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“[No] Doctor but My Master”- Health Reform and Antislavery Rhetoric in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Sarah L. Berry

J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
DOI 10.1007/s10912-013-9265-1
“[No] Doctor but My Master”: Health Reform
and Antislavery Rhetoric in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl
Sarah L. Berry
Published online: 5 December 2013
# Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013
Abstract This essay examines Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in
light of new archival findings on the medical practices of Dr. James Norcom (Dr. Flint in the
narrative). While critics have sharply defined the feminist politics of Jacobs’s sexual victimization and resistance, they have overlooked her medical experience in slavery and her
participation in reform after escape. I argue that Jacobs uses the rhetoric of a woman-led
health reform movement underway during the 1850s to persuade her readers to end slavery.
This essay reconstructs both contexts, revealing that Jacobs links enslaved women’s physical
and sexual vulnerability with her female readers’ fears of male doctors’ threats to modesty and
of their standard bleed-and-purge treatments. Jacobs illustrates that slavery damages women’s
health as much as heroic medicine, and thus merits the political activism of her readers.
Specifically, Jacobs dramatizes her conflicts with the rapacious physician-master at moments
that are crucial to women’s health: marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.
Ultimately, this essay advances a new understanding of the role of health reform in social
change: it galvanized other movements such as women’s rights and abolition, particularly
around issues of bodily autonomy for women and African Americans.
Keywords Harriet Jacobs . Slave narrative . Heroic medicine . Women’s health reform .
From 1853 to 1858, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) used rare free moments at night in her
employer’s house to write a “true and just account of [her] own life in Slavery.” She explained
in a letter to her abolitionist friend Amy Post, to whom she had privately told her story of
sexual persecution, illness, and escape, that “Woman can whisper—her cruel wrongs into the
ear of a very dear friend—much easier than she can record them for the world to read.” Despite
her reluctance to publicize her story, Jacobs eventually published her autobiography, Incidents
S. L. Berry (*)
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Hobart and William Smith Colleges,
300 Pulteney Street, Geneva, NY 14456, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
in the Life of a Slave Girl, in 1861 “for the Antislavery Cause.” In her letter to Post, she
articulates her purpose in writing about her experiences:
I have another object in view—it is to come to you just as I am[,] a poor Slave Mother—
not to tell you what I have heard but what I have seen—and what I have suffered—and if
there is any sympathy to give—let it be given to the thousands—of Slave Mothers that
are still in bondage—suffering far more than I have—let it plead for their helpless
Children that they may enjoy the same liberties that my Children now enjoy (Jacobs
1987, 242).
As a feminist anti-slavery narrative, Incidents is remarkable on several counts. It is the only
antebellum full-length narrative written, not dictated, by a formerly enslaved woman. Unlike
the thousands of male ex-slave narrators, Jacobs reveals the endemic sexual exploitation and
abuse of enslaved girls and women and documents the suffering of enslaved mothers.1 The
important body of criticism since the recovery of Incidents in the 1980s has demonstrated the
political acuity of Jacobs’s feminist approach as an African American woman who, on one
hand, publicized to a polite audience the sexual vulnerability of female slaves while, on the
other, defended her own strategic sexual relationship with a neighboring white man to avoid
rape by her “master.” What critics have overlooked, however, is that her negotiation of
authority as a female witness of slavery was complicated—and ultimately bolstered—by the
fact that this “master,” James Norcom, was a physician, a member of a profession and social
class that exerted total control over enslaved women’s bodies.
When she wrote her autobiography, Harriet Jacobs, a mother of two, was very wellpositioned to critique the medical profession and its effects on enslaved women and children.
Jacobs grew up in Edenton, North Carolina, a town full of doctors who also owned slaves.
Until her escape in 1842, she had both lived with and resisted the medical profession’s social
power over enslaved people. While writing her autobiography as a fugitive, she used the
pseudonym “Linda Brent” and disguised all peoples’ names. The Dr. Flint of Incidents was Dr.
James Norcom (1778–1850).2 His privileged status as a physician and town patriarch had
allowed him to manage the affairs of a local widow’s family for decades and thus to claim their
slaves—Harriet Jacobs and her brother, John S. Jacobs—as payment for medical services
when the widow’s daughter, his patient, died in 1825.
While the social structure of Edenton simultaneously invested men such as James Norcom
with professional and slave-owning status at the other end of the hierarchy were the people
who were enslaved to and doctored by these men. Jacobs’s father, Elijah, was born enslaved in
Dr. Andrew Knox’s household. The slaveholding father of Jacobs’s own children, Samuel T.
Sawyer, was the son of Dr. Matthias Sawyer, who was Norcom’s business partner at least until
1817 (Knott 1994). Sawyer later purchased Jacobs’s brother from Norcom who had trained
him to bleed patients and make medicines; John S. Jacobs then doctored other people enslaved
to Sawyer. In Jacobs’s nuclear family alone, then, only her mother was not enslaved to a
physician. But everyone in Jacobs’s extended family was subject to physicians’ legal and
social control over their lives. In her characterization of Dr. Flint, medical, legal, and social
violence become virtually inseparable.
After Jacobs liberated herself from bondage, her immersion in reform-rich western New
York provided her with a critical lens for her portrait of Norcom as Dr. Flint. By the time she
began to participate in abolition work through Post’s circle in 1849–1850, health reformers
already had generated a widespread public distrust of professional or “heroic” medicine, so
named for its standard bleeding and purging regimen. Many deemed heroic treatments both
dangerous and ineffective, turning instead to alternative therapies such as the water cure,
spiritualism, and homeopathy. Reformers also advocated healthy living according to the “laws
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
of life,” or physiological principles, in order to avoid illness and doctors. In writing her
politicized autobiography, Jacobs joined men and women who simultaneously supported
health reform, abolition, and women’s rights. These densely overlapping movements shared
an insistence on bodily autonomy3 and, combined, they influenced both the structure and the
specific feminist cast of Jacobs’s narrative. For Jacobs weaves into her feminist and abolitionist
narrative a layer of politicized health discourse that has not been examined.4 By locating Dr.
Flint’s sexual and physical abuse in his role as a physician and by aligning her illnesses and
injuries with the compounded threats of medicine and slavery, Jacobs galvanizes her critique of
slavery with a fully developed narrative of feminist health reform. This essay draws on archival
resources from Jacobs’s Edenton, North Carolina, years as well as those of feminist health
reform in Rochester, New York, at mid-century. The complex picture of enslaved women’s
health that develops in these contexts not only foregrounds their subjection to masters and their
medicine but also affirms their agency—their voice, political activism, and community action
—within the physical and verbal constraints of slavery. Ultimately, reading Incidents in the
contexts of Jacobs’s Edenton and her reform community of Rochester reveals the central role
of health reform in other antebellum social movements, particularly women’s rights and
abolition, around issues of bodily autonomy for women and African Americans.
The gendered conflict over healthcare is a crucial but underexamined part of the histories of
both slavery5 and antebellum social reform. This essay establishes the specific health reform
context in which Jacobs developed as a feminist and abolitionist. Next I reconstruct the
medical patriarchy of Edenton that controlled Jacobs’s family, which she and her brother
simultaneously resisted along with the conditions of their bondage. These contexts then
provide illumination for a close reading of Jacobs’s use of anti-medical rhetoric in Incidents,
particularly in her portrayal of Dr. Flint in his inseparable roles as physician and slave master.
Jacobs explicitly casts her narrative as a vehicle for educating readers and for spurring the
emancipation of “millions of women at the south, still in bondage” (1987, 1). The wider
American landscape of the relationship between traditional medicine and health reform
supplies a necessary and currently unexplored context for understanding women’s participation in social reform. In addition to abolition and women’s rights—major reform movements in
which women played vital, public roles—health reform, underway since the 1830s, became
specifically woman-centered in the 1840s and 1850s in the Northeast. In Boston, New York,
and Rochester, where Jacobs lived after her escape from slavery in 1842, the growing
momentum of woman-voiced health activism overlapped with women’s participation in other
social movements.
Amy Post, who introduced Jacobs to a community of men and women working together as
activists, led national reform movements, including women’s rights (she attended the Seneca
Falls Women’s Rights Convention in July 1848 and helped to organize a follow-up convention
held a month later in Rochester). Post frequently traveled from her Rochester home, working
for the causes of temperance, working women’s unionization, the Magdalen (unwed mothers)
movement, and all-female as well as mixed-sex antislavery societies. She also became
involved in Spiritualism, which was a response to orthodox religion that afforded women
organizing roles as well as healing alternatives to medical diagnosis and treatment (Numbers
and Schoepflin 1999). All of these movements, in which women like Post seized leadership
roles, promoted women’s rights to bodily autonomy as well as to equality in the body politic.
Post advocated “radical” equality, or the same rights and social privileges for all people
regardless of sex or race (Hewitt 1984, 41, 130).
Jacobs lived with the Post family from 1849 to 1850. Her early involvement in abolition
included running the Anti-Slavery Reading Room and participating in the Ladies’ AntiSlavery Society Sewing Circle, which made fund-raising items and gathered to “sew, knit,
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
read, and talk for the cause” (Yellin 2004, 102). While entering the public abolitionist arena,
Jacobs also privately related her history to Post, not without feeling shame. An abolitionist
preacher in Philadelphia, on her way north, had admonished her to keep silent about the sexual
violence she had survived. Post and her circle, however, advocated directness and boldness in
their public work to secure women’s rights and the abolition of slavery—the more outspoken a
woman lecturer, the better.6 What is more, this circle that Jacobs joined through the Posts
included some of the most influential reformers of the period: Frederick Douglass, Amelia
Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lydia Mott, the M’Clintock family, Susan B.
Anthony, William Wells Brown, William C. Nell, George Lowther, William Still, Sojourner
Truth, Sarah Parker Remond (one of the first African American women physicians), and
Antoinette Brown Blackwell (the first ordained woman minister). These movement leaders
were all abolitionists and women’s movement supporters. Jacobs’s involvement in abolition
through Post, then, was from the outset couched in an outspoken women’s community that had
developed persuasive rhetorical skills. This was both a self-empowered community and one
that continually argued for the empowerment and independence of all people. Jacobs’s
rhetorical sophistication and the urgency of her call for the rights of enslaved women to health
and autonomy echo the tenets of Post’s circle.
Independence for these reformers extended beyond civil liberties to personal health and
freedom from the excruciating, dangerous treatments of heroic doctors, whom this group
usually called “regular” or “allopathic” physicians. The members of Post’s extended family
and close friends frequently discussed their ailments, reported details of childbirth, and
exchanged information on their children’s health. In the 1840s and 1850s, they voiced strong
ambivalence toward doctors. Sometimes a regular physician seemed to be helping a loved one
get better,7 but more often, the women expressed contempt for professional medicine: “I am
more and more out of conceit w/allopathy,” writes Mary Robbins Post, Amy’s sister-in-law.
What is more, Mary showed technical proficiency in her informed opinion, enumerating
“calomel [mercury], bleeding and anodynes” as the sources of danger and inefficacy. She also
commented that she had “not the slightest expectation” that the doctor would “cure or benefit”
her daughter who was injured in an accident.8 The Post circle avidly sought other options for
maintaining health and curing disease. Daily bathing to preserve health was touted in detail
by William C. Nell, who contrived a rain barrel for the purpose.9 His lifelong poor health
made him a frequent commentator on methods of preserving health and surviving illness.
Another of Amy Post’s sisters-in-law underwent a water cure, used wet compresses to treat
a cold, and read the hydropathy literature.10 Others reported success with botanical
treatments,11 declared confidence in a Thomsonian nurse and physician to aid a young
mother whose labor lasted 70 h,12 and, like most households, kept home remedy recipes
for ailments such as rheumatism, piles, and catarrh.13 Temperance, already underway, and
dress reform, zealously promoted by Stanton, were regular practices among Post’s circle as
well as areas of society-wide reform.14
The year 1849 was eventful not only for Jacobs’s introduction to the vital reform community in Rochester but also for women’s visibility in medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell gained
national attention as the first female graduate of medical school. From her entrance on the
national stage, she educated women about physiology and disease: for her first publication,
instead of writing a technical monograph for other doctors, she printed her health education
lectures to women. By the 1850s, health reform and women’s rights were intertwined projects
for American feminists. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both
friends and colleagues of Amy Post, were vocal supporters of female physicians. Women also
began to achieve status among reformers as crucial to the health of the nation in their roles as
child bearers, food preparers, and family nurses (Cayleff 1992; Rogers 1992).
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
A primary concern of woman-led health reform was not only the harsh treatments but also
the sexual threat of male doctors’ interaction with female patients. The problem was of
ideological but more importantly practical concern among Jacobs’s reformist contemporaries.
Blackwell reported that her motivation to pursue medical education was at the plea of a female
friend who died after suffering “the moral degradation . . . from the practice of being treated by
men in female complaints” (2005, 240). Blackwell maintained politely circumspect language
in explaining that the woman’s “delicate” (gynecological) ailment “made the methods of
treatment a constant suffering to her” (74). To explain, the standard treatment would have
required visual or tactile examination and the application of leeches or lancet and topical
medication (most likely irritants) directly to her genitals or reproductive tract. Free and
enslaved women alike were vulnerable to “moral degradation” or psychological shock15
caused by such treatments at the hands of men; the consequences were aggravation of somatic
disorder and even death. In her narrative, Jacobs consistently linked Linda’s vulnerability to
Flint as both his “slave girl” and his patient. In doing so, she established a connection with her
readers through their shared resistance to the heroic doctor’s torturous treatments and suspect
sexual status.
Jacobs, Post, and other women became such vocal critics of medicine during a time of
rapidly changing health practices. Popular health movements arose in Jacksonian America
with men like Sylvester Graham, Samuel Thomson, and Samuel Hahnemann. These men
initiated a criticism of “regular” or heroic medicine and promoted alternative therapeutics that
were less bloody and painful and that they claimed were more effective—and women often
made up the majority of their adherents (Numbers and Schoepflin 1999, 581). Graham’s
system, however, was the most direct predecessor of reform led by women in the 1840s and
1850s. He advocated vegetarianism, sexual moderation, sensible dress, adequate rest and
exercise, and—if one fell ill despite healthy living—to let nature take its course. “All medicine,
as such, is itself an evil,” or disease, he declared (580).
By the 1850s, when Jacobs was writing, women reformers and physicians like Blackwell
had taken Grahamite health principles and applied them specifically to female physiology.
They viewed unhealthy social customs as the causes of disease among females more than
males and found that harsh medical treatments could permanently damage health, even if a girl
or woman recovered from the acute illness. Blackwell’s lectures, The Laws of Life, are a
particularly sharp crystallization of health reform efforts as women revitalized the movement
in order to help themselves. A major concern was pregnancy, which they observed was
dangerous in women with weakened constitutions, and reformers sought to avoid
pregnancy- and parturition-related deaths as well as neonatal illness, for mothers were believed
to pass on their weakness to infants. The panoply of women’s health issues were bound up
with women’s rights reform; in Incidents, Jacobs advanced her feminist and abolitionist goals
specifically by focusing her conflicts with Dr. Flint at moments that were, according to
feminist health reformers, crucial to women’s lifelong wellness: marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.
Jacobs had survived sexual abuse, illness during and after pregnancy, and difficult childbirth, and motherhood was marked for her by her children’s illnesses and vulnerability under
slavery. Born enslaved to the town’s prominent, hotel-owning Horniblow family in 1813, her
life was structured by James Norcom’s professional and patriarchal privilege. Her unmarried
mistress, Margaret Horniblow, became ill in 1818, and when she died in 1825, Harriet and her
brother were bequeathed to the Norcom family. As Margaret’s physician, it appears that
Norcom engineered the bequest of the two Jacobs children through a last-minute codicil.16
But archival sources also reveal that James Norcom’s professional and patriarchal privilege
began to shape the course of Jacobs’s life in slavery before she was even born.
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
Beginning around 1808, 5 years before Jacobs was born, Norcom had insinuated himself
into a position of patriarchal control over the widowed Elizabeth Horniblow and her children.
He was the family physician, a self-appointed advisor on the daughters’ social conduct and
health, and Elizabeth’s business agent.17 He married her daughter Mary—the spiteful Mrs.
Flint of Incidents—in 1810. Additionally, Norcom was the beneficiary and executor of the
wills of several of Elizabeth’s children who died of illnesses that he had treated.18 Norcom’s
deep involvement in the family’s financial and medical affairs in addition to his local status as
town patriarch, slaveholder, and professional meant that he had overdetermined personal and
legal power over those lower in the social hierarchy—including Elizabeth Horniblow’s family
and their slaves. In 1819, when Jacobs was six, her mother died, and she spent most of her time
with her owner, Margaret Horniblow.19 When Jacobs came under Margaret’s supervision, the
woman was already ill and attended by Norcom, whose unsuccessful treatment would continue
over the next 6 years.20 While the details of Margaret’s illness and Norcom’s treatment are
unknown, inevitably he would have bled her with lancet or leeches and prescribed strong
purgative medications. Margaret’s death led to Harriet’s immediate removal to the Norcom
household, where 12-year-old Jacobs first witnessed the severe corporal punishment of other
enslaved people and soon became the object of Norcom’s sexual advances. The connections
among Margaret’s illness and death under Norcom’s treatment followed by his legal claim to
Jacobs’s body and future did not fail to escape her, as her consistent narrative connection
between “master” and physician attests. Like those of her deceased siblings, Margaret’s will
(1825) names Norcom as her beneficiary in exchange for his “medical and other services”
(Chowan County Wills). Thus, whether Jacobs was aware or not, her value as a slave along
with that of her brother and some household belongings made up the payment for Norcom’s
medical services to Margaret.
Norcom’s position in the Horniblow family reveals the deeply entrenched structural power
of medicine over individuals in a slaveholding economy; this context thoroughly illuminates
Jacobs’s rhetorical strategy of fusing Norcom’s status as both physician and slave master. By
the time of her writing in the 1850s, the heroic medicine Norcom practiced was under heavy
popular criticism. He had trained under Benjamin Rush (1745–1813), the leading American
proponent of heavy bleeding and strong purging regimens for nearly every illness, also known
as “heroic” medicine. Norcom, believing he had cured himself of consumption as a young man
through rigorous exercise, austere diet, prolonged exposure to fresh air, and self-discipline,21
implemented this rigor in his practice for the rest of his life, as his papers attest. Norcom stands
out among his Edenton colleagues for administering unusually severe bleedings and purgings,
even with patients whose constitutions because of gender, race, and age called for milder
treatments in this era. For example, he prided himself on his “unflinching” treatment of a
female patient:
The case of Miss E. Boushel came out of the hands of Dr. Warren who had been
prescribing for her, more than a year. She was never bled, seldom purged, & only once
or twice cupped—morphia & blisters were the remedies principally relied on for her
relief. I have found her to require large depletion, active purgatives & strong revulsive
This case illustrates Norcom’s orthodox adherence to Rush’s heroic medical theory, which
sought to eliminate disease by drawing it out of the body via fluids and waste through
bloodletting, emetics, and laxatives. In the process, the patient became “reduced,” or weakened. Norcom aggressively asserted control not only over Boushel’s disease, but also over her
body as a site of professional competition. Norcom’s competitiveness with other men for
control of female bodies would impact Jacobs to an extreme degree. For the white, privileged
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
Miss Boushel, Dr. William C. Warren administered a relatively mild treatment consisting of
pain reliever, blisters, and cupping (heating cups pressed against the patient’s skin to draw
illness away from the affected internal organ). Warren’s treatment displayed a gendered and
racial differential in patient care that reflected social assumptions about physique.23 Norcom
was atypical in his aggressive treatments not only of women but also of infants and children—
even his own young children.24 What is more, at a time when most physicians believed that
people of African descent could not bear medicinal bleeding as well as whites, Norcom
routinely bled slaves and particularly enslaved children (Knott 1994). He reported having
“us[ed] calomel [mercury, a purgative] and the lancet freely” to treat “a mulatto child 7 months
old.”25 Although Norcom may seem to be egalitarian as a practitioner who treats rigorously
across class and race lines, this approach made enslaved and free people of color even more
vulnerable than their social position already made them. Enslaved people often used their own
healing techniques, but they had no choice as to their owner’s assignment of a physician or the
In his treatment of Miss Boushel and Jacobs’s mistress Margaret Horniblow, Norcom
enacted and reinforced masculine authority over white female bodies that he assumed were
naturally subordinate. Jacobs, as an enslaved woman, was automatically subject to Norcom’s
professional control over her body; during an illness-racked pregnancy, she reminded readers
that she “could not have any doctor but [her] master” (1987, 60). Unlike her mistress, however,
she was also expected to submit to Norcom’s sexual advances as a slave master. Her resistance
to him, then, involved not only defying his medical control over her in health and illness but
also rejecting his sexual advances and corporal punishment of her as a slave. Indeed, in her
narrative’s sustained attention to parallels between slaves and patients, as I will show, Jacobs
appealed to privileged women who could take for granted their immunity to sexual abuse by
shortening the gap between enslaved and free women’s bodily autonomy. Specifically, Jacobs
called upon a growing concern of health reformers, in a series of scenes to which I turn below,
when she linked the physician-master’s sexual abuse of the enslaved woman with free
women’s concerns about male medical access to their bodies.
Yet while the imbrication of the medical profession with Edenton’s slaveholding economy
and laws adversely impacted Jacobs, it is crucial to recognize that it also provided Jacobs and
her family with opportunities to advance their own social position during and after their
bondage. For example, around 1805, Drs. Norcom and Sawyer shared the work of plantation
doctoring but later had an “acrimonious split” and dissolved their joint practice (Parramore
1990, 84). Norcom developed a strong antipathy to his former colleague’s son, Samuel
Sawyer. Norcom’s antagonistic relationships with Matthias and Samuel Sawyer suggest that
Jacobs’s sexual relationship with Samuel Sawyer (Mr. Sands in Incidents) to protect herself
from rape by Norcom was even more calculated than Jacobs explained in the narrative because
she used men’s professional relationships against each other in an attempt to help herself. Most
vividly, Jacobs’s experience with professional medicine inspired her singular abolitionist
rhetoric in her narrative’s sustained analogy between medicine and enslavement.27
In the first chapters of Incidents, Jacobs immediately began to shape James Norcom into
Dr. Flint in ways that stressed the alignment of Dr. Flint’s roles as physician and slave–master.
A discrepancy between Jacobs’s own history with Norcom and her scripting of Flint’s
relationship with Linda reveals a deliberate emphasis on Flint’s double menace as slave owner
and physician. In the first chapter of Incidents, Jacobs did not acknowledge her childhood
familiarity with Norcom. Even though Jacobs had witnessed her mistress’s decline and
Norcom’s attendance over 6 years, in Incidents, the mistress appeared to “sicken and die”
suddenly when Linda was “nearly 12 years old” (1987, 7). Afterward Linda learned that she
had been bequeathed to her mistress’s niece (Norcom’s young daughter) (8). Dr. Flint was not
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named or introduced during the mistress’s illness but appeared in the second chapter seemingly
ex nihilo as a “physician in the neighborhood” to take Linda into an overtly experienced
bondage (9). The second chapter also established the narrative’s trope of the physician-master
as an agent of illness, for Jacobs figured Linda’s leaving home to live under Flint’s harsh rule
as contracting a “blight”—the withering of soul and body under slavery, which had not
affected Linda while in the custody of her “kind mistress” and surrounded by her family (7).
Here, the difference between Jacobs’s lived experience and her narrative choices reveals the
unifying trope of her argument that slavery and women’s health were directly related. Casting
Dr. Flint as a threatening stranger who invaded the women’s world of Jacobs’s “happy
childhood” (1987, 5) and abducted her from it allowed Jacobs to place Linda’s vulnerability
to Flint within a larger conflict between female patients and male doctors. A male-dominated
hierarchy depended on sharply drawn lines of distinction, enabling the concentration of power
in one man, Flint/Norcom, over women, human chattel, and patients. Jacobs emphasized this
problematic concentration of power in a single, corrupt man by not mentioning any of the
town’s many other doctors (even those who had owned or treated her own family members), as
if to concentrate into one charged character all of the patriarchal control that slave-owning and
slave-treating physicians exerted.28 Furthermore, by erasing the domestic history between her
family and Norcom (as well as other Edenton physicians), Jacobs foregrounded Flint’s
professional anonymity, which equated him more with her northern readers’ relationship to
After Jacobs introduced Dr. Flint’s menacing character as a kidnapper, her narrative took
another form that differed from men’s narratives. In some chapters, Incidents addressed broad
issues with a panoramic scope, such as the political, religious, and legal corruption of
slaveholders; she even included many other slaves’ stories. But when Linda reached puberty,
Jacobs illustrated Linda’s experiences with Dr. Flint’s sexual aggression in a series of distinct
episodes that concentrated on Linda’s personal experience. These episodes exactly coincided
with the female reproductive life-cycle: puberty, courtship and marriage (sexual initiation),
pregnancy, childbirth, and new motherhood. In each of these episodes of confrontation with
Flint around Linda’s health, Jacobs shrewdly applied the literary tactic of chiasmus (reversal)
to show that it was the white male autocrat who was sexually corrupt rather than the enslaved
woman, and that, in slavery, it was the doctor who was ill rather than his “patient,” who
sickened under his hands. Her critical portrayal of Norcom/Flint joined her with readers in
multiple reform movements who aimed to eliminate patriarchal control over women’s bodily
Flint’s persecution at moments in the female reproductive life-cycle were rendered in
verbally direct and intimately detailed episodes, contrasting sharply with Linda’s distanced,
sardonic tone while narrating Flint’s cruelty in other matters such as his jailing Linda’s family
members or attempting to auction off her grandmother. The heightened detail and narrative
intimacy in these episodes, which usually took place behind closed doors, allowed Jacobs to
illustrate Flint as an individual who was deeply morally bankrupt and physically ill; to show
the ways in which he induced or aggravated illness in Linda; and to clearly call up female
readers’ fears of sexual depredation during clinical encounters.
Jacobs’s rhetoric was compatible with that of health reformers who viewed sexual shock
and heroic treatments as both aggravating illness. By mid-century, women’s reproductive
health was the controlling paradigm for all aspects of their wellness.29 Thus, for Elizabeth
Blackwell, health education for women was synonymous with sex education. One major
concept for redefining women’s health was physiological law or “the laws of life”: by
formulating physiological principles as a set of natural laws that governed health and illness
and by educating women about them, reformers sought to help women maintain healthy
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
reproductive systems as well as to avoid the harms of heroic “reducing” treatments. For
example, Blackwell’s lecture series, published as The Laws of Life (1852), articulated the
laws’ operations on the body and described how disease results from disobeying the laws. Like
earlier reformers such as Graham, she targeted lifestyle as a means to health. But Blackwell
focused on girls’ and women’s health, citing restrictive clothing, lack of exercise, and
unwholesome foods as causes of unnatural physical development. These lifestyle choices
particularly caused reproductive disorders, which were on a “fearfully rapid increase”
(Blackwell 1986, 31). Jacobs took this theory of disease one step further in her portrait of
the conditions in which enslaved girls grew up and became mothers.
Slavery, Jacobs insisted, automatically broke the laws of life when enslaved girls were
forced into unnatural development by the master’s demands. Linda’s health began to decline
when Dr. Flint introduced explicit sexual knowledge. While still a “little child,” Linda
“became prematurely knowing in evil things;” Dr. Flint began “to whisper foul words in
[her] ear . . . . He peopled [her] young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster
could think of” (1987, 27). Moreover, Jacobs emphasized that her descent into physical illness
was caused by the doctor’s uncontrolled sexual appetites—the “passions” that reformers urged
adherents to control. In this primal scene specific to slavery, Jacobs employed disease
language: his words, fever-like, “scathed” her “ear and brain like fire” when he told her that
she was “made” for “his use, made to obey his command” rather than natural laws, and that her
“will must and should surrender to his” (18). Youthful development, a crucial period,
according to the laws of life rubric, was blighted for enslaved girls by the master’s aural
contamination and verbal defloration—indeed, the doctor mentally impregnated her (“peopled
[her] mind”) (35). Linda went as far as to name the laws of life (“I saw a man 40 years my
senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property;
that I must be subject to his will in all things” (27). While her use of medical language stressed
the dual unhealthiness of a lascivious master who was also a physician, her invocation of
nature’s laws authorized her to refute the laws and customs of slavery. According to Blackwell,
natural laws corresponded to the “Divine order” of human life. By invoking “the most sacred
commandments of nature,” Linda indicted Dr. Flint according to higher laws that trumped the
“property” laws of chattel slavery.
From this point on, symptoms of the doctor’s violation of the laws of healthy living and
Linda’s mental and physical vulnerability under his power both escalated. Blackwell attributed
all disease—“pain, infirmity, and evil”—to “disobedience” of the divinely ordained laws of
life (1986, 48). She continued, “where this [Divine] order is systematically inverted[,] disease,
vice, and rapid degeneracy will inevitably mark its history” (1986, 51). Similarly, Linda
assured readers that “the degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery are more
than I can describe” (1987, 28). In subsequent scenes, Jacobs illustrated the steady decline of
Linda’s health because of Dr. Flint’s disobedience to the “sacred commandments of nature.”
Dr. Flint’s next violation was to thwart Linda’s attempt to obey the divine law of marriage
(which was socially, if not legally, recognized for some slaves, such as Linda’s parents) to a
free man of her choice. Taking place in Flint’s home study and his town office, this conflict
emphasized his harmful “treatment” in his patriarchal and professional roles. When she
insisted that she loved her suitor, who had never “insulted” her or made sexual advances,
and that she was “virtuous,” Flint struck her (1987, 39). The ensuing struggle darkly parodied
extreme medical treatments to which women were liable: he silenced her, declared her “mad”
for speaking back, and threatened to “bring [her] to [her] senses” with further abuse (40).
Refusing to submit to either his psychological or his physical manipulation, Linda twice
justified her “insolence” by declaring that his “treatment drove [her] to it” (39, 40). To reassert
his control, Dr. Flint offered her two treatments that were equally appalling. He threatened to
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send her to jail, where she would be “under such treatment” that would “do” her “good”
because “it would take some of the high notions” out of her (40). The other choice he offered
was to become his concubine, in which case he would “treat” her kindly (40). With repeated
references to the doctor’s punitive and violating treatments in his home and town offices,
Jacobs linked the young enslaved woman’s physical and sexual vulnerability with her readers’
existing fears of medical encounters. Yet Linda did not succumb to the doctor’s threats.
Jacobs’s usage of the concept of “treatment” held Flint accountable for his cruel and depraved
actions as both a master and a physician, and Linda vocalized to him that he had no “right to do
as [he] liked” with her body (39). With this new spotlight on his professional status, Jacobs
began a thread of linguistic play on medical language that she sustained over the remaining
episodes of her pregnancies, illnesses, and motherhood.
Linda’s strategy of verbal resistance to Flint’s rape and punishment within narrative events
has been widely discussed.30 But she created another level of resistance with her language
choice concerning health and illness when she addressed readers. After striking her for talking
back, the doctor blamed her for “injuring” herself: Linda wryly reported, he “reminded me that
I myself was wholly to blame for it. He hoped I had become convinced of the injury I was
doing myself by incurring his displeasure” (1987, 41). As her readers knew, doctors often
blamed women for their maladies, but Jacobs controlled the validity of Dr. Flint’s “diagnosis”
by clearly showing that Linda’s “injury” was caused by his corporal punishment here and also,
metonymically, by his repeated and cumulative blows to her health. Her injury, she
underscored, was not endemic to her supposedly flawed female physiology; instead, it was
and would continue to be caused by his sexual violence. What is more, the “treatment” was
identical with injury, consistent with reformers’ chief criticism of heroic medicine.
Jacobs’s mode of address to readers, whom she drew in to share her indictment of the
dangerous physician, combined with her intimate understanding of Flint/Norcom’s professional affairs to reveal ways in which she could resist his control. In his office in town, he
threatened to send her away from friends and family to a prospective property in Louisiana
(1987, 41). But Linda surmised that his “large practice in the town” would keep him from
moving his household, and she continued to see her suitor (41). When Flint punished her for
disobeying him and threatened to punish her suitor, Linda asserted control that was nevertheless a choice between the lesser of two afflictions. Again invoking “blight,” or decay and
death, this time “on the heart” of the man who would marry her and not be able to protect her
or their children, Linda decided to send him away for his own sake (42). Dr. Flint thus
successfully thwarted Linda’s sexuality within marriage, which would be considered healthy
because divinely ordained, and broke another “divine law of nature.” Jacobs connected readers
with Linda’s suffering through two broken laws of life: denial of divinely sanctioned sexuality
and reproduction within marriage and exposure to Flint’s increasingly punitive sexual-medical
treatments. The “penalties” that Flint declared “awaited” her “stubborn disobedience” of him
(32) reflected his jealousy and also resonated with James Norcom’s “unflinching” control of
the bodies of even his privileged white female patients and his own children. After this
episode, Flint’s “treatments” set Linda on a path of increased illness during two illegitimate
pregnancies and early motherhood.
In the next episode of medicalized confrontation, Linda suddenly revealed that she was
pregnant. She had been in a sexual relationship with a neighboring white man, Mr. Sands
(Samuel Sawyer, who, as we have seen, was the son of Norcom’s former professional partner),
in an attempt to protect herself from Flint’s sexual advances. This illegitimate pregnancy
coincided with Linda’s first critical illness, which lasted from before parturition to a year after
her delivery of a premature, sickly boy. Jacobs’s readers would have understood this illness as
related to the steady erosion of Linda’s physical and mental health under Flint’s punishments
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and the sexual “blight” of slavery. Reformers’ insistence on sexual purity and physical fitness
from childhood on were responses to women’s vulnerability to frequent pregnancies and births
as well as to sexual diseases transmitted through husbands.31 But while middle-class health
reformers recognized the dangers of childbearing and sexuality for married women, Jacobs’s
detailed portrait of childbearing and sexual threats extended these concerns to the conditions
that enslaved women endured.
The events around Linda’s fraught pregnancy also caused Flint to reveal more and more
degeneracy as a man and as a physician, and at each step of this increasing conflict, Jacobs
again foregrounded Linda’s resistance through linguistic reversals of medical concepts. When
Flint pitied Linda’s fall from sexual purity, she asked rhetorically, “Could he have offered
wormwood more bitter?” (1987, 58). Further, when she refused to admit his claim that she
“sinned” against him, he exclaimed, “‘I could grind your bones to powder!’” (58). Jacobs
registered both the colloquial and clinical meanings of these expressions. Wormwood was
notoriously bitter, and used to expel parasitic worms; powders supplied a large portion of
doctors’ pharmacopoeia and were often made up by the doctor—including Norcom—in his
mortar and pestle. For her disobedience to his sexual demands, he claimed that “the future will
settle accounts” between them (59). Jacobs’s adoption of ironic verbal play helped to emphasize her rhetorical control over the master’s medical knowledge and placed his language in the
context of coercion to assert the claims of the reform movement that heroic doctors damage
women’s health.32
The final grim play on medical concepts appeared when she resisted his demand to know
who the father was. Flint unconsciously voiced the irony of his position when his patient was
also his slave: “I don’t know what it is that keeps me from killing you” (1987, 59). Having
offered “wormwood,” threatened to grind her bones and break her arm, and invoked her
“account” with him, Flint’s concluding declaration allowed Jacobs to share a rueful chuckle
with her readers. The chance of patients recovering under heroic treatments in the best
(unenslaved) conditions was so poor in the 1840s and 1850s that popular jokes abounded:
parents even disciplined children by threatening to send for the doctor to “cut off an ear”
(“Mutual Influence” 1845, 493). Thus when Flint uttered that he didn’t know how he wasn’t
killing his “patient,” Jacobs and her readers had a laugh on him; but the joke advanced
Jacobs’s abolitionist argument by reminding readers that enslaved women faced physical and
sexual threats on a daily basis.
Jacobs’s intimate revelation of Flint’s abuse of medical knowledge uncovered more of his
blighting sexual corruption shored up by his socially-sanctioned medical and slave-owning
power. Flint’s double character of depraved master and doctor “knowing in evil things”
continued when he revealed abortion and birth control methods to her in his professional role
(1987, 58). In a nightmarish version of a doctor’s visit, he inquired about her health and “then
went on to say that he had neglected his duty, that as a physician there were certain things that
he ought to have explained to me” (59). In this visit, he imparted birth control information; in
another, he assured Linda that he could have “saved her from exposure” through, implicitly,
abortion. Once again, she was forced to listen to unwholesome sexual information, but this
time Flint appeared to be even more perverse than when he “peopled” her young mind with
“unclean images” because now he was revealing his corrupt medical knowledge about
practices that were immensely stigmatized. If Jacobs’s women readers were not outraged by
Flint up to this point, this disclosure would have sealed his evilness as a man and a physician.
Not only did Jacobs represent Linda’s resistance through her appropriation of medical terms
and by showing Flint’s new depth of depravity, but she also constructed Linda’s severe illness
as an opportunity for extreme resistance to the master and his medicine.33 Throughout her
pregnancy, she had been “ill in mind and body,” but then her condition had worsened, leaving
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
her bedridden (1987, 60). As with her readers, the doctor was called in only during acute
illness. Unlike her readers, she did not have a choice of physicians: “I could not have any
doctor but my master,” she explains (and as we have seen, Edenton physicians varied in the
degree of vigor and palliation they employed, with Norcom relying on extremely vigorous,
non-palliative treatments). When Dr. Flint arrived, Linda said, “I was very weak and nervous;
and as soon as he entered the room, I began to scream.” This, her most severe illness in the
narrative, gave her the most power to defend herself from Flint. Always verbally resistant, here
her voice became pure—nonverbal—and her screams had the immediate effect of repelling
Flint. Illness, then, paradoxically allowed her the most power to protect herself: “He had no
wish to hasten me out of the world [because in her weakened state, agitation could kill her],
and he withdrew” (60).
In addition to Linda’s individual resistance during illness, this episode showed her as part of
a group that opposed the master’s heroic medicine. When she screamed, her family interposed,
telling Flint that her “state was very critical.” Her family members affirmed their intimate
knowledge of her condition over his professional knowledge. Their pronouncement also
suggests that in her weakened condition, her life was further threatened by both the violence
of his bleed-and-purge treatments and his unrelenting harassment. This scene blocked the
master’s doctoring by asserting the authority of the women who had been tending her health
and that of her unborn child. It is key that Jacobs framed both Linda’s illness and the medical
intervention in terms of her family. Unlike the dark humor and verbal play with which Jacobs
addressed readers in the patient-doctor scenes when Linda was able-bodied and alone with
Flint in his office, Jacobs shaped this scene of critical illness to show her middle-class readers
that like them, her illness, confinement (late pregnancy and birthing), and recovery were based
in the home. Linda was not an isolate but part of a kinship group that cared for her. This scene
also underscored that her mental and physical health and her family’s well-being were
interdependent, contrary to the classic medical focus on the individual patient and on the
mechanical workings of the body.
While she established congruence with readers’ illness and care experience, Jacobs also
reminded readers that Linda’s enslavement complicated her medical care. Her distress when
Flint entered to act as a physician followed upon his repeated abuses as a slave-owner. Dr.
Flint’s medical attention in this scene was equated with certain death; thus when Linda resisted
his treatment she resisted death at his hands—even if she was in mortal danger from the illness
and could not choose another physician. By rejecting him in the only way possible in her
position—screaming—she asserted autonomy as a patient, a woman, and a slave because she
chose to remain in the care of her family rather than to submit to his touch, his medicines, and
his bleeding regimens.
As we have seen, once laws of life were broken, “evils . . . inevitably resulted,” including
“weakness, disease, and lack of vigor to perform work,” as Blackwell warned (Blackwell
1986, 55, 57). Not surprisingly, Linda gave birth to a premature baby weighing “only four
pounds” and who was “sickly and racked with pain” (Jacobs 1987, 61). She too suffered for a
long time from the dangerous pregnancy: “many weeks passed before I was able to leave my
bed . . . . For a year there was scarcely a day when I was free from chills and fever” (60–61).
