An “Epeleptick” Bondswoman: Fits, Slavery, and Power in the Antebellum South

Epilepsy, as nineteenth-century observers understood the disease construct, was a feared diagnosis associated with insanity and uncontrollability. Cases of epileptic fits in slaves—whether they were considered genuine or feigned— highlighted deep struggles among white masters, physicians, and slaves themselves over the control of African American bodies. Some slaves who experienced fits were subjected to prolonged experimental treatments at the hands of physicians and white masters. Although Southern medical sources largely ignored the connection between epilepsy and trauma in slaves, abolitionists and ex-slave narratives published in the North used epilepsy as a representation of the institution’s cruelty. Some white observers thought that slaves with epilepsy were prone to malingering; epileptic fits were also a tool of slave resistance and had a significant role in slave sale negotiations. I use the case study of a fifteen-year-old bondswoman in Virginia, diagnosed with epilepsy in 1843, to illustrate the significance of the disease in the lives of African American slaves.