Years ago I started telling Welsh folk tales with a crankie, a wooden box the size of a large suitcase, open at the front like a picture frame, containing a long illustrated scroll turned by a handle on top. It's like a moving picture book, or an animation storyboard, or a movie without electricity, a very unique form of visual storytelling. I illustrate the scrolls with silhouette paintings to allow the audience to use their imaginations to see the characters and landscape, which is very different to the complex detail in my book illustrations. I’ve included a mixture of both styles in Illustrated Welsh Folk Tales to show the variety of images in my mind before I tell a story. You can see a few of them on this page.
Crankie makers in the United States sometimes make embroidered textile scrolls, while the Appalachian artist Eddie Spaghetti tapes individual woodcuts together. Throughout the 19th Century these moving panoramas were used on stage to show images from newsreels or depict exotic scenes from countries that few people would ever visit. There are examples of miniature crankies, smaller than an iPad, depicting scenes from the Civil War that could be read by candlelight, maybe in bed. I’ve made crankie scrolls for Welsh storytellers like Fiona Collins who has shown it at the Eisteddfod, and Phil Okwedy who has toured his crankie around theatres and arts centres.
Inevitably, a few people have asked whether I brought this tradition to Wales. So let me tell you a phantasmagorical story...
On April 11th 1850, in Boston, Massachusetts, a moving panorama titled ‘Mirror of Slavery’ was shown to large crowds and enthusiastic newspaper reviews. It contained forty-nine scenes painted onto a canvas scroll by the ornamental sign-painter and abolitionist Josiah Wolcott. The Boston Daily Evening Traveler pronounced it to be, ‘one of the finest panoramas now on exhibition.’ The showman was Henry Box Brown. Henry was born into slavery in 1815 on Hermitage plantation in Louisa County, about 50 miles from Richmond, Virginia. He was something of a trickster who knew African conjuring and magic that his Gullah-Geechee neighbours had used to escape from the Outer Banks and fly home to Africa. Henry could pick up a nail, close his hand over it, speak creole words, and when he opened his hand, the nail had turned into an acorn which he promised would grow into a nail tree. He knew all the tricks of the stage magician, too.
In 1849, his wife Nancy was expecting their fourth child, when she and their children were sold to a plantation in North Carolina, even though Henry had been paying their owner Mr Cottrell with money raised from selling tobacco. Henry decided it was time to escape, and with the help of shoemaker Samuel A Smith and Black Freedman James CA ‘Boxer’ Smith, they built a small wooden box 91cm by 81cm by 61cm, and lined it with baize. On March 23 1849, Henry poured sulphuric acid over his hand to get the day off work. He squeezed himself into the box with a few biscuits, a bottle of water, and an awl to bore air-holes when he couldn’t breathe, and he was posted via the Adams Express Company to the Quaker merchant Passmore Williams of the Philadelphia Vigilence Commitee. The box was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, and ferry for 27 hours, sometimes upside down with the blood rushing to Henry’s head.
On his arrival in Philadelphia, he burst out and sang a hymn to freedom. Henry was transformed, and later that year he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Henry ‘Box’ Brown to publicise the plight of his people. He wrote:
‘I entered the world a slave. ... Yes, they robbed me of myself before I could know the nature of their wicked arts.’
With the earnings from his book he built the moving panorama, ‘Mirror of Slavery’ and toured it around the east coast in the Spring and Summer of 1850. Following the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill that year, he was attacked in Providence, and knew if he were caught he would be sent back to Virginia, which may be the reason why he never went in search of his first family. So on 7 October he fled again, this time on the packet ship Constantine along with ‘Boxer’ Smith and his moving panorama. Henry arrived penniless in Liverpool in November 1850, although his fame preceded him and he was greeted by the acclaim of the newspapers. He settled in Manchester where a second edition of his book was published by Thomas G Lee, Minister of the New Windsor Chapel in Salford. There is a copy of this rare edition in the John Rylands library in Manchester Henry, ever the showman, immediately began touring his moving panorama around the North of England.
In Bradford in May 1851 he was packed into a wooden box like the one he had escaped in, and in half an hour he was paraded through the streets of Leeds and placed on the stage of the Music Hall in Albion Street, where he escaped again and showed ‘Mirror of Slavery’ to an audience who had seen nothing like it before. Thousands packed into his shows to watch him wriggle free from chained sacks like Houdini, disappear into boxes through mirrors, destroy and restore a handkerchief, and educate his audience about the horrors his people were still enduring overseas. The weavers, cotton spinners and coal miners of the North understood him. He advertised himself as ‘The African Chief’, ‘Dr. Henry Brown, Professor of Electro-Biology’ and ‘The King of All Mesmerists’. He was a performance artist long before the term was invented, who could fill theatres with stage magic, visual art and storytelling to create phantasmagorical performances. In 1852 he was confident enough to take the proprietor of the Wolverhampton Herald to court after the newspaper had ridiculed his show as:
‘an exaggerated preposterous, and, to a certain extent, indecent exhibition.’
The court report explained:
‘The plaintiff himself was examined as a witness and though his dress was rather fine, and he displayed some jewellery about his person, his manner of giving his evidence was quiet and creditable, and his pronunciation altogether very correct. A schoolmaster, at Wolverhampton, who had visited and admired the plaintiff’s panorama, was also examined, and stated that the plaintiff, in delivering his lecture, did not speak in the ridiculous manner imputed to him by the libel.’
Henry won £100 in compensation.
Then in January 1855 he appeared in Wales for the first time, in Cardiff, Merthyr and Monmouth. Later that year he married Jane Brown, daughter of a Cornish tin miner who worked at the National School in Copperhouse. Two years later he was acting in three plays in London, including The Fugitive Free, The Nubian Captive or Royal Slave, and Pocahontas or the English Tar and the Indian Princess. He returned to Merthyr on June 22 1864 where the the newspaper, Banc ac Amserau Cymru, reported: ‘Henry Box Brown, y caethwas ffoedigh yn y Neuadd Ddirwestol amryw nosweitbiau yr wythnos ddiweddaf, i dclifyru y cynnulliadau â'i wâg orchestion mesmerol. Hudir llawer i fyuycbu y lie gan y gwohrwyon neuroddion ganddo i'r neb a ddigwyddo feddiannu rhyw docynrif pennodol.’ (Henry Box Brown, the runaway slave, reappeared in the Temperance Hall for several evenings last week, to dazzle the assemblies with his mesmerizing exploits. Many who attended the show were seduced by the rewards or gifts he gave to the person who happened to possess a fixed ticket number.)
His appearance in Aberdare produced a racially disparaging response: ‘‘Dis colo’d g’emman’, who, it will be remembered, made a tour of the country some years ago with a panorama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, has turned up again in the character of an electro-biologist, and on the first three nights of this week lectured on the above subject at the Temperance Hall. The attendance was not large.’ By 1871 he was back in Manchester where the census lists him as living at 87 Moreton Street, Cheetham Hill, with Jane, their three children, Agnes, Edward and Annie, and a servant.
Four years later, after 25 years in Wales and England re-enacting his escape from slavery, the family crossed the Atlantic to spend Henry’s final years in Toronto where he continued to show his moving panoramas, describing himself as ‘Lecturer’, ‘Traveler’ and ‘Professor of Animal Magnetism’. He died on June 15, 1897, and is buried in Necropolis Cemetery. Henry spent his extraordinary life giving a voice to hidden people. Most people who escaped slavery took refuge in impenetrable places like the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, where they avoided authority, living in caves, underground holes and houses on stilts, and using using oral storytelling as a secret library of freedom, hope and flight. Most didn’t have the support Henry received, nor his extraordinary artistic and entrepreneurial skills, but they needed him to tell their hidden tales to the wider world. And that’s why, whenever I tell an old Welsh folk tale with a crankie, I always acknowledge Henry the trickster, forever escaping the shackles that bind so many.
By Peter Stevenson
There are films of Welsh folk tales told with crankies on my website: https://www.peterstevensonarts.co.uk/crankies
Sue Truman's Crankie Factory website contains more about Henry and his crankies: https://thecrankiefactory.com/115034636.html
Katherine Fahey's crankie channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/2hawks2fishes
Bronia Evers: https://www.broniaevers.com/what-is-a-crankie-theatre
Much of the information about Henry in Wales came from the National Library of Wales, Welsh newspapers online: https://newspapers.library.wales/,
Martha J. Cutter, The Many Resurrections of Henry Box Brown (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), the defining book on Henry’s life.
And this year, crankie makers will meet in the Netherlands for what we hope will be an annual European crankie fest.