Mothers’ illnesses were perceived to be inherited by children. Eventually, Benny began to
thrive, only to become ill again. Somehow he recovered. While we can trust that Jacobs
reported the illnesses of mother and infant factually, they also advanced her rhetorical linking
of health and abolition by underscoring the consequences of Flint forcing Linda to disobey the
laws of life.
Linda’s second pregnancy (again by Sands) was as perilous as the first but in different ways
because Flint increased his physical violence. This time, Linda gave birth to a daughter. On
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
this occasion, Linda declared, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women.
Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications
peculiarly their own” (1987, 77). As with the first pregnancy, Linda suffered during pregnancy,
birth, and long afterward. Having “been kindly treated, and tenderly cared for” by her mistress
or grandmother until she “came into the hands of Dr. Flint,” Jacobs used the second pregnancy
to play up differences between the treatments of female caregivers and male physicians.
Further, she insisted on the particular vulnerability (the “wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications”) of girls born into slavery (115).
After evoking this contrast between women working together and master-physician cruelty,
Jacobs again foregrounded Flint’s dual roles. His demonic attendance increased in frequency
and malignity: a “venomous old reprobate” who held her in a “poisonous grasp,” he was “like
a restless spirit from the pit. He came every day; and [she] was subjected to such insults as no
pen can describe. I would not describe them if I could; they were too low, too revolting”
(Jacobs 1987, 76, 77). It is unclear whether his insults were strictly verbal, but in the polite
language of the time, “insults” also referred to sexual assaults. His persistent visits, during
which he delivered insults, darkly parodied the normal doctor’s daily visit to a seriously ill
patient. Whereas somatic illnesses for mother and baby linked with Flint’s harsh treatment had
afflicted Linda before and after the premature birth of her son, the forms of abuse and illness
resulting from Flint’s violence upon the birth of Linda’s daughter emphasized Jacobs’s
argument for the sexual “burden” “superadded” to enslaved females from birth (77).
Then, 4 days after Ellen was born, Dr. Flint, who at the birth of her son had only shamed
Linda for her sexual conduct, now “swore” that he would make Linda “suffer;” accordingly, he
entered her room “suddenly” and “commanded” her to rise and bring her baby to him (Jacobs
1987, 77). While he “heaped” upon her and her child “every vile epithet he could think of,”
Linda fainted from physical weakness—still attended by a nurse (who had left the room to
prepare food) and confined to bed, Linda was clearly not yet strong enough to rise (77). Her
fainting “recalled him to his senses. He took the baby from my arms, laid it on the bed, dashed
cold water in my face, took me up, and shook me violently,”—not as a medical intervention,
but to hide his own maltreatment “before anyone entered the room” (78). Further, Linda
reiterated the physician’s cruelty when his “patient” was also his slave: “I suffered in
consequence of this treatment, but I begged my friends to let me die, rather than send for
the doctor.” Once again Linda faced the dilemma of injury caused by the doctor’s treatment
where the connotation of “treatment” as therapeutics collapses into abuse or malpractice, with
no choice but the same man to treat the injury. Linda’s resistance to the master, then, was part
and parcel of her resistance to subjecting herself as his patient, just as when she screamed
at his medical visit during her first pregnancy. Significantly, Jacobs closed the scene with
Dr. Flint being “called to a patient out of town,” subtly reminding readers that people of
their own class and position were treated by this physician who was capable of such injury
and maltreatment (78).
In a final confrontation, Dr. Flint visited the new mother and her two young children. Flint’s
violence now extended to Linda’s children. The “doctor’s visit” this time resulted in Dr. Flint
throwing 5-year-old Benny against a wall, and when the child passed out, Flint physically
restrained Linda until he regained consciousness (Jacobs 1987, 81). Before this total assault on
motherhood, Linda had resolved that her children would “never pass into his hands” (80). But
now it became evident that the doctor’s “visits” and violence would continue and plague even
her children. The accumulating ill effects of his abuse have worn on Linda; she admitted, “I no
longer had the power of answering him, as I had formerly done” (81). At this moment of
pronounced physical weakness, she demonstrated that she had undergone a standard trajectory
that reformers had identified: women whose health was compromised at a young age suffered
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
from increasing illness as they aged. But as an enslaved woman, Linda’s weakness under the
doctor’s hands could be fatal because she lost the power to defend herself and her children
from the master’s relentless assaults. Rather than submit to the doctor, she soon went into
hiding and planned her children’s rescue.
Having shown, in Linda’s confrontations with the physician-master, the problem that
slavery repeatedly violated the “laws of life,” and that Linda, like other enslaved women,
suffered from these broken laws, the autobiography next offered a solution. The health reform
principle of women’s power to heal themselves—and each other—was the practical response
to the unhealthiness of slavery for women that Jacobs advanced in Incidents. This response
was enacted by women later in the narrative who concealed Linda from Flint and helped her
survive until she could liberate herself and her children. This part of Jacobs’s narrative detailed
the ways in which women restored and preserved the health of their families; by extension, this
women’s network could include readers able to heal slavery’s “blight.”34 By joining her reform
agenda with that of other health-aware women, Jacobs constructed a narrative model for a
wider audience of women who were asked to take political action in response to slavery.
Introduced to feminist, antislavery, and health reform by Amy Post, Jacobs honed an acute
understanding of both the clinical and social power of heroic medicine. At the nexus of these
overlapping movements, she found her voice as a mother, woman, and political activist—first
in a whisper to another woman, then in a scream of protest, and finally in a rhetorically artful
literary resistance to the endangerment of the health of African American women and children
still in bondage.
1 Male narrators tended to ignore or only briefly mentioned the sexual violence endured by
enslaved women (Andrews 1986, 243). Childbirth and mothering were also largely
ignored by male narrators. Hortense Spillers reminds us that in chattel slavery, birthing
and mothering were separated, and mothering denied, to slave women (1997). See also
Stephanie Li’s interpretation of Linda’s maternal role as a weapon in “Motherhood as
Resistance” (2006).
2 In my reading of Incidents, below, I retain a separation between Norcom and Flint
because while we can assume, thanks to Jean Fagan Yellin’s thorough authentication of
Incidents (1985), that Jacobs’s recounting of events is accurate, a comparison of the text
with external primary sources, including Norcom’s papers, reveals certain shaping
choices. This essay discusses the significance of these choices in relation to the rhetoric
of health reform that Jacobs aligns with feminist abolition, and also where possible I draw
connections between the character Flint and the person Norcom.
