OK, before asking my question, I have to admit that I got the idea for it from an episode of Beavis and Butt-head. Anyways, can I hop in a box, have a friend take me to the post office, and send myself to far-off destinations? If I can, would it be cheaper than airfare? I’m sure Beavis and Butt-head aren’t the first to think of this; has anyone else tried it? –Arvind Karwan, Fort Collins, Colorado
I too have an admission to make: I got a little help on this answer from the Teeming Millions via the Straight Dope Message Board. But come on, it’s been a long year. You guys can carry me for once.
For reasons to be shortly elucidated, not the least of which is that travel by post makes the most dimensionally challenged coach seat look like Cleopatra’s barge, mailing yourself is not something that I can in good conscience advise. But yes, it’s been done, occasionally in a noble cause, although more commonly in stupid ones. Herewith the facts, noble cause first:
Escape from slavery. From the 1851 memoir that bears his name we learn of one Henry “Box” Brown, a slave residing in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1840s. Desperate for freedom, in March 1849 Brown poured acid on his finger in order to be excused from work; then, anticipating Beavis and Butt-head by nearly 150 years, he arranged for a pair of associates to nail him inside a three-by-two-and-a-half-by-two-foot wooden box, his only accommodations a bladder of water and a tool with which to bore additional airholes. That done, the accomplices delivered the goods to the railway express office, presumably paid the freight, and wired a friend in Philadelphia to await delivery of the male (Brown’s joke, not mine). The journey was no walk in the shade. Despite the fact that the box was marked this side up with care, it was placed upside down for hours at a time (freight handlers being no more attentive to instructions then than now), causing the blood to rush dangerously to Brown’s head. Just as he felt about to lose consciousness, though, a couple jamokes turned the box over, the better to sit on it. At another point the box was flung from a wagon, knocking Brown cold and nearly breaking his neck. After some additional travail the fugitive arrived at the desired address in Philadelphia and was uncrated. He emerged and promptly fainted, bruised and battered but, thank God almighty, free at last.
Escape from New York. In September 2003 Charles D. McKinley, 25, had himself shipped by airfreight from New York to his parents’ house in suburban Dallas, his goal not freedom but saving the plane fare. This being the 21st century, McKinley took along not water but a computer and had himself picked up at a business in the Bronx. The carrier, Kitty Hawk Cargo, flew the encrated man from Newark to Buffalo to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Dallas, whence he was transported by truck to his folks’ house. He’d have gotten there undetected except that at the last minute he apparently removed a covering of some kind, allowing the deliveryperson to see him while unloading the box. The jig up, the driver called police, who arrested McKinley on some old warrants. A federal official conceded that U.S. air security measures clearly weren’t the impenetrable shield one might like in the wake of 9/11.
Escape from reality. In the kids’ book Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (1964), a bulletin board falls on young Stanley Lambchop and nonfatally flattens him to four feet by one foot by half an inch. Pops Lambchop takes advantage of this unforeseen turn of events to mail Stanley to California for a visit. Stanley returns the same way unscathed, proving “jet planes were wonderful, and so was the Postal Service.” It’s fiction, OK?
Practical considerations. As the above suggests, the U.S. Postal Service is not the carrier of choice for human freight, among other things having a 70-pound weight limit. Package delivery firms are more liberal about such things (weight and dimensions, I mean; nobody is knowingly going to take a living person); UPS will ship up to 150 pounds. Air cargo services generally speaking will take whatever you can fit on a pallet–more than that if you’re willing to pay for it. But there’s the rub. Take our friend Charles McKinley. Let’s suppose he wants to try again and arranges to ship himself via UPS in a Henry Brown-size box with a loaded weight of 150 pounds (hey, he can diet). Cheapest rate from NYC to DFW: $152–but he’ll spend four days in transit. No way. Second-day air, still pretty uncomfortable: $345. Compare that to the best deal for a conventional flight I could find on Priceline: $126 for a one-stop via ATA, and you don’t even need to provide your own box.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.