"Drapetomania was a supposed mental illness described by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright in 1851 that caused black slaves to flee captivity."

Was the word rascalism ever used at the time of slavery to refer to slaves who escaped slavery, to refer to this supposed mental illness? Or is this a modern invention, a fiction?

I've heard an etymology for "rascal" that involves the word "rascalism", where rascalism is another word for drapetomania.

I know that the etymology for rascal is incorrect. There are many online sources for that.

  • OED says rascal is from Anglo-Norman rascaile, rascail, raskaile, raskell, raschail, Anglo-Norman and Middle French rascaille, raskaille, Middle French rescaille, rasqualle rabble, common people collectively. I've never heard of Cartwright's nonce-word, and OED doesn't list it. Why do you think it's connected to "rascal"? Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 15:07
  • I assume you've read this article covering Thomas Buchanan's Black life on the Mississippi: slaves, free Blacks ... Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 15:14
  • @FumbleFingers - someone said that Rascal comes from rascalism, and rascalism was the common word for drapetomania. I knew rascal had a different etymology. So I thought that all of this is untrue, but now I'm just checking whether the word rascal was ever used in contemporaneous accounts to mean drapetomania.
    – DanBeale
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 15:19
  • 1
    @Dan: I don't think drapetomania ever existed as a recognised "condition" or "word" except in the febrile imagination of Cartwright himself. Obviously slaves who ran away might be described as rascals (and worse) by the dispossessed owners, in the sense of rogues, scoundrels. But according to OED, rascalism was only specifically used in respect of rascal = a member of a criminal gang; a thief, a hooligan in Papua New Guinea since the 1970s. No connection to Cartwright's time. Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 15:31
  • My question uses "rascalism" which is rare and doesn't return many hits from search engines. But using the word "rascality" seems to return many hits that appear to be contemporaneous. But, as @FumbleFingers says, it seems the term is limited strictly to Cartwright's papers and to "slave owners".
    – DanBeale
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


There is a connection between the words, different to that you suggest, which can be found in Cartwright's writings though they are pretty stomach-turning, even for their time.

Cartwright's vile nonsense invented not just drapetomania, also dysaesthesia aethiopica which was likewise supposedly a disease only found among people of African descent, but which made them "lazy" and prone to "mischief".

Since he also claimed that physical lesions were found on those afflicted, it would seem that he had found a way by which both those who were suffering from any one of the great many illnesses that can deplete ones energy, along with just about any behaviour or lack of behaviour that overseers disapproved of, and lump the whole thing under dysaesthesia aethiopica.

Suffering from influenza symptoms? Must be dysaesthesia aethiopica. Not meeting some arbitrary quota of work? Must be dysaesthesia aethiopica. Objecting to anything a white person says? Must be dysaesthesia aethiopica.

In all, there wasn't really anything he wouldn't claim was caused by either dysaesthesia aethiopica or drapetomania, if it suited him. It also allowed claims that wounds from beatings where in fact the "lesions" from the dysaesthesia.

Since he claimed that free men suffered from it more than slaves, he could therefore claim slavery as something which was good for the slaves.

It was Cartwright himself who said that this, not "drapetomania", that was also called "rascalism".

In doing so, he was deliberately tying his self-serving racist ramblings to an existing word with negative connotations, so he attempted re-purpose rascalism and rascal, rather than either of them originating from his "theories".

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