Drapetomania [drah-pay-too-mey-nee-uh] was a supposed mental illness described by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851 that caused black slaves to flee captivity. Today, drapetomania is considered an example of pseudoscience and part of the edifice of scientific racism. The term derives from the Greek ‘drapetes’ (‘runaway [slave]’) and ‘mania’ (‘madness, frenzy’). In ‘Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,’ Cartwright points out that the Bible calls for a slave to be submissive to his master, and by doing so, the slave will have no desire to run away.

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.’

In addition to identifying drapetomania, Cartwright prescribed a remedy. His feeling was that with ‘proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.’ In the case of slaves ‘sulky and dissatisfied without cause’ – a warning sign of imminent flight – Cartwright prescribed ‘whipping the devil out of them’ as a ‘preventative measure.’ As a remedy for this ‘disease,’ doctors also made running a physical impossibility by prescribing the removal of both big toes.

While Cartwright’s article was reprinted in the South, in the Northern US it was widely mocked. A satirical analysis of the article appeared in a ‘Buffalo Medical Journal’ editorial in 1855. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, in ‘A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States’ (1856), observed that white indentured servants had often been known to flee as well, so he satirically hypothesized that the supposed disease was actually of white European origin, and had been introduced to Africa by traders.

One Comment to “Drapetomania”

  1. Wow. You introduced me to something I never heard of before, though I was aware of practices like interpreting the Bible to support the institution. I’m grateful for the knowledge.

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