In 1848, Henry Brown was a Virginia slave with a wife and three children. When the plantation owner sold Brown’s wife and children to another slave owner, and Brown could do nothing to stop it, he began to plan his escape to Philadelphia. While many American slaves viewed the Underground Railroad as a means to freedom, Brown decided to go a different route — the regular, above-ground, actual-railway railroad. On March 23, 1849, Henry Brown shipped himself to life as a free man.

Brown was not alone in this brilliant escape. He enlisted James C. A. Smith, a Southerner sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, and paid him $86 to pack him in his crate and take him to the railways. Smith, in turn, contacted a man named James Miller McKim, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia who was a leader in the Abolition movement. McKim agreed to receive a package from Smith which, if everything went right, would contain Brown. Brown then intentionally burned his hand with sulfuric acid in order to miss out on work and, instead, climbed into his crate. Over the next 27 hours, he was in the custody of the Adams Express Company as he, in the crate, made his way from Richmond to Philadelphia. Over the course of his journey, he’d go by wagon three times, rail three times, and ferry and steamboat once each. But in the end, he emerged, alive and free.

Despite the brilliance of this escape plan and its obvious success, noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass was publicly upset with Brown for publicizing his escape route; Douglass believed that by revealing his method, Brown prevented others from following suit. But more importantly, in September of 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring that any runaway slaves be brought back to their slave masters. Also in a cruel twist of history, these trials were held in the Long Hall on the second floor of Independence Hall. Fortunately, Brown fled to England and did not stand trial nor did he return to Virginia until after the Civil War.

One wonders with the current versions of slavery being imposed upon women by Republican legislatures in Texas, Florida, and other states whether we will see a return to such desperate means of escape.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

%d bloggers like this: