THIS SIDE UP WITH CARE
The remarkable escape of Henry “Box” Brown, who shipped himself from slavery in a wooden box.
As described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), the monomyth is a template for “the hero’s journey,” a set of fabled tropes that are found in various mythologies across swaths of cultures and histories – from Inanna’s descent into the Underworld to Luke Skywalker’s transition from baby-faced nebbish to sister-kissing hero. There are 17 stages, beginning with a call to adventure and ending with the freedom to live. Practically speaking, this is the stuff of poetic self-actualization, a story so ingrained in cultural mythology we might find ourselves the hero, too.
Though Campbell was at risk of funneling these fables into universalism, the themes spill over into real-life-legends, the call to adventure taking the form of numinous religious experiences: Joan of Arc’s revelation, mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s dreams of the Hindu goddess Namagiri (in which she would show him mathematical proofs). It was this sort of moment – profoundly mystical and redolent of God – that enraptured and led Henry Box Brown, a slave, to transform himself into mail and literally deliver himself from slavery: he shipped his own body in a wooden crate to Pennsylvania (then a free state), itself a strange act of magic.
Harry Houdini’s escape stunts be damned, Brown’s call to adventure was his freedom to live, spurred by his enslavement and the loss of his family, and his death-defying escape act was for no audience. As described in his 1849 autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Henry “Box” Brown (dictated to abolitionist Charles Stearns and filled with his own antislavery sentiments):
... I felt my soul called out to heaven to breathe a prayer to Almighty God. I prayed fervently that he who seeth in secret and knew the inmost desires of my heart, would lend me his aid in bursting my fetters asunder, and in restoring me to the possession of those rights, of which men had robbed me; when the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state. (51)