September 30, 2022

Herbal Insurgency: Wielding Knowledge to Heal and Harm Under Southern Enslavement

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Birthwort. Aristolochia clematitis (1809). A poisonous plant now believed to cause kidney failure

Through their knowledge of healing and harming, enslaved people were able to create small but vital spaces of healing and alternative power within the totalizing structures of Southern enslavement laws.

On September 6, 1732, Ambrose Madison, grandfather of future United States President James Madison, took his last breath at age 36. Five days before, three enslaved people, two being Madison’s own enslaved, were convicted of “feloniously Conspiring [his] Death”.

On the day Madison died, one enslaved person was hanged for murder, and the other two would receive twenty-nine lashes for participation in the conspiracy. At the time of his death, Madison was joint owner of a 10,000-acre patent called Brookesby; on his portion, he had built the plantation complex known as Mount Pleasant.

Featuring in the trial was the herbal and medicinal knowledge Madison’s enslaved people had developed in the course of working at Mount Pleasant – spending much of their lives in field and forest, they would have come to an intimate familiarity with local flora and fauna. White landowners feared such herbal expertise due to its alleged connections to both poisons and medicines.

While details of the Madison case are scanty in the historical record, the story suggests that by the early 18th century, enslaved people were heavily associated with anxieties around illicit herbal capability due to their knowledge of the land.

While the truth of Madison’s poisoning is still debated, the case spurred fears of the threat enslaved people supposedly posed to their masters, leading to increased regulation.

For example, on August 19, 1746, Eve, an enslaved woman, was executed following her conviction of murdering her owner, Peter Montague, by poisoning his milk. In another sensational case, in September 1748, Letty, an enslaved woman, pled guilty to the poisoning of Simon, an enslaved man.

To many White planters, politicians, and judicial officers, it seemed that enslaved people’s knowledge of the land had led to opportunities for them to commit violence against owners and each other. During the same year, Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law mandating the death penalty for any enslaved people found guilty of poisoning their masters.

This legislation was built, in part, upon Virginia’s “An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves” (1705) which stated that an enslaved person was property, and therefore owners had the right to punish them in any way they deemed fit – even in cases where the enslaved person died as a result of this punishment, the owners would face no legal consequences.

These laws made the punishments for revolt or active resistance as strict as possible to discourage any attempts from those enslaved to utilize herbal knowledge against their owners.

From the time enslaved people were forcibly introduced into the Western hemisphere, the processes of cultural exchange, borrowing, and syncretism had played a role in the development of new folkloric and religious paradigms among them. Over time, some of these became sites of resistance to the power White owners and planters held.

One such spiritual system, Hoodoo, incorporated botanical knowledge in its rituals and practices, spreading among enslaved populations knowledge of medicinal and non-medicinal plant uses.

This knowledge, coupled with White ignorance and fear of the spiritual dimensions of Hoodoo, came to constitute a site of subaltern resistance among enslaved people.

For example, enslaved people were found to be using herbs that are known today to have legitimate medicinal purposes, such as garlic, sage, calamus root, and jimsonweed.

Enslaved people were able to develop alternative sources of spiritual and medicinal assistance, thereby distancing themselves from White practitioners as well as the need to rely on their owners for health and healing.

The development of this subaltern culture often provided for subtle changes in the hierarchy of the plantations. While the plantation owner remained the unquestioned ruler of all he surveyed, with his power flowing downward through his White agents and bosses and upward through enslavement-supporting political and religious structures, in some circumstances enslaved people were able to exercise power over owners.

Mentioned in this article:

Bodies of Knowledge: The Influence of Slaves on the Antebellum Medical Community

by Sarah Mitchell, 1997-05-02

Thanks to enslaved people’s intimate knowledge of the land, owners looked to them for healing guidance when all was lost.

For example, one such owner, William Guttridge, upon finding an enslaved person sick, asked the family physician to heal them, but when the physician failed Guttridge travelled to find a Black doctor.

