March 17th, 1851

Scientist Discovers "Drapetomania"

In December 1849, the Louisiana State Medical Convention selected Southern physician and pro-slavery advocate Samuel Cartwright to chair a committee tasked with investigating and reporting on diseases unique to African Americans. In March 1851, at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Medical Association, Dr. Cartwright presented a report of the committee's findings entitled, "A Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race." In the report, Dr. Cartwright claimed blacks were very different physiologically from whites, possessing smaller brains, more sensitive skin, and overdeveloped nervous systems. These unique traits, he claimed, gave black people an especially high propensity for servitude.

Citing "scientific" evidence and scripture, Dr. Cartwright argued that "the Negro is a slave by nature and can never be happy . . . in any other condition." He invented the term Drapetomania, derived from the Greek words for "runaway slave" and "crazy," to describe a curable mental disease. When infected, he claimed, enslaved black people were struck with an urge to flee bondage and seek freedom. Dr. Cartwright explained the disease as a mental affliction triggered by masters who unwisely treat their slaves as equals and prescribed severe whipping and amputation of the toes as cures. Couched in pseudo-science and presented as medical assertions, Dr. Cartwright's report was an effort to justify and defend the institution of slavery as natural and optimal for both master and slave.


April 3rd, 1851

Thomas Sims, Escaped Slave, Captured in Boston

In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which sought to force Northern officials to apprehend alleged runaway slaves and ensure their return to slavery in the South. Any official who would “hinder or prevent” the arrest of a runaway slave or “harbor or conceal” a fugitive slave faced a fine of $1000 or six months imprisonment. Captured fugitives – as well as the many free blacks who were erroneously captured under the law as runaway slaves – had no right to a trial by jury and could not defend themselves in court.

In early 1851, Thomas Sims, a slave from Savannah, Georgia, successfully escaped and fled to Boston, Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished. Only a few weeks later, on April 3, 1851, Sims was arrested by a United States Marshal and members of the local police force and taken to the federal courthouse. Fearing riots or an escape attempt, authorities surrounded the courthouse with chains and a heavy police force.

The morning after his capture, attorneys for James Potter, the man who purported to own Sims, presented a complaint to the United States Commissioner. After a short proceeding in which several individuals testified that Sims was the slave who had escaped from Potter’s possession, the Commissioner issued an order remanding Sims back to Georgia. Sims sought review from both the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the United States District Court in Boston, but was unsuccessful. On April 12, Sims left Boston and was returned to Savannah, where he promptly received 39 lashes as punishment for seeking freedom. The marshals who escorted Sims to Georgia received praise and a public dinner for their service.

After the Emancipation Proclamation and in the midst of the Civil War, Thomas Sims again escaped from slavery in 1863, this time fleeing Vicksburg, Mississippi, to return to Boston.


June 23rd, 1855

Enslaved Black Woman Kills Her White Rapist; Later Hanged for Murder

In the summer of 1850, Robert Newsom, a sixty-year-old white man, purchased Celia, a fourteen-year-old black girl, from a man in a neighboring county. Before Newsom had even returned to his farm, he raped the enslaved girl, and he continued to do so frequently over the next five years. Newsom regularly came to Celia’s cabin and forced himself on her, and she gave birth to a child in 1855. At some point during the course of this abuse, Celia entered into a relationship with a man named George who was also enslaved by Newsom. When Celia became pregnant again in late winter of 1855, George insisted that she put an end to Newsom's sexual abuse.

Celia begged Newsom to stop “forcing her while she was sick” and even appealed to his daughters for help. The assaults continued. On June 23, 1855, Newsom told Celia he was “coming to her cabin” that night. When Newsom arrived and began to lower his face over hers, Celia struck him in the head with a stick. Eventually, Celia realized that Newsom had died from the blow. Not knowing what to do, she disposed of the evidence by cremating the body in her fireplace.

An investigation into Newsom’s disappearance led authorities to question Celia until she admitted to the act. Missouri law at the time allowed a woman who believed she was in “imminent danger of forced sexual intercourse” to be acquitted on a self-defense theory. However, the judge in Celia’s case did not give such an instruction to the jury because, in his view, she was a slave with no right to refuse her “master.”

The jury convicted Celia of first degree murder on October 10, 1855. On December 20, 1855, she was hanged.


March 6th, 1857

United States Supreme Court Rules Black Americans Are Not Citizens and Cannot Sue

Military physician Dr. John Emerson traveled and resided in several states and territories where slavery was illegal, always accompanied by Dred Scott, an enslaved black man. Dr. Emerson and Mr. Scott eventually returned home to Missouri, where slavery was legal. Dr. Emerson died in 1843, still owning Mr. Scott as a slave.

After Dr. Emerson's death, Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sought freedom in the Missouri state courts. The Scotts argued that their prior residence in free territories had voided their enslavement. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts and authorized Dr. Emerson's widow, Irene, to continue to own them. When Irene Emerson later gave her estate, including the Scotts, to her brother, John Sandford, Dred Scott brought suit in federal court.

On March 6, 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the United States Supreme Court dismissed Mr. Scott's claim on the grounds that he was property and lacked standing to sue in federal court. The Court's opinion concluded that black people could not be citizens under the United States Constitution because at the time of its signing they had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The Dred Scott decision further held that the Fifth Amendment did not allow the federal government to deprive a citizen of property, including slaves, without due process of law. This ruling invalidated the Missouri Compromise and re-opened the question of slavery's expansion into the territories. The resulting uncertainty greatly increased sectional tensions between northern and southern states and pushed the nation forward on the path toward civil war.