Can you imagine the excitement experienced by workers who recently found a secret
tunnel under a Middletown, PA home they were demolishing? Historians believe it may be part of the 19th century Underground Railroad. Demolition has been halted and property owners will have the final word on what happens to the 70 foot tunnel. Imagine, again, the number of slaves that could have been held there until it was safe to move on again. Middletown is near Levittown and is one of the oldest towns in the area. All this
information brought back memories of grade school history as I recalled reading about people who assisted slaves to freedom. Harriet Tubman was one of them and before she was done, slave owners were offering $40,000 reward for her capture. She had made nineteen trips, from Maryland, through Delaware and into PA making it into Philadelphia in seven weeks and on into Canada. All this following the North Star. These trips, had resulted in the freeing of over 300 slaves. William Still, whom most of us haven’t heard about, helped 800 former slaves to escape. How sad that many escapes resulted in leaving behind families.
This was the case with
Henry “Box” Brown, who at the advice of many not to attempt his plans of escape, went forward with them. His five foot eight, two hundred pound frame was packed into a box that was only 3 feet 1 inch long, 2 feet 6 inches high and 2 feet wide. A few holes were bored into the top and he had a container of water. His route was 250 miles long, and involved transport on both trains and boats during the journey from Richmond to Washington, D.C. and then from Baltimore to Philadelphia. He endured 17 hours in the box sometimes upside down, It was extremely hot and when he emerged in the Vigilance Committee office in Philadelphia, he was soaking wet and exhausted, but nevertheless he burst into a song of praise to God.
Before his departure, he had watched his family transported in a coffle gang, which was simply a parade of slaves foot chained together. He raced up to his wife and walked along with her for awhile listening to his children crying from the wagon in which they were being transported. Finally he held his wife for the last time and watched her and his children disappear from his life forever. He was considered a “free” slave but his family wasn’t. What became of Henry? Word of his daring escape made him famous. He wrote a book
about his journey, then began a speaking tour during which he teamed up with James Caesar Anthony Smith. Together they entertained audiences with songs, and some of the religious hymns he had learned in his younger days. Henry had become known as “Box” and his friend Smith was called “Boxer” because he was the man that boxed up Henry. In 1850 there was an attempt to kidnap Henry and this convinced him and Smith to move to England. They brought their show with them. It had evolved into a great panorama about slavery. However, within a year, his partnership with his friend terminated and he was on his own. Henry married an English actress, who became part of his show and later, a daughter joined them on stage. Between 1875-1878 they toured the U.S. Henry was 63 at time and that was the last his whereabouts are known. That is quite a story, isn’t it? And there are hundreds of stories, about the courage and suffering of the escapees. Of course, not many of them became entertainers as Henry did.
Part of his show was a panorama. Moving panoramas was a popular form of visual entertainment in the nineteenth century. Huge paintings had to be done on canvas and were transported oftentimes by wagon. A mechanism was constructed so that the panorama could be rolled from one scene to another. Oftentimes, a narrator and his wife provided musical accompaniment and sometimes other performing acts. Some of the most popular panoramas were those depicting travel around the world. A most notable, surviving panorama is one rediscovered in the U.S., after having been forgotten in storage after nearly a century at the York Institute in Saco, Maine, by Tom Hardiman. It is named the “Grand Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress” and is found to incorporate designs by many of the leading painters of its day.
In this Shirl And You we have gone from the accidental unearthing of a Underground
Railroad Tunnel, to remembering the stories of slaves set free through this movement, to the use of panoramas as entertainment during this period. I hope you enjoyed the memories of history brought back to your mind. I’d love to hear what your thinking is regarding the subjects covered. Your comments are important to me.