This doctor, a Hoodoo conjurer, consulted his cards and saw that the person ill had been poisoned by a jealous enslaved female. The doctor supplied Guttridge with a bottle of medicine that proved effective in healing the poisoned man.

On another plantation, Virginia planter John Walker learned that Jack, an enslaved person, was sick and losing his eyesight. Jack himself suspected poisoning. When the healing tactics of a local White doctor failed, Walker sent Jack to Doctor Lewis, a Black enslaved healer.

Doctor Lewis cured Jack in six weeks, restoring his eyesight sufficiently to allow him to return to work. In recompense for Doctor Lewis’s services, Walker gave the man ten dollars. The Black practitioner had not only been paid a fair wage for his services, but he had also, in a sense, bested the White healer in a head-to-head instance of professional practice.

Enslaved people’s knowledge of local plants, associated salves, and poisons often derived from a combination of rural African traditions and the inhuman harshness of their bondage. Forced to work the land, they also learned it. Forced to live and die wrestling crops from the soil, they also discovered herbs that could prolong life or hasten death.

Enslaved people in the Southern American colonies (and subsequent Southern states) hence subtly resisted the hegemony of enslavement through their knowledge of local herbs and folk medicines by using their herbal knowledge for healing and juxtaposing these with case studies wherein enslaved people used their knowledge of the land to harm.

Through their knowledge of healing and harming, enslaved people were able to create small but vital spaces of healing and alternative power within the totalizing structures of Southern enslavement laws.


As enslaved people participated in the formation of a subaltern culture that could provide themselves some leverage, however small, over their captors, certain practitioners went further by using healing to suggest the possession of mystical abilities. This led to calls to bring in Black enslaved conjurors to try their art in instances where White practitioners were unable to save a patient.

In the case of Guttridge, noted above, the Black healer was able to supply medicine to cure the poisoned man. Such cases reinforced folklore, increasing prevalence among both Whites and Blacks, to the power enslaved doctors had to heal those whom White practitioners could not. Black enslaved doctors, therefore, made themselves indispensable as a means of keeping enslaved people healthy, thereby protecting the plantation economy.

Mentioned in this article:

Medicine and Slavery

The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia

by Todd L. Savitt

There is irony in this: enslaved practitioners gained limited autonomy and prosperity, and in some cases, freedom, through treating enslaved owners’ human property. This fraught arrangement is further exemplified in the case of Robert Carter, a planter who

willingly sent at least one of his slaves to David [a Black enslaved doctor], owned by William Berry of King George County, for treatment. Guy, who had been languishing for the previous eighteen months under Carter’s care, now, in July 1786, was “very desirous of becoming a Patient”.

Carter’s willingness to send an enslaved person to another plantation to place him in David’s care demonstrates the power that a reputation could wield. Some planters bypassed White practitioners entirely in favor of Black healers known to deliver results.


Collard leaves. Image from page 10 of "Annual catalogue : 1915 machinery fertilizers seeds etc" (1915)

The limited but real authority deriving from herbal and medicinal knowledge was also evident among enslaved females and their roles in childbirth and childcare.

For example, enslaved women sometimes provided the plantation owners’ families with medicinal remedies. An enslaved woman who served the owner’s wife and children might give them a worm medicine known as “mackaroot tea”.

One such account tells of a South Carolina mistress who would provide the children a spoonful of “worm cure” every morning. Enslaved women would also place collard leaves on the tops of their heads to suppress headaches.

This intimacy proved to be a double-edged sword for White owners. While enslaved women often used their knowledge to heal and support White families, interactions of this kind could also stoke fears around access: if a woman could heal an owner’s wife or children, could she not also harm them? Underlying these fears must have been the certain knowledge that she would have had ample cause.

One case study highlighting the subaltern power that could be created by those enslaved using herbs for healing comes from colonial Virginia. On plantations, venereal diseases could spread rapidly as the diseases had few known treatments or cures.

