The Many Resurrections of Henry Box BrownUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
On March 23, 1849, Henry Brown climbed into a large wooden postal crate and was mailed from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Box Brown,” as he came to be known after this astounding feat, went on to carve out a career as an abolitionist speaker, actor, magician, hypnotist, and even faith healer, traveling the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada until his death in 1897.
The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown is the first book to show how subversive performances were woven into Brown’s entire life, from his early days practicing magic in Virginia while enslaved, to his last shows in Canada and England in the 1890s. It recovers forgotten elements of Brown’s history to illustrate the ways he made himself a spectacle on abolitionist lecture circuits via outlandish performances, and then fell off these circuits and went on to reinvent himself again and again. Brown’s stunts included creating a moving panoramic picture show about his escape; parading through the streets dressed as a “Savage Indian” or “African Prince”; convincing hypnotized individuals that they were sheep who would gobble down raw cabbage; performing magic, dark séances, and ventriloquism; and even climbing back into his “original” box to jump out of it on stage.
In this study, Martha J. Cutter analyzes contemporary resurrections of Brown’s persona by leading poets, writers, and visual artists. Both in Brown’s time and in ours, stories were created, invented, and embellished about Brown, continuing to recreate his intriguing, albeit fragmentary and elusive, story. The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown fosters a new understanding not only of Brown’s life but of modern Black performance art that provocatively dramatizes the unfinished work of African American freedom.
Abbreviations for Archives Consulted
Introduction. The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown, the Man Who Mailed Himself to Freedom
Chapter 1. Slavery and Freedom in US Visual Culture: The Performative Personae of William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth
Chapter 2. Becoming Box Brown, 1815–1857
Chapter 3. Performing Fugitivity: Henry Box Brown on the Nineteenth-Century British Stage, 1857
Chapter 4. Performing New Panoramas, Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and Second Sight, England, 1857–1875
Chapter 5. Canada, the United States, and Beyond: Performing Slavery and Freedom, 1875–1897
Chapter 6. The Absent Presence: Henry Box Brown in Contemporary Museums, Memorials, and Visual Art
Chapter 7. Playing in the Archives: Box Brown in Contemporary Children’s Literature and Visual Poetry
Coda. The Resilience of Box Brown and the Afterlives of Slavery
Appendix. Selected Contemporary Creative Works About Henry Box Brown Notes
"Brown’s ingenious escape from slavery in Richmond, Virginia, by mailing himself in a wooden postal crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia, was unique and well documented. But that is not the story that most interests the author of this elegant cultural history. Cutter focuses on how Brown turned his experience in slavery into performance art on various tracks in many different locales"—Pennsylvania Heritage
- Honorable Mention for the Sharon Harris Book Award, granted by the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute