Drapetomania, who is crazy? 19th century North American psychopathology

Drapetomania, who is crazy? 19th century North American psychopathology

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During the 19th century the Psychopathology as a scientific discipline, having its most important center in Europe, especially in France and Germany. From this time they are the first diagnostic classifications based on the description of symptoms. For the psychiatrist and historian of science Lanterí Laurá this period meant the passage of the “Paradigm of Mental Alienation”, which considered that there was a single mental illness (the Alienation of Pinel) that presented four morbid entities (mania, melancholy, idiotism and dementia), and that Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) attributed vices and excesses of all kinds as the main cause; towards the “Paradigm of the Mental Illnesses ”with a large number of clinical pictures of organic and psychic origin (1).

But no psychopathological classification is isolated from the social context in which it was described. A specific pathology corresponds to each historical moment because it has to do with changes in the subjectivity of people. Therefore in this article we will analyze the Drapetomania, a supposed morbid entity suffered by black slaves from the southern United States, which was postulated in the mid-19th century, when in that society changes were taking place that would lead to the end of a predominantly agricultural economy that used slavish and slave labor, giving rise to a industrial capitalism.


  • 1 Origin of Drapetimanía
  • 2 The justification of Drapetomania according to the Holy Scriptures
  • 3 Cartwright and the "disease of the foremen"
  • 4 Rebellion towards inequality and repression

Origin of Drapetimanía

The discussion about the mental health of slaves was not new. In 1745 the Colonial Assembly of South Carolina had to deal with the case of Kate, a slave, accused of killing a child. After being admitted to the local jail, it was determined that Kate was “out of your senses”So he could not answer for his actions. Instead of going to jail, she had to be admitted to a mental institution. However, its owner was too poor to pay the hospitalization and the colony of South Carolina had not provided for the public maintenance of the slaves. Finally, the Colonial Assembly passed a law for which each Parish should be responsible for the internment of slaves "lunatics”Whose owners could not take care of them. There is no record of what happened to Kate nor was it investigated about the causes that led her to kill the child, with the fact simply explained by her mental state.

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and signer of the Declaration of Independence, which is considered the “Father of American Psychiatry”, Considered that the black population suffered from Blackness, a mild form of leprosy that was cured by "bleaching" blacks (2).

In 1851 the doctor Samuel Cartwright (1793-1863), in an article published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal Under the title “Diseases and peculiarities of the Negro Race”, he raised the existence of the Drapetomania. The name came from the Greek "drapetes" (slave, fugitive) and "mania" (madness, disease). It was defined as the craving for freedom ” or expression of the feeling of the slave to escape from his master.

Cartwright began his article by saying that:It is still unknown by our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptoms, the escape of the service, are well known by our planters and supervisors (…) When noticing a disease not classified so far among the long list of diseases to which man is subject , it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in most cases, which induces black to flee the service, is as much a mental illness as any other kind of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this problematic practice that many blacks have to flee, can be avoided almost completely, although slaves are at the borders of a free state, a stone's throw from the abolitionists” (3).

The Underground Railroad

It is calculated for this time there were about 3 million slaves in the United States and the population grew at a rate of 70 thousand people a year. The brutal operating conditions suffered, especially those who performed agricultural tasks in the cottons of the south, led to thousands will try each year to flee to the northern states, where slavery was illegal. At the beginning of the 19th century, the “Underground Railroad”, a clandestine network to help escape runaway slaves, began operating. It was made up of former slaves, white abolitionist activists and members of the Quaker Church, opposed to slavery. It was not really a railroad, but its name came from the fact that they used railway terms: the "drivers" or "machinists" were the ones who helped the slaves escape; the "stations" were the safe houses where fugitives could hide, feed, rest and get medical attention; the "passengers" were the escapees; the "lanes" the escape routes; the "Central Station" the headquarters and the "Destination" the northern States (4).

It is believed that the Underground Railroad released 100,000 people between 1810 and 1860. For some authors, this figure is very poor given the total population of slaves, but the landowners saw it as a threat to their right to property and something that urged rebellion, so they carried out actions aimed at ending it. For it the punishments to the slaves who tried to escape hardened or were suspicious of it: lashes, whipping and mutilations were the most common penalty. The Penitentiary System was also used, leaving runaway slaves detained for a few days in a prison where he tortured them wildly before returning them to their masters. However, most of the landowners chose to privately punish the fugitives to return immediately to work (5).

The justification of Drapetomania according to the Holy Scriptures

Given this context, we can explain the massive leaks due to the situation of exploitation and brutal repression suffered by the black population subjected to slavery. However Cartwright offered another explanation, based on the Holy Scriptures: “If the white man tries to oppose the will of the Deity, trying to make the black not "the submissive knee bender" (which the Almighty declared that it should be), trying to raise it to a level with itself, or putting itself in equality with the black; or if he abuses the power God has given him over his neighbor, being cruel to him, or punishing him with anger, or neglecting to protect him from the pointless abuses of his companions and everyone else, or for denying him the usual comforts and needs of life, the black will flee; but it does keep it in the position we learn from the Scriptures that it was destined to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his teacher or supervisor is kind and gentle in his audience towards him, without condescension, and at the same time he supplies his physical needs, and protects him from abuse, the black will be bewitched and cannot run away” (6).

In this fragment Cartwright opposes the cruel treatment of slaves, but at the same time maintains that the White Man has a racial and moral superiority which must be asserted at all times: “In my experience, the "genu flexit" - amazement and reverence - must be demanded of them, or they will despise their masters, they will become rude and ungovernable and will flee. In the line of Mason and Dixon -which separated the Free States and the slave States-, two kinds of people could lose their blacks: those who became too familiar with them, treating them as equals and making little or no distinction regarding color; and, on the other hand, those who treated them cruelly, denied them the common needs of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them with an overwhelming attitude, when they were about to punish them for minor crimes” (7).