In 1729, Virginia authorities freed Papan, an enslaved man, in return for his venereal disease remedy built on roots and barks from local flora. The Virginia House of Burgesses was willing to take this extraordinary step since access to Papan’s closely held cure had the potential to save thousands of lives, both of those enslaved and landowners suffering from the “yaws” or other venereal diseases.

A second example comes from colonial South Carolina. In exchange for his poison cures useful against snakebite, Caesar, an enslaved man, was manumitted by the South Carolina Assembly in 1749.

A final case study exemplifying how enslaved people found power through healing comes from South Carolina, six years later. A Black healer called Sampson, known for his fearless handling of rattlesnakes, was given manumission and a fifty-pound annuity in exchange for his rattlesnake bite cure.

In all three cases, enslaved people with herbal expertise were able to leverage this knowledge for notoriety, prosperity, and ultimately freedom.


While on the one hand, herbal knowledge could lead to forms of (limited) subaltern power, on the other, specialized knowledge of flora also offered access to sources of harm. As has been noted, this obverse power among enslaved people was the source of significant anxiety among plantation owners and other Southern Whites.

Many plantation owners passed anti-literacy laws between 1740 and 1834, disallowing the spread of knowledge between plantations. The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included such a law that “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars”.

Owners feared that the ability to read would allow enslaved people to spread dangerous knowledge among themselves and even organize more robust forms of resistance, such as the ability to forge documents to gain freedom.

Learn more:

Age of Revolutions



By Signe Peterson Fourmy

One such site of ‘illicit’ knowledge included the ability of enslaved women to employ abortifacients to fight against the plantation owners by preventing childbirth.

Their use of cotton root, tansy, rue, pennyroyal, and cedar berries allowed them to suppress or terminate a pregnancy and therefore decrease the supply of “property” for the landowner.

This knowledge (and its associated moral panic) was originally published in an article by a White medical journal in 1860.

Today, such an essay is rightfully unavailable, but these publications promoted awareness among Whites of how enslaved women might be harming slave owners indirectly, with this “awareness” then leading to greater regulation over the use of abortifacients.

The murder of Ambrose Madison illustrates how enslaved people might have used herbal knowledge to act even more directly against their oppressors. As stated previously, Madison was supposedly murdered by three enslaved people through the use of poison.

Researchers have found that many of the enslaved people in the area – probably including the two men enslaved by Madison – were typically of Igbo descent. Douglas Chambers has argued that this cultural heritage may have played a role in the Madison affair because Igbo culture is built on “rules rather than rulers”. The perceived breaking of a rule or oath would be responded to with retaliation, irrespective of the plantation hierarchy.

Whatever the heritage of the poisoners – if, indeed, Madison was poisoned – the importance of the Madison case is that due to its sensationalism, it led to a new spate of poisoning laws. It suggested that while enslaved people might be in chains, they had the power to harm and retaliate for the horrors inflicted upon them. The convicted men were said to have been aided by an enslaved medical practitioner, exacerbating White fears about the threat posed to the plantation system by such herbal expertise.

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  • Image from page 108 of "American forestry" (1910-1923)

  • From the American colonial period through to the end of the Civil War, enslaved people across the American South employed many means of resisting their oppressors.

    Resistance to enslavement came through open rebellion, including the uprisings of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, as well as through individual or collective journeys to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Apart from, or in addition to, such dramatic instances of rebellion or escape, enslaved people also opposed subjugation on a smaller, more quotidian scale.

    Through mastery of the land their masters forced them to work, enslaved people found subtle ways to accrue power over those around them through their ability to heal or harm. In so doing, enslaved people found ways to become invaluable or feared, with both reputations offering the promise of greater security within a system of utter oppression.

    In rare instances, some even used the influence they gained through herbal and medicinal knowledge to secure freedom.

    Written by:


    William Derek Pacini


    Collina d'Oro, Switzerland

    Born in 2004 in Littleton, Colorado, Wil is a high school student in Switzerland interested in physics, chemistry, economics, and history, with a particular interest in recovering the stories of historically marginalized people.

    He also enjoys researching up-and-coming start-ups and plans to study engineering and finance at university.


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