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Boxed for a Better Life – Podcast #203

On Saturday, November 16, 1901, delivery men for the American Express Company climbed the stairs to a third-floor apartment located at No. 23 Langestrasse (Long Street) in Hamburg, Germany. Inside, they found little more than a large wooden crate that they were instructed to pick up and bring down to the docks on the nearby Elbe River.

The crate was described as measuring 5’10” (178 cm) in length x 2’10” (86 cm) front-to-back and stood 4’ (122 cm) tall. While an exact weight was never mentioned by the press, it’s safe to assume that this box weighed in excess of 200 pounds (91 kg), so it was quite heavy. Each end of its lid was marked “This Side Up” and “Use No Hooks,” plus there was a warning not to drop it.

Just what could be inside this crate that required such delicate handling? A small piano? A valuable painting? An antique piece of furniture? No, it wasn’t any of these things. According to American Express, the box contained some sort of artist’s models. Yet the apartment’s occupant, Johann Beck, told his landlady that the crate contained all of his earthly possessions. And that part was true: He was moving to the United States to start a new life and arranged for all of his stuff to be shipped there, which may or may not have included an artists’ model or two.

Press coverage back in 1901 depicted Beck as a 25-year-old house painter who had struggled to find consistent work in Germany, prompting his decision to relocate. However, a brief examination of his immigration records reveals that Johann Beck was born on November 30, 1871, in Austria, which means that he was really 30 years old when he entered the United States.

Beck was smart in opting to pay a bit more for express delivery. While this choice didn’t hasten the arrival of the crate in the United States – everything on the ship reaches its destination simultaneously – it did ensure that his crate would be positioned atop the stack of all other crates, expediting its removal from the ship shortly after arrival. The final destination of the shipping crate was the Union Square Hotel located at Union Square East (4th Avenue) and 15th Street in Manhattan and overlooking Union Square Park.

However, let’s rewind a bit in the narrative. The crate had just been picked up by the expressmen, who subsequently transported it to the dock, where it was loaded onto the steamship Palatia of the Hamburg-America line. While modern transatlantic air travel can be accomplished in a matter of hours, the Palatia, under Captain Reessing’s command, was anticipated to require a full fourteen days to complete the voyage. But it took longer than that. First, there was a one-day delay in departure, plus the ship didn’t make very good time crossing the Atlantic.

Sixteen days later, the vessel finally docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is situated right across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island. Then began the laborious task of unloading all the cargo. It was longshoreman Frank Roeder who first went down hatch No. 4, where the crate containing all of Johann Beck’s worldly possessions was located.

Suddenly, Roeder’s ears caught an unexpected sound akin to a human voice. Could there possibly be a stowaway hidden in the cargo hold? Such an occurrence wouldn’t have been unprecedented by any means. Straining his ears, Roeder managed to decipher the faint, hoarse utterances, which formed the German word for water: “wasser.” And the source of this plea was none other than Johann Beck’s crate.

Yes, you’ve guessed it correctly. When I mentioned that Johann Beck had shipped all of his worldly possessions, I meant precisely that – that included Johann Beck himself. Beck was the artist’s model supposedly contained in the crate. His 5’4” (163 cm) frame was in an extremely debilitated state, having endured several days without a single sip of water, all while confined within the pitch-dark shipping crate that had served as his home for the past sixteen days.

You are probably wondering what was inside Beck’s crate. Let me give you a quick rundown:

In addition to the cans and bottles that had contained food and water, there was a beat-up round valise containing socks and two changes of underwear that served as his pillow. For bedding, the bottom of the crate was lined with a thick layer of hay and then covered by a large piece of burlap. An old yellow and brown checkered overcoat sat to one side of where Johann lay down. Then there was a rack built into the underside of the lid that held 4 shirts, 6 collars, a foot-long ruler, a flat camel’s hair paintbrush, and a card confirming that he was a member in good standing of the Hamburg Housepainters Union. The most personal thing found among all of his possessions was a stack of handwritten letters from the love of his life, Johanna.

Johann Beck
Johann Beck. Image appeared on page 4 of the December 26, 1901 edition of the Great Falls Tribune.

Beck was unconscious for a short period after being rescued, but upon regaining his senses, he was transported to St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken for care. The road to recovery was projected to be quite lengthy, but following his discharge, officials planned to transport him to Ellis Island and proceed with deportation.

