Historical prizewinning true story 19th century black history

Thinking Outside the Box

By Elizabeth Hopkinson
Jul 30, 2019 · 917 words · 4 minutes

Photo by Brunno Tozzo via Unsplash.

From the author: Inspired by a true story. In antebellum Virginia, Henry Brown mailed himself to freedom in a box. But now that he repeats his feat in venues around the world as a conjuring trick, will he ever be free. Second prize winner in the Swanwick Writers' Summer School short story competition, in association with Writing Magazine, 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen!  What you are about to see is no illusion.  Before your very eyes, the illustrious Professor Henry “Box” Brown will reenact those events that have brought him lasting fame both here and in his native country.  As the band plays, Professor Brown will allow himself to be manacled and secured with chains. He will then climb inside this box, the very box - ladies and gentlemen - in which he escaped to freedom, fleeing that barbarous institution of slavery and the tobacco plantations of Virginia, to arrive safely in Philadelphia a full twenty-seven hours later!  

He wonders sometimes if he dreamt that journey.  The stifling heat. The smell. The rhythmic pounding of steam engines and paddle wheels as they transferred him from rail to river and back again.  He has relived it so many times, in song and drama, in words spoken and printed, in moving pictures and feats of escapology, that it no longer seems real, even to himself.  The episode in which the box was turned upside-down, his eyes swelling in their sockets, the veins distended in his temples, until at the last moment a fellow decided he needed a box to sit on, and turned it onto its side.  It sounds like something from a penny serial, a mere author’s invention. A trick to transform a runaway slave into a renowned entertainer.

Examine the box, ladies and gentlemen.  Touch it. You can see for yourselves that it is an ordinary packing case, a mere three feet long by two feet wide, and two feet six inches high.  You, sir! Would you care to test the chains with which Professor Brown has been secured? You will find them quite unbreakable. And yet, in half an hour’s time, Professor Brown will escape his chains and emerge from his box completely unharmed by the ordeal.

He has nightmares about it sometimes.  Not merely the feeling of suffocation, of walls closing in and his tongue drying to the roof of his mouth.  Had he choked in the darkness, his release would have been swift. No, the fear that haunts his dreams is that of discovery.  Of the chain and the whip and the crippling punishment. And worst of all, the humiliation. Being reduced once more to chattel, the property of another man, denied even the dignity of a soul.  He vowed at the time that if he escaped, he would never be humiliated again. Was that when he had made the decision to emerge from his box a performer? To greet his allies with a brisk, “How do you do, gentlemen?” and an uplifting psalm?  It had been his first conjuring act. Into the box a slave, out of the box a free man.

The Professor’s assistants are now nailing down the lid of the box, which will be loaded as freight onto this steam locomotive.  It is a miracle of our modern age, ladies and gentlemen, that goods such as this can be placed on a waggon in Bradford, and arrive in Leeds in less than half a turning of the clock.  By such miracles as this are the wheels of industry kept turning, and the fruit of Yorkshire labour distributed to the far-flung corners of the Empire.

Will he ever truly be free, he wonders, while cotton harvested on Mississippi plantations turns the spinning jennies of Lancashire mills?  While white men black their faces and caper to the sound of the banjo? While men such as himself are “poor, pitiful outcasts” in the eyes of even their fiercest supporters?  When he stepped from that box in Philadelphia, he vowed that Henry Brown would be master of his own destiny, the teller of his own story. And he has told that story time and again in the theatres and concert halls of England.  Time and again he has burst from his box - as an African Prince, as a Professor of Electro-Biology, as a singer, an exhibitor, the manager of a touring troupe. He has refused to be bound by a single identity. No other human being on earth will limit Henry Brown to their own confines ever again.

I now invite those of you with purchased tickets to board the train.  We arrive in Leeds at half past six. The band will lead a procession through the principal street of that city to the Music Hall, Albion Street, where Professor Brown will be released from the box.  He will then sing the Song of his Escape, accompanied by the band in full military regalia, and show his Moving Panorama of American Slavery, a spectacle of forty-nine painted scenes, which has been exhibited in this country to thousands of admiring viewers.

And yet he is still shackled.  Night after night, he puts on his chains.  Night after night, he climbs once again into the box, that very box from which - once upon a stifling journey - his whole being yearned to escape.  The box is written into his name, his story, his legacy. However skilled a conjurer, Henry Brown will never escape from the box.

And here he is, ladies and gentlemen!  Resurrected before your very eyes. The one-time slave and fugitive escapes his chains and the confines of the box, and stands before you as Professor Henry “Box” Brown, magician, mesmerist and showman extraordinaire!  Please give him your most enthusiastic applause. Souvenir prints of the occasion are now available, priced one shilling and fourpence.

Elizabeth Hopkinson

Elizabeth Hopkinson, winner of the James White Award, writes fairy tales, fantasy and historical fiction. She reprints her short stories here.