The Freedom Disease

September 6, 2011

Underground Railroad Quilt

Image Credit: Barbara Brackman’s Material Culture,

Drapetomania 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 δραπετης (drapetes, “a runaway [slave]”) + μανια (mania, “madness, frenzy”).

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”.

“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.”

In Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race, Cartwright writes 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.

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”.

 The “Secret Quilt Code” of the Underground Railroad Quilts

“The monkey wrench turns the wagon wheel toward Canada on a bear’s paw trail to the crossroads. Once they got to the crossroads, they dug a log cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin bow ties and go to the cathedral church, get married, and exchange double wedding rings. Flying geese stay on the drunkard’s path and follow the stars.”

Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Undergrouind Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. (Anchor Books: New York, 1999) explores the idea that a “secret quilt code” was in place during the era of the Underground Railroad. The book is based on the early 1990s oral testimony of an elderly black quilt vendor from South Carolina, the late Ozella McDaniel Williams [read full article]


One comment

  1. Fascinating! I’ve heard that directions for use of the Underground Railway were coded into songs and spirituals as well, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

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