However, things took an unexpected turn. As news of Beck’s audacious journey as human cargo reached the press, his tale garnered widespread sympathy from readers all around the country. One of these was a well-known broker, real estate owner, and horseman named Newton Bennington.

He told the press two days after Beck’s rescue, “This plucky German will not be deported if I can help it. I like his spunk. I believe he has the stuff in him that good American citizens are made of. I arranged to-day with the immigration authorities to file the necessary bonds holding myself responsible that he does not become a public charge. I understand the bonds required amount to but a few hundred dollars. I am willing to wager this sum upon the man’s picking up and becoming a worthy citizen.”

He added, “Some of my friends on the train this morning argued that the man should be deported because of his conduct. I took the opposite view. The case will be brought before the special board of inquiry as soon as Beck gets well.”

Johann Beck, who now preferred to use the more Anglicized name of John, had a champion on his side. But just why did he opt to ship himself in a crate? He certainly wasn’t the first or last person in history to attempt such a thing—Henry Box Brown may be the most famous case—but one has to wonder what was going through his mind to follow through on such a hair-brained scheme.

Fortunately, Beck received a $50 ($1,800 today) payment for recounting his story to the press. Therefore, I’ll proceed to read his account to you. This narrative initially appeared on page 1 of the December 7, 1901, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I should point out that certain sections proved illegible, so I had to resort to abbreviated versions of the story published in other newspapers to reconstruct as much of it as feasible. Regrettably, a few paragraphs remain absent as they were not reprinted elsewhere.

“I came to America in a box because I felt that there was hope for me in this country and nowhere else. Times are very bad in Germany. I was in Hamburg since last January, and in all that time I had no regular employment. I worked a few days or weeks, then was idle for weeks. I saved my money as well as I could, but I never could keep anything.

“Johanna? She is my sweetheart. I do not want to tell her family name. She is at home now with her family in Wissmar, Mecklenburg, Germany.

“When Johanna went home to Wissmar times grew worse. I tried to sell doorplates when I could get no work at my trade. I tried everything I could think of, but I could not get ahead. I was not sinking, for I always had a little money left, but I could not add anything to it.

“We often talked of America. We thought if we could save enough money to get married and come here we must be able to make a good living. But I know that the American law would not let us stay in the United States unless we had some money.

“As soon as I can make some money I shall send for Johanna, and we shall be married. I met her first in Hamburg last winter, and there she promised to marry me. But we were poor. Her illness took all her money, and I could not have anything because I earned barely enough to pay for my lodging.

“‘Why not go to America and earn money and send for Johanna?’ I thought. But how should I get to America? Steerage passage was 120 marks (approximately $30 then, $1,100 today), and I never had more than 20 or 30 marks at a time. It was early in November that I began to think of sending myself to America in a box as freight. Where I got the idea, I do not know. Perhaps I read it somewhere long ago, but if I did read the thing, I have forgotten where. The more I thought of the plan the better it seemed. I have good self-control. I was not afraid. I weigh only 130 pounds (59 kg) when I am in health, and I felt sure that I could easily be carried around without danger of being dropped or hurt.

“I knew from reading that man can best sustain life on a vegetable diet when he is sedentary. Therefore I determined to do without any meat on my voyage to America. I thought I would live on the simplest vegetable diet possible.

Sketch of Johann Beck in his hospital bed at St. Mary’s Hospital in Hoboken, NJ. Image appeared on page 15 of the May 28, 1910 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

“While I was walking around looking for work I thought of my trip. When I went to bed I was always planning for the voyage. At night I was afraid, but in the daytime I felt sure I would arrive in America without accident.”

“I went to the office of the Hamburg-American line on Tuesday, Nov. 12, and learned that there was no express steamer that week, but that the steamship Palatia, Captain Reessing, would sail for America on the following Saturday. She would take fourteen days or less, they told me—perhaps only twelve days. I had very little money, and I made up my mind that I could not wait for the next express steamer. A day or two more would make little difference to a man ready to travel 10 days in a box.

“For two marks ($18 today) I bought in a secondhand lumber yard the packing box in which I came here. For 30 pfennigs ($2.70 today) I bought a few strips of thin stuff about two inches (5 cm) wide and an eighth of an inch (3 mm) thick to make the false bottom on the box lid—a sort of rack in which I could carry collars, stationery, neckties and other things that are easily injured and which must not be put down in the box with me. For a few more pfennigs I bought four latches, or thumbscrews, to fasten the lid on to the box. I had no eyes for these latches to fasten in, but the storekeeper gave me eight nails, which I afterward drove against each other in loops like eyes.

