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Drapetomania (1851), also called draptomania, is a sickness of the mind that makes you want to run away. It affects only black people. It was especially common in the American South in the early 1800s. It does not seem to affect whites.

Although planters and overseers noticed that blacks often got the urge to run away, the condition did not have a name till Dr Samuel Cartwright gave it one in 1851. He delivered a paper on the newly named disease before the Medical Association of Louisiana. It was later written up in “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”.

Dr Cartwright was an American doctor who taught at the University of Louisiana. He was a widely respected expert on yellow fever, cholera and diseases that affect blacks.

Here is what he knew about drapetomania:

  • Causes: Masters who are too cruel or too kind to their slaves. If a master did not see to his slaves’ physical needs or, at the other extreme, he went against God’s will and tried to make blacks anything more than “the submissive knee-bender”, as they were meant to be for all time, then blacks will come down with this disease.
  • How to prevent it: When a master attends to his slaves’ physical needs for food, warmth and safety, then “the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.” Making slaves bend the knee also went a long way to preventing an outbreak.
  • Signs of onset: Those coming down with the disease become “sulky and dissatisfied”.
  • Cure: Whipping the devil out of a patient is enough for most. For more extreme cases, cut off toes.

Cartwright’s work on drapetomania has since been widely discredited.

It is now widely believed that only blacks got the disease because only they were held as slaves. Their urge to run away was not a disease at all but a very healthy and human desire for freedom.

Some say drapetomania is a piece of scientific racism: plain old racism dressed up to look like science.

Cartwright would not have seen it that way. To him blacks being slaves was part of the natural order, the way God meant it to be. It said so in the Bible. So when a black slave wanted to run away, something was wrong. It was unnatural. And, being a doctor, he saw it as a disease.

We can laugh at Dr Cartwright but that kind of blindness to racism still goes on: you know, American society is fine the way it is, it is just those blacks who have something wrong with them.

The word comes from Greek: drapeto for runaway slave and mania for madness. The madness that runaway slaves suffer from.

In the film “CSA: Confederate States of America” (2004) it appears in an ad as “draptomania”, which is easier to say. Most people who know about drapetomania these days, know it from that film, so on the Internet you will often see it written that way.

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