Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Henry "Box" Brown's Aide Was Caught Helping Other Slaves in Richmond

At work we use the Henry "Box" Brown story to help students better understand the diverse methods that enslaved individuals used to exert resistance to the "peculiar institution." Some students seem to have doubts in the veracity of the story, but there is proof beyond Brown's own narrative.

Browsing through 1849 issues of the Richmond Enquirer, I ran across the headline "The Kidnapping Case," on the front page of the May 11 edition. Reading it, I made a connection to Brown's narrative.

Brown was assisted in his unique method of escape by a free black man in Richmond and a white man named Samuel Alexander Smith. The Enquirer article read:
"Yesterday morning at 10 o'clock, S. A. Smith was brought before the Mayor of the City upon two charges of having aided and advised the slaves Alfred and Sawney, to abscond from their owners." Apparently as witnesses were absent that day, the case was postponed.

The scanned newspaper page is wrinkled, however, it is easy to put two and two together. The article continues: "As our notice yesterday may be construed by some, so as to do injustice to the faithful Express Agent here, we deem it proper to succinctly to state the facts exactly as they occurred." Early on that Tuesday morning a porter brought two boxes to the Express Office addressed to W. P. Williamson. No. 32 Buttonwood Street, Philadelphia. A dray ticket was included.

The Express agent asked the porter where the boxes came from but the cart man responded that he did not know, only that they came from near the Armory. The agent's suspicions were further aroused due to the light weight of the boxes. The agent opened one of the boxes and found a slave man inside. The agent quickly placed the top back on the container. The boxes were then taken to the city jail and reopened, finding a runaway slave in each.

Apparently, Smith showed up at the Express office to check and see if the boxes had been sent under the false pretense of checking to see if bag of meal had arrived for him from Baltimore. A Mr. Fisher, who owned the shoe store in which Smith lived and worked claimed that the handwriting on the dray ticket was the same as that found in Fisher's bookkeeping signed by Smith. In addition, Fisher claimed he had seen a letter addressed to W. P. Williamson, Philadelphia in Smith's possession.

In the May 25 issue of the Enquirer under the headline "Not Original," the paper claimed that Smith's idea of boxing up slaves to send them to free states was earlier reported in the Burlington, Vermont Courier "of several weeks since" and seems to be the very story of Henry "Box" Brown as he later explained it in his narrative. It states:
"Having arranged the preliminaries he [the enslaved man] paid some one $40 to box him up and mark him 'this side up, with care,' and take him to the Express office consigned to his friend at the North. On  the passage, being on board a steamboat he was accidentally turned head downward, and almost died with the rash of blood to the head. At the next change of transportation, however, he was turned right side up again, and after twenty-six hours confinement, arrived safely at his destination. On receiving the box, the [illegible] man (?) had doubts whether he should receive a corpse or a free man. He tapped lightly on the box, with the question, 'All right?' and was delighted to hear 'All right, sir.' The poor fellow was immediately liberated from his place of living burial, and forwarded to a worthy Abolitionist in a city of New England, where he is now."

The next reference I located on Smith was in the May 29 issue. The story "Called Court," stated that "S. A. Smith, charged with attempting to abduct the two negroes in boxes, was on Saturday, sent on trial to the Superior Court, Judge Nicholas, at its October term."

Finally, in the November 9, 1849, issue in news of the Superior Court we learn of Smith's sentencing. "S. A. Smith was sentenced by the Judge to confinement in the Penitentiary for four years and six months, on yesterday; and being asked if he had anything to say say why sentence should not be passed upon him, made it known his intention of referring his cases to the General Court."

As a final means of corroboration, and after quite a while searching, I found S. A. Smith in the 1850 census records listed as an inmate in the Virginia Penitentiary. Smith is listed as forty-four year old shoemaker, who was born in Massachusetts and was incarcerated in 1849.

These sources seem to validate the story and method of escape Henry "Box" Brown claims he used to escape slavery. A fascinating story, which also shows the lengths enslaved people would take to find freedom.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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