3 On one hand, nineteenth-century definitions of femininity produced a glorification of
illness as an ultra-feminine (dependent) state for white women (Herndl 1993), yet
“refused to recognize” illness in African American women while simultaneously refusing
to “grant them an existence that went beyond” their bodies (Herndl 1995). On the other
hand, as Martha Verbrugge (1988) and others have shown, middle class women also
participated in fitness and exercise as a means of asserting femininity. Radical reformers
linked able-bodiedness with the right to self-government for women of all classes and for
African American men and women. Sojourner Truth, a friend of the Posts, emphasized
her bodily strength in her arguments for women’s rights.
4 There is still a lack of scholarship on gender and medical practices in relation to the
poetics of slave narrative. The most detailed studies of enslaved peoples’ embodiment
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
focus on legal contexts (Gross 2000; Burgett 1998). Other approaches concentrate on
discursive constructions of “the” slave body (Sorisio 2002; Berlant 1995; Sánchez-Eppler
1993). My study attends to specific material contexts that shaped one woman’s experiences with enslavement and medical power, her participation in health reform, and the
singular feminist rhetoric that she developed as a result of these combined experiences.
Earlier studies such as Todd Savitt’s landmark Medicine and Slavery (1978) examine
slave doctoring through the profession’s history and records. More recently, this history
has been taken up from the enslaved perspective by Sharla Fett in Working Cures (2002).
Fett’s valuable approach investigates “the many ways in which health and healing
became arenas of struggle between slaveholders and the enslaved,” particularly between
enslaved women and male owners and overseers (2002, 11; 12). In this essay, I combine
the methods of Savitt and Fett to establish both sides of enslaved women’s medical
See, for example, Mary Robbins Post to Isaac Post, Seventhday Eve, 185-. Isaac and
Amy Post Family Papers.
Mary Robbins Post to Isaac Post, 185-. Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
Mary Robbins Post to Isaac Post. n.d. Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
William C. Nell to Amy Kirby Post. Aug. 11, 1849. See also William C. Nell to Amy
Kirby Post. July 19, 1852, in which he describes having friends practice their water cure
on him. Nell corresponded with Jacobs. Both letters in Isaac and Amy Post Family
Catharine Post Willis to Edmund P. Willis. Aug. 30, 1850. Isaac and Amy Post Family
Sarah Thayer to Amy Kirby Post. Dec. 20, 1855. Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
S. Hopkins to Amy Post. Sept. 8, 1849. Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
“Recipe for Rheumatism.” n.d. Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
See, e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Amy Post. Saturday Eve, 1849. Stanton asked Post
to support Amelia Bloomer’s paper The Lily, which promoted temperance “with a
sensible infusion of women’s rights.” Isaac and Amy Post Family Papers.
“Moral” referred in the early nineteenth century to intellect and emotion as well as the
philosophy of “doing right.” Moral philosophy was an early term for the current
discipline of psychology. “Moral degradation,” then, in Blackwell and Jacobs’s usage,
meant what we currently call psychological trauma, and it further led, in the period’s
thinking, to physical deterioration. A mutual relationship between psychic injury and
somatic health was particularly theorized by women physicians and health reformers. In
her professional memoir, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women
(1895; 2005), Blackwell foregrounded this claim to womanly authority just as Jacobs
claimed it to different purposes in her antislavery autobiography.
At Margaret’s death, 12-year-old Harriet was willed to Norcom’s daughter through a
death-bed codicil that Norcom engineered (Yellin 2004, 15). In her will, Margaret named
Norcom executor, but the five slaves she owned were originally willed to her mother. The
codicil bequeathed Margaret’s “negro girl Harriet” and a “bureau & work table & their
contents” to Norcom’s daughter (see the photograph of the will in Jacobs 1987, 213).
Norcom’s letters to Elizabeth Horniblow during his courtship of her daughter Mary from
1808 to 1809 are full of commands as to all of her daughters’ conduct and dress. Family
wills reveal that from 1822 he “transacted business” for and was the “agent” of Elizabeth
(d. 1827); that he was named executor of Margaret’s will (d. 1825); and that he even
replaced the original executor of Elizabeth’s son James’s (d. 1828) will (Chowan County
Original Wills, 1694–1910).
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18 Norcom was the beneficiary of James’s will “in consideration of his long & faithful
attention to me during my tedious & afflicting confinement.” Further, as Elizabeth’s
beneficiary, he inherited the property of Elizabeth’s children who predeceased her, e.g.,
son Thomas (will written 1815) and daughter Margaret (1825) (Chowan County Original
Wills, 1694–1910).
19 Elizabeth Horniblow attested that Norcom had “rendered medical and other services” to
Margaret (Chowan County Original Wills, 1694–1910; Jacobs 1987, 7).
20 The first mention of Margaret’s illness in Norcom’s papers is in Norcom’s letter to John,
May 4, 1818.
21 See James Norcom to Dr. Physic [Philadelphia, 1808–1809] (Papers).
22 James Norcom to “My dear Son” [John Norcom], 24 July 1847 (Papers).
23 Jacobs’s grandmother, Molly Horniblow (Aunt Marthy in Incidents), named William C.
Warren executor of her will (1840) (Chowan County Original Wills, 1694–1910). Here
again, the physician was socially empowered to manage the financial and legal affairs of
others. Molly Horniblow clearly viewed Warren as an ally who would fairly dispose her
property to her own family members, showing that the medical profession afforded
Jacobs and her family opportunities as well as oppression.
24 He frequently advised his son to heavily bleed his sick children: “All that I can
recommend…is an unflinching perseverance in the use of cups and leeches on the child’s
[Emily’s] chest” (to “My dear Son” [John Norcom], 11 June 1838, Papers). Norcom also
announced the success of treating his own young children aggressively: “our dear little
pet Willy, has had quite a sharp attack of Pleurisy, but he is now nearly well. Pa had to cut
his dear little arm 2 or 3 times to cure him” (to “My dear Daughter” [Mary Matilda
Norcom], 18 February, 1837, Papers).
25 See James Norcom to My dear Son [John Norcom], 8 August 1842, Papers.
26 For more on doctors’ authority over enslaved patients in Virginia, North and South
Carolina, and Georgia, see Fett 2002, 144–158.
27 Jacobs’s brother, John S., also worked for abolition. In “A True Tale of Slavery”
(1861; 2000) he portrayed his mastery of traditional medicine as a form of authority
with which he reclaimed his masculinity. Norcom trained John S. to compound
medicines and to cup, leech, and bleed his patients, and Harriet acknowledged his
indispensable skills in Norcom/Flint’s practice (Jacobs 1987, 61–62; Jacobs 2000,
208). After Samuel Sawyer bought him from Norcom in 1835, John S. diagnosed and
treated Sawyer’s slaves. John S. recounted with relish that he could assert his medical
knowledge with impunity above the overseer’s injurious treatments: “I took great
pleasure in differing with him on all occasions when I thought my patient dangerously
ill. My judgment in regard to some diseases as are most common on a plantation was
considered very good for one of my age” (2000, 216). Unlike his sister, John S. did
not critique