“I carried the packing box home to my lodgings on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 13. I told my landlady I was going to ship all my belongings over to America. My rent was paid up to Saturday night, so she did not care.

“I began to fit up the box on Thursday morning. A carpenter friend of mine lent me the tools. I cut up strips of the thin stuff for battens and nailed them on the inside of the box lid so that it was all solid like a door. Then I built the false bottom, or rack, on the box lid and put in it all my small belongings.

“I bought for 25 pfennigs ($2.25 today) a piece of thick, coarse cotton cloth 6 feet 6 inches long and 3 feet wide. (Approximately 2m x 1m.) I got an armful of hay in a stable and carried it home. I packed it in the bottom of the box for a bed and tucked the cotton cloth around it.

Sketch of Johann Beck's crate and his provisions.
Sketch of Johann Beck’s crate and his provisions. Image originally appeared on page 8 of the Minneapolis Tribune on December 16, 1901.

“I bought provisions for my box in a store around the corner from my lodging. I paid 1 mark 15 pfennigs ($10.35 today) for fourteen pints of seltzer water, 30 pfennigs ($2.70) for one pound of dates and 2 marks ($18.00) for two and a half pounds of chocolate. I knew that the chocolate alone would sustain life, but I added the dates as a luxury. I also bought two pounds of preserved plums for 1 mark ($9.00), but the jar that they were in was broken, so that I could not eat them.

“I worked all day Friday and most of Friday night packing my clothes in the box and putting away the provisions carefully, so that I could find each article without difficulty. When all was ready, I climbed into the box and drew down the lid. It was almost dark inside, but I found the hasps and locked down the lid. I was comfortable.

“I wrote a letter to Schaefer & Neumuller in New York, asking them to excuse me for shipping myself to them and to give me work. I thought they might give me a chance because my manner of traveling to them was so novel. I did not know them, but I picked up one of their cards in a cafe in Hamburg.”

And here is what that letter said:

“From J. Beck, Hamburg, Nov. 15.
“In time with speed to New York.
“Sir: Without work and without means I am at the end of my resources, and to procure my boat and at the same time to come to the land of my hopes, I am to send myself and goods by the ship Palatia, Captain Reessing. I calculated upon your magnanimity which will spare me an unpleasant return. I have not the honor of being acquainted with you. I am not afraid of any work, and would like work at the expenses.
“Coming with the Palatia, as already mentioned, I leave Hamburg on Sunday, Nov. 17 in the hope of arriving in New York in good health.
“I have need to beg for my excuse as well as for the trouble as my bad English. My best thanks in advance. Most respectfully. Johann Beck.”

Just for a second, think about what your response to this letter would be. Andreas F. Schaefer & Clara Neumuller were the proprietors of the upscale Union Square Hotel when out of the blue they got a letter from someone whom they had never met, he said he was coming over on a ship, and that he sought employment. What would you do?

Union Square Hotel in 1905.
Union Square Hotel in 1905.

Schaefer told the New York Tribune shortly after Beck’s arrival, “I thought some lunatic had written me, and so paid no attention to the letter. The man probably picked up one of our business cards at Hamburg and trusted to us to give him work. The American Express Company, shippers of the box, evidently suspected something was wrong. A week ago they asked me about the box of ‘artists’ models’ that was consigned to me.”

So, that was what happened with the letter that Beck mailed to Neumuller & Schaefer. Johann continues telling of what happened next:

“I went to the office of the American Express Co, at No. 11 Schmidt strasse, Hamburg, and told them I had a model at my lodgings which I wanted shipped as express freight to Schaefer & Neumuller, in New York. When I told them the size and weight of the box, they said the charge would be 32 marks ($288 today), and I told them to collect it in New York. I said I wanted them to call for the box at 1 p. m. and that they must be careful with it and keep it right side up.

“I hurried home and put on two suits of clothes. Then I told my landlady that I was going out, but that when the expressmen called she should let them get the box from my room. Then I went outdoors, but came in again and reached my room without being seen. I watched until the expressmen came to the house. Then before they could climb up to my room on the third floor I got into the box and fastened the lid from the inside.

