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  • Fugitive Mail:The Deliverance of Henry "Box" Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics
  • Hollis Robbins (bio)

On March 29, 1849, in Richmond, Virginia, a thirty-four-year old, 200-pound slave named Henry Brown asked two friends to pack him in a wooden box and ship it by express mail to Philadelphia. They did and he arrived alive twenty-seven hours later with a new name and a marketable story. The Narrative of the Life of Henry "Box" Brown, published months later (with the help of ghostwriter Charles Stearns), made Brown quickly famous.1 Brown toured America and England describing his escape and jumping out of his famous box. In 1850, Brown and partner James C.A. Smith added to the show a moving panorama, "The Mirror of Slavery," depicting the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. Audiences dwindled, however, and after a dispute over money in 1851, Brown parted ways with Smith and with most of his supporters. By 1855, Brown was largely forgotten.

In the last dozen years, Henry "Box" Brown's Narrative has re-emerged to enjoy a kind of academic second act in African American Studies. Recent books and articles by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Richard Newman, John Ernest, Jeffrey Ruggles, Daphne Brooks, Marcus Wood, and Cynthia Griffin Wolff celebrate the rich symbolism of deliverance in Brown's story.2 As Gates writes in his forward to a recent edition of Brown's Narrative, the appeal of the tale

stems, in part, from the fact that Brown made literal much that was implicit in the symbolism of enslavement.… Brown [End Page 5] names this symbolic relation between death and life by having himself confined in a virtual casket. He 'descends' in what must have been a hellacious passage of the train ride—sweltering, suffocating, claustrophobic, unsanitary, devoid of light, food, and water—only to be resurrected twenty-seven hours later in the heavenly city of freedom and brotherly love that Philadelphia represented.3

Richard Newman states that the "second major trope in Brown's confinement and emergence," this one "transformed to the point of reversal," is the Middle Passage: "[u]nmercifully packed together in sailing ships, Africans were pressed into enclosures little more than living tombs … nonhuman products for the commodity market, they were crammed into spaces designed only to maximize numbers and profits. The result was hell."4 Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that Brown chose his small box, which measured three feet one inch long, two feet six inches deep, and two feet wide, "with as keen an eye for the economies of space as the most mercenary slave captain."5 Marcus Wood suggests that Brown's "imprisonment" was "a symbolic entombment of the soul of every slave, in a state of bondage," while his emergence was "the American spirit emerging from the moral entombment of slavery."6 Daphne Brooks claims that Brown "exemplifies the role of the alienated and dislocated black fugitive subject" in the antebellum era.7 In short, recent scholarship focuses primarily on the symbolic value of Brown's confinement; it is an allegory for the middle passage and a metaphor for the oppressions of slavery and for the rigid roles and categories that white abolitionists imposed on fugitive black slaves and their narratives. (Brown, a well-dressed showman, wore too much jewelry for his pious supporters' taste; his panorama's iconoclastic visuals too directly challenged tepid white abolitionist sensibilities; he married a white British woman, abandoning his first wife in slavery.)8

With the exception of Jeffrey Ruggles, none of the scholars above attends to the particulars of the private mail service that successfully executed Brown's delivery: Adams & Co. Express.9 (Brooks mistakenly ascribes Brown's delivery to the U.S. Postal Service, which did not enter the parcel business until 1912.) For these scholars, the role of express delivery is at best incidental and insignificant and at worst compromises the escape genre, which requires that Brown bravely and dramatically outwit his enslavers. (In the latter view, Brown's traumatic journey deems Adams Express the antagonist rather than a protagonist of the story.) Yet the role of government and private express mail delivery is central to the story and the...