The use of religious texts to explain an alleged mental illness is a point that It differs North American from European psychopathology, since the latter did not resort to supernatural explanations because it ruled out everything that could not be observed or measured.

As a remedy to this evil he proposed the “proper medical advice"To detect problem habits before they led to the"freedom mania”: “If it is treated kindly, well fed and dressed, with enough fuel to keep a small fire burning all night, separated by families, each family having their own home, not allowing them to run at night to visit their neighbors, receive visits or use heady liquors, and if they don't work too much or are exposed to the weather, they are more easily controllable than any other person in the world” (8).

For those slaves "reticent and dissatisfied without reason"Proposed"whip the demon out”: “When all this is done, if any of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to the same level as their master or supervisor, for humanity and their own good they require that they be punished until they fall into that submission”(9). Here it completely contradicts what he had previously argued about avoiding cruel and degrading treatment.

Cartwright and the "disease of the foremen"

In the same article Cartwright refers to another pathology that would affect free blacks, the aethiopica dysesthesia or "disease of the foremen." This supposed condition was characterized by a partial insensitivity of the skin and a hebetitud (mental lethargy) so great that the person seemed asleep. He pointed out that “it is much more frequent among free blacks who live in groups alone than among slaves in our plantations, and attacks only slaves who live as free blacks in terms of diet, drinks, exercise, etc.", And that those who suffer"They are prone to many mischief, which seems intentional, but it is mainly due to mental stupidity and numbness of the nerves induced by the disease. Therefore, they break, waste and destroy everything they drive, abuse horses and cattle, burn or tear their own clothes and, without paying attention to property rights, rob others to replace what they have destroyed.” (10).

For this "disease" proposed the same remedy as for drapetomania: surveillance and whipping.

Rebellion towards inequality and repression

What Cartwright saw as symptoms, today could be considered symbolic and everyday forms of resistance of the oppressed to an exploitation situation. Following James Scott, how much greater is the inequality of power between the dominant and the dominated, and how much more arbitrarily the power is exercised, the public discourse of the dominated will acquire a more stereotyped and ritualistic form before their masters. But as opposed to this Public Speech (public transcript) a Hidden Speech (hidden transcript) to define “out of stage” behavior, beyond the observation of power. For Scott resistance is an act of language, but also transcends it: the hidden speech It is not only composed of words but also of an extensive range of practices (11). So flight, slowness to work, destruction of property, pranks and jokes towards landowners or foremen, far from being indicators of mental illness, become acts of resistance against slavery.

Shortly after being published in a southern medium, Cartwright's article was widely ridiculed in the northern states. In 1855, a satire was published in theBuffalo Medical Journal. The following year Frederick Law Olmsted, in his work A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States with Remarks on their EconomyHe observed that white temporary and precarious workers also frequently escaped, so he postulated - as a joke - that Cartwright's supposed pathology had European origin and was introduced to Africa by white merchants (12).

The drapetomania it was never fully accepted by medical and psychiatric circles. In addition, in the following years there would be radical changes in American society. The defeat of the southern feudal-slave oligarchy in the Civil War or American Secession War (1860-1865) led to the unification of the country under the leadership of the capitalist and industrial north. On the other hand, the Slave Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the approval of the 13th Amendment to the National Constitution of 1865 meant the end of legal slavery.

Nevertheless, these changes did not end the attempts of “pathology of the African American population. In 1875 the first Asylum for Blacks was created in the State of North Carolina. In 1895 the doctor T. O. Powell, director of the Asylum for Lunatics of the State of Georgia explained that the increase in alcoholism and dementia in the black population was due to the abolition of slavery, since in the plantations they led organized and hygienic lives away from vices and excesses. Powell's diagnosis is a mixture of Pinel and Cartwright. Closer in time, in 1960 Vernon Mark, William Sweet and Frank Ervin suggested that urban disorders caused by young African Americans were not a form of protest against poverty and police repression but the result of a “brain dysfunction”For which they recommended the use of preventive psychosurgery - read: lobotomy- (13). In 2007 the Nobel Prize winner in medicine John Watson declared that “Is scientifically proven”That blacks are less intelligent than whites.

As we can see, the spirit of Samuel Cartwright remains alive until today and It is the ethical duty of health professionals to denounce these pseudoscientific ideas that seek to justify racism, xenophobia and exploitation.


(1) ValenciaLuciano Andrés; Brief history of people with disabilities: from oppression to the struggle for their rights, Mauritius, Spanish Academic Editorial, OmniScriptumn Publishing, 2018.

(2) Jackson, Vanessa; “A Early History: African-American Mental Health,” //

(3) CartwrightSamuel “Diseases and peculiarities of the Negro Race,” available at: //, originally published in 1851.

(4) About the Underground Railroad can be consulted at: Harriet Tubman Historical Society; “Whats was the Underground Railroad?”, // Also my article: ValenciaLuciano Andrés; "Harriet Tubman, the driver of freedom", Newsletter of the History Magazine, //, January 24, 2018.

(5) On the punishment of slaves: //

(6) (7) (8) (9) (10) CartwrightSamuel "Diseases and peculiarities ...", op. cit.

(11) Scott, James C; (2004) The dominated and the art of resistance: hidden speeches, Mexico, Era Editions.

(12) Wikipedia,, article "Drapetomania".

(13) Jackson, Vanessa; "A Early History ...", op. cit.

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