- Lunacy and LiberationBlack Crime, Disability, and the Production and Eradication of the Early National Enemy
Insanity is the saddest and most terrible of all diseases,—the most pitiable and helpless of all the states and forms of human helplessness. And yet it is a condition to which all men are liable, and into which any man may at any time fall with or without premonition.
In its relation to crime it presents one of the darkest and most mysterious problems of medical and criminal jurisprudence.—George L. Harrison, Legislation on Insanity: A Collection of All the Lunacy Laws of the States and Territories of the United States to the Year 1883, Inclusive, Philadelphia, 1884
In 1795, a Massachusetts slave named Pomp confessed to having murdered his owner, Captain Charles Furbush, with an axe while the man lay sleeping in his bed. Pomp’s firsthand account of the murder was published in a broadside, the Dying Confession of Pomp, A Negro Man, Who Was Executed at Ipswich, on the 6th August, 1795, for Murdering Capt. Charles Furbush, of Andover, Taken from the Mouth of the Prisoner, and Penned by Jonathan Plummer (see fig. 1). As well as confessing to the killing, Pomp’s dying words testify to Furbush’s disreputable and abusive character and his ineptness as a farmer, contra Pomp’s expertise, and recount the floggings Pomp received at his owner’s hand after attempts to run away. The most striking aspect of the confession, however, is Pomp’s description of the “fits,” “lunacy,” and “voices” that afflicted him in the time leading up to the murder.
In Pomp’s example, readers get a portrayal not only of black criminality but of black disability as well. Pomp’s narrative and confession highlight Furbush’s drastic attempts to dehumanize Pomp and demonstrate the early [End Page 109]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
national American registering of the black outlaw as enemy—an even deeper threat than the criminal—his disability underscoring fears of social degeneration. According to William Nelson in Americanization of the Common Law, “criminal law served the function of enforcing puritanical religious and moral standards that continued to linger in the province as a whole and of reintegrating those who had violated the standards into the existing community structure” (40). Enforcing religious and moral standards and bringing violators back into the fold, crime narrative publications [End Page 110] and public executions had an instructional function. Beyond didacticism, however, the period saw the increased racialization of sin and the association of black people, in particular, with such religious and moral transgressions. Richard Slotkin argues (as Donna Hunter paraphrases), “blackness was used as a metaphor to describe class and generational disobedience (sin)” (qtd. in Hunter, Dead Men 82). Blacks came to symbolize sin and its consequence for white audiences and readers, as crime narratives implicitly or otherwise warned slave masters against treating slaves too leniently. After 1750, in the swirl of rumors about slave uprisings, increased fears leading up to the Haitian revolution, and the general context of a seeming obsession with the threat of black violence, crime narratives began to depict black people as degenerate.
This essay’s reading of Pomp’s Dying Confession (1) interprets his fits and voices as suggesting at once disability and liberatory prophecy, (2) situates the confession in the context of early national anxieties about the loss of personal and national control and reason, and (3) supplements the reading with research into Pomp and his amanuensis Jonathan Plummer—the significance of which is rendered clear and visible against the horizon of the era’s print culture more broadly. Taken together, these aspects of the confession and context within...