The 'Lunatic' Slave: An Examination of Mental Health and Medical Discourse in Nineteenth Century America

Kellianne King, Pennsylvania State University

This paper hopes to add to existing scholarship on medicine and American slavery by shifting perspective from physical ailments to discourses surrounding mental illness. Its first section explores contradictory medical understandings of black illness. Doctors drew on case studies and racial stereotypes to claim blacks were both immune to physical and psychological harm and that they were more likely to be “insane” or “idiots” than whites. Part of this reasoning stemmed from the nature of nineteenth-century medical thought, which interpreted disease as gender, race, and class specific. Hysteria, for example, was generally found in elite white women, while slaves supposedly suffered from mental afflictions like “drapetomania” which induced them to run away. Slave disease etiology was also gender and sex specific. For example, white owners and physicians often blamed slave women’s mental afflictions on their overemotional natures or uterine disturbances. The remainder of this paper looks at the ways free blacks and pro-slavery and anti-slavery activists resisted and manipulated dominant psychiatric discourse for their own ends. Anti-slavery activists mocked their pro-slavery opponents by comparing them to hysterical women and referring to their delicate nerves. Slavery defenders retaliated by invoking the 1840 census which suggested blacks, especially free blacks, had a greater susceptibility to mental illness than other populations. Free blacks, meanwhile, contested diagnoses such as “lunatic” and “idiot,” as well as “hysterical,” a particularly humiliating, feminizing label. Instead, they vied for more respected mental disorders such as neurasthenia, a disease caused by excessive intellectual work generally reserved for elite white men. By insisting that they, too, could suffer from these diseases, blacks used illness as an avenue to claim equality with whites.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 83. Intellectual Diversity and Mental Health