“The expressmen called early. I heard them read the warning on the box lid, ‘nicht sturzen,’ which meant ‘take care.’ (Google translate claims it means ‘Do Not Fall,’ which I interpret as ‘Do Not Drop.”) They carried me down the three flights of stairs with great care and put me in the wagon without shaking me up. I was comfortable in my box. They put me down carefully on the steamship pier. I knew that I would be loaded on the Palatia quite late, because I had found out that the rule is to put in express freight last of all, so that it can be taken out quickly at the end of the voyage.

Johann Beck's application declaring his intent to become a United States citizen.
Johann Beck’s application declaring his intent to become a United States citizen, dated December 13, 1901.

“When I had lain on the pier a long time, the box was suddenly pushed over, and I could feel that a rope sling was being fastened around it. Then I heard a whistle, and I felt myself flying through the air. Another whistle, and I was sinking fast. All my seltzer bottles were along the floor of the left side of the case, tucked in beside the bedding, so as to save them, but when the men raised me up in the hold and piled my box on top of a big packing case, they rolled it over for a moment on its side and let it drop a few inches. The jolting broke three of my seltzer bottles. That meant water for three days, but I still had eleven pints left, and I thought that would last. I don’t think the men saw the water that leaked out. None of them said anything about it.

“I knew I was piled up high on the top of the cargo of my deck. There was still a little light in my box—not real light, but grayness—that came through the cracks of the wood. About an hour after I was loaded on the ship, I heard the men close the iron door of the bulkhead. Then I was in black darkness. Still, I was comfortable. By bending my knees a little I could lie flat on my back. When I grew tired of that I could sit up without my head touching the top of the box.

“As soon as I was sure the men had gone away, I unfastened the lid of my box and raised it. Then I discovered I was piled up so high that the next deck above was only 18 inches (46 cm) away. I did not care to struggle to get out, so I sat down in my box. It was black as midnight outside and there was very little room. I could hear a great many people walking over my head and very close to me. I thought I must be on the deck next under the steerage. They tell me now that it was the steerage.

“Soon after I was left alone I went to sleep. I had not slept much for the two days and nights I was making ready for the voyage. I slept, I suppose, for hours. I was awakened late that afternoon when the ship began to move down the river. I have heard she was detained there for one day, but I was not sure of that at the time.

“I could tell when night came. The noise of footfalls ceased in the steerage, just 18 inches over my head. When all was still, I could hear the men on watch walking about. I could hear them talking—that is, I could hear the tones of voices, but not the words—when one watch relieved the other.

“I invented a way to tell time. I took the crystal off my watch and felt the hands. When both hands were together at the top, right under the chain ring, I knew it was 12 o’clock. If there were many feet scuffling about the deck, I knew it was midnight. Soon I learned to tell the hour hand from the minute hand. I could always discover the time within an hour or so.

Sketch of Johann Beck in his hospital bed.
Sketch of Johann Beck in his hospital bed. Image appeared on page 3 of the January 6, 1902 edition of the Freie Presse Fur Texas.

“I knew when we left the river and began the sea voyage by the rolling of the ship. My box was well packed with other boxes on each side, so that it did not shake, but the rolling motion was terrible to me. I felt it all the time. I can feel it this moment whenever I shut my eyes. It seems as if I were back in my box and the ship was rolling heavily. But I did not suffer from nausea at all. The only trouble was that my head felt as if it was rolling off.

“I was asleep most of the time for the first two days and nights. One thing surprised me, the noise of the rats. I could hear them running over the cargo, their claws scratching on the wood of the packing cases. They ran across my case, too, and scratched at it. I suppose they smelled food inside and wanted it. I was afraid to make a noise to drive them away, because I did not want any of the sailors to hear me and drag me out. It was ghastly to hear the rats running around and squeaking while I was lying there in the dark like a rat caught in a trap. Still, they did not gnaw at my box or try to attack me in any way.

‘”How did I spend my time? By building air castles for Johanna and myself.

“‘Johann,’ I said, ‘you must find work in America. It is a rich country, and every man who is willing to work hard can make a fortune. You will soon be there. If you can get work at your trade as a painter, good. If not, you are young and strong, and you can sweep the streets if necessary to make a beginning. When you get 100 marks ($900 dollars today), you can send for Johanna and marry her, and then you will both work hard and make a fortune, and some day you can go home and visit Germany for a few weeks, and you won’t have to travel like this.’ I was always building these air castles when I was awake.

“I was disappointed in my experience of the voyage in a box. It was not so bad as I used to think it would be when I was planning it at home. I was really pretty comfortable except for the darkness and the noise of the rats. And I was always thinking of the good fortune waiting for me in America.

Johann Beck's Petition for Naturalization, dated June 4, 1907.
Johann Beck’s Petition for Naturalization, dated June 4, 1907. (Click on image to enlarge.)

[3 paragraphs missing]

“It must have been on the thirteenth day that I found that I had not one drop of water left. Immediately my thirst began to torture me. I did not dream of streams and fountains, but I was asleep nearly all the time—a sort of dreamy doing. I was tempted to crawl out of my box and knock at the deck right above me for help, but I said: ‘No. If you knock, they will catch you and send you back to Germany. You are almost in America now. Have courage for a little while.’

[Sentence missing.]

“I took up one of the seltzer bottles to take a drink—then found it was empty. Then I tried one bottle after the other—all empty. I had no coffee in the bottles, as they tell me the papers said I had.

“I knew I could call help any time by knocking on the deck right over my head and then calling out; but I made up my mind that I would not do it. I must wait a little longer until my box was delivered in New York.

“I was so thirsty that I could not eat. I had a quarter of a pound (113 grams) of chocolate left, but without water I could not swallow it. I think I was without water for four days, but I am not sure, for I was two days out of the way in my reckoning. I thought the voyage lasted fourteen days, but the people tell me I was sixteen days in the ship. I was dozing and confused at the last.

“I shall never forget the gleam of gray that came through the slits in the box when the stevedores opened the bulkhead and began to take out cargo from my part of the ship. I could not stand the thirst any longer.

“‘Water, water!’ I cried as I threw back the lid of the box and crawled toward the light. The longshoreman near me called out, but I was too weak to move farther or say anything. I lay there and moaned. When I again became conscious, Captain Reessing and two doctors were taking care of me. Then I was brought to this hospital.

“Sir, I have had nothing but kindness since I came to America. I ask the American people not to send me back to Germany. I am industrious and sober. I will work at anything to get a living. I am not an anarchist or a socialist. I am a German workingman, and all I ask is a chance to earn my living in this free country. I entreat the American people not to send me away.

“This is the whole true story of my trip.”

And that’s basically where the press dropped the story. This leaves us with a number of unanswered questions: Was Beck deported back to Germany? Was he fined for illegal entry into the United States? If he was allowed to stay in the US, did his beloved Johanna ever come over? Did the two ever marry?

Well, with a bit of sleuthing, I was able to piece together the remainder of the story.

First, Johann Beck was released from St. Mary’s Hospital on December 9, 1901, seven days after his arrival. He was then taken, as planned, to Ellis Island to legally apply for entry into the United States, which was granted.

Mr. Schaefer, the man Beck had mailed that letter to, offered him a job at his hotel as a painter for $30/month, which is approximately $1,082/month today. Later on, Beck would go out on his own as a painter.

Thanks to his earnings, the sale of his story, and the kindness of others, he managed to settle the substantial $70 bill (equivalent to $2,500 today) that the Hamburg-American line presented him with. Their charges encompassed not only the $15 fee for express shipment of the crate, but also an added $29.50 for a third-class passenger ticket, $2.50 for the ambulance transport to the hospital, a $10 penalty for immigration law violation, plus some other miscellaneous expenses. It’s worth noting that if Beck had simply purchased a steerage ticket before leaving Germany, he could have saved more than $40 (nearly $1,450 today).

As for his love Johanna Bruhns/Bruens, she arrived in the United States less than twelve months after Johann did. It’s safe to assume that she did not come over in a wooden crate. The two married shortly after that, and would stay together for the remainder of their lives, although they never had children.

Johann ‘John’ Beck died on February 28, 1928, at 56 years of age. Johanna Bruen Beck passed away three years later, on October 15, 1931. She was 50 years old. Both were cremated at the Fresh Pond Crematory in Queens, New York, which claims to be the oldest crematory in the United States, having been established in 1884.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Possible birth certificate for Johanna Bruhns (Bruens) Beck.
Possible birth certificate for Johanna Bruhns (Bruens) Beck.
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