In May of 1851, a American physician from Louisiana Samuel Adolphus Cartwright observed black slaves that fled captivity, and saw it as a illness. “Drapetomania, or the disease causing Negros to flee” was the title to his paper explaining that blacks slaves didn’t want freedom, if they escape they were ill. Cartwright claimed the cause was that masters treated some slaves as something close to human beings, and slaves who considered themselves to be individuals of worth. He claimed that black slaves who fled captivity suffered from drapetomania. In his words:

“Drapetomania is from draptise. A runaway slave is mania mad or crazy. It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptoms be absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers. In noticing a disease that, therefore, is hitherto classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in most 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 as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves are located on the borders of a free state within a stone’s throw of abolitionists.”


In Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright claimed Instead of treating black slaves as people, he assumed that the place of a slave, was to remain a slave. He used the bible as evidence, taking sections talking about the faithfulness of a servant and his master to justify his assertions that slaves should be treated as little more than children. Children to be whipped. He even believed that lazy slaves weren’t upset, they too were ill.

“If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than “the submissive knee-bender” (which the Almighty declared he should be), by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.”

Cartwright claimed freedom was an illness. In addition to identifying drapetomania, he prescribed a remedy. His feeling was that with “proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negros have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.”

If a slave becomes “dissatisfies without reason,” then they may have drapetomania and may about to flee bondage. Cartwright recommended “whipping the devil out of them” until they became submissive again, the state to which they belonged. An alternative remedy was to make running away impossible by having the big toe from both feet severed. Curing the disease.

Cartwright described the disorder which, he said, was “unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers.” In a paper delivered before the Medical Association of Louisiana that was widely reprinted. He stated that the malady was a consequence of masters who “made themselves too familiar with slaves, treating them as equals.”


“treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night–separated into families, each family having its own house–not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed–more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.”

While Cartwright’s article was reprinted in the South, in the Northern United States it was widely mocked. Renowned landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, published a paper in A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, In 1856, pointing to evidence that white indentured servants had escaped from captivity, suggesting that drapetomania was a white European disease that traders had introduced to Africa by traders.

Cartwright was not the first to use science to push a racist agenda, and unfortunately he was not the last. In my next blog I would discuss “Scientific Racism” and the people behind it.




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