Replica box gives a taste of Henry’s ordeal

Standing next to the box, Samuel grinned and held out his hand, like a coachman motioning to the open door of a carriage. “Your coffin awaits.”

With the gimlet and water in hand, Henry stepped carefully into the box and lowered himself. He rested his shoulder and head against one end and braced his feet against the other.

“You comfortable?” Samuel asked.

“That’s a fool question.”

“We’re sealing you in,” said James.

Henry nodded. James and Samuel picked up the wooden cover and placed it over his head, plunging Henry into a tomb-like darkness. This is it, he thought. Boxed in again. Henry was being mailed to Philadelphia. No more masters. No more boxes. No more being somebody else’s property. Philadelphia was the other end of the line. Philadelphia was freedom.

* * *

This is the replica box on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.

Henry Brown’s box is sitting in my living room.

It’s only a replica of Henry’s box, of course, and I had it built by a good friend, Dave Lucas. Dave built it to the exact specifications handed down by one eyewitness–3 feet long, 2 feet, 8 inches deep, and 23-½ inches wide.

The replica looks quite formidable, but try to climb inside and you soon find out how cramped it can be, especially when the box is placed horizontally. The only way I can position myself inside is if I jam my head against one wall in the most uncomfortable of positions, while propping my feet against the opposite side, my knees bent and sticking in my face.

If I place the box upright vertically, it’s not as bad. You can sit upright, and there is a little space between my head and the top of the box. But Henry, of course, had no control over how he was positioned. His box was flipped every which way, even though his friend Samuel Smith had clearly marked it with the words: THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE. As anyone who has had any poor dealings with movers will tell you, shipping people do not always pay much attention to the words “With Care.”

Even more unimaginable, Henry was placed upside down several times–at one stretch for close to four hours. The history accounts say that Henry managed to twist himself right side up on two different occasions, but I don’t know how he managed it.

Climbing inside the replica box gives a slight idea of how cramped Henry must have been. But I climbed inside for only a few minutes–not 27 hours. And I was not sealed inside by nails, like a coffin. I could climb out when I felt my neck tightening up, but Henry was trapped, at the mercy of cargo handlers and other forces beyond his control.

I was free. Henry was not. And that makes all the difference in the world.

By Doug Peterson

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P.S.–In case you’re wondering why I had a box made, I plan to take it around to schools and churches as a visual aid when I talk about Henry’s amazing story.

History by the Slice