When a psychologist prescribed escape attempts of slaves in 1851 as mental illness curable by whipping

Michael Eli Dokosi February 03, 2020
A poster advertising a reward for a runaway slave via Wikimedia Commons

The labor of enslaved Africans used in the cotton and tobacco fields on southern plantations reaped in great sums for the white slave owners.

With calls for the abolition of the pernicious act mounting, southern slave owners alarmed about losing great sums and power and loss of personnel introduced pseudo-science to explain why slaves tried to escape.

Viewed as property without rights, many African-American slaves were anxious to flee and gain freedom. Given they were starved, beaten recklessly, raped at will, saw their children murdered on a whim in addition to a constant threat of death, it’s understandable for any human to want to flee such horrible fate but in the supposed land of the free, people justified owning slaves.

In the masters’ view, slaves had been put on this earth to serve; in return, they were provided with food, clothes, and homes. They couldn’t fathom why attempts were made to escape into freedom.

In 1851, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a Louisiana surgeon and psychologist, filed a report in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal on diseases prevalent among the South’s black population. Among the various maladies Dr. Cartwright described was ”drapetomania” or ”the disease causing slaves to run away.”

Drapetomania Inventor Samuel Cartwright
Samuel Cartwright, the doctor who coined the term “drapetomania” via Wikimedia Commons

The southern physician “believed he had found a rational explanation for this disturbing desire escape servitude. He dubbed this disease of the mind “drapetomania” (with Greek roots roughly translating to “runaway slave” and “crazy”) and reassured slaveowners that it was entirely curable by “whipping the devil” out of the slaves who suffered from it.

“Cartwright was convinced drapetomania was a psychological disorder because “the Creator’s will in regard to the negro [declares] him to be a submissive knee-bender;” in other words, black people were put on this earth to be slaves, and servitude was ingrained in their nature.

“Oddly, Cartwright blamed indulgent masters for the onset of this disorder, for if “the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will” by treating his slaves even close to equals, this will disrupt the natural order and cause the fragile slaves to develop this mental illness.”

”The cause, in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented,” Dr. Cartwright asserted.

It was not for nothing that in the northern United States immediately after the publication, Cartwright’s article was widely mocked and satirized. In the south though, Southerners believed the pseudoscience leading to reprints.

Whipping Drapetomania Cure
A slave who had been whipped, the recommended cure for drapetomania via Wikimedia Commons

An 1855 issue of the “Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review of Medical and Surgical Science” took particular pleasure in also mocking Cartwright’s theory.

However, as late as 1914, the third edition of Thomas Lathrop Stedman’s Practical Medical Dictionary included an entry for drapetomania, defined as “Vagabondage, dromomania; an uncontrollable or insane impulsion to wander.”

Alvin Poussaint, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School points out that ”The culture influences what you consider pathology. Cartwright saw slavery as normative. So when slaves deviated from the norm, he called them mentally ill. The business of deciding what’s normal and what’s psychopathology gets influenced by culture and politics. It’s not hard science.”

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: February 3, 2020


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