had famously escaped enslavement, but he never discussed his mode of escape. Meanwhile, Brown’s story was almost entirely rooted in it.
And while Douglass and others spoke passionately against the suffering they’d endured, Brown described his experiences as the “beautiful side of the picture of slavery,” and spoke kindly of the plantation owner. In England, Brown remarried, and it’s unclear if he ever bought freedom for his family back home or saw them again.
"Had not Henry Box Brown attracted slaveholding attention to the manner of his escape, we might have had a thousand Box Browns per annum," Douglass wrote in his 1855 autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom.
Sure enough, the same year that Brown escaped, the Richmond penitentiary added a new entry to its list of crimes, “for enticing slaves to be boxed up.” One prisoner was held on this offense: Samuel Alexander Smith, the man who shipped Brown and had been caught attempting to ship more enslaved people. He was sentenced to six years. Not long after, a free Black man was arrested for trying to do the same. It’s unknown if anyone else ever successfully made the voyage to freedom by mail.
The politics of mail
What’s certain is that in the years around his escape, mail flowed across America in a way it never had before. The cost of distributing newspapers had long been subsidized, but personal letter rates were high—the average person could afford to send one or two per year—until a dramatic cut in rates in 1845 and 1851. In 1847 the first postage stamp was issued, allowing senders to pay postage up front rather than recipients on delivery, and offering both sides newfound anonymity. Between 1845 and 1850 the volume of mail increased 66 percent, according to Robbins.
The impact of this newly open communication is immeasurable, but other anecdotes “suggest that because of Douglass and abolitionists using the mail there was a postal consciousness on the part of the slaves in the South,” says Robbins.
There was Harriet Jacobs, who enlisted the service of a friend in New York to post a letter to her “master” while she hid out, knowing the postmark would throw him off her trail. There was Anthony Burns, a fugitive imprisoned in Richmond, who sent letters to his lawyer by dropping them out the window of his cell. Douglass wrote that many enslaved people borrowed the documents of free African Americans and mailed them back to their enslaver upon reaching freedom.
Brown’s story has never ceased to amaze audiences. Tony Kushner (the playwright of Angels in America) turned it into a play. Other writers have used Brown’s journey to explore themes of captivity. And artists have attempted to mail themselves in tribute. For historians of the postal service, the saga intersects with a formative period in American history.
“What is the role of the Post Office Department? Who should have access to the mail? What should we be sending through the mail?” asks Heidelbaugh, the National Postal Museum curator. “We’re emerging from the early republic to this crisis point in the decades leading to the Civil War…It’s emblematic of all the debates going on in the U.S. about the role of government.”
It’s not unlike today, Heidelbaugh adds, with conversations tackling access to social media, news, the internet, and how free speech should be regulated.
“The mail,” she says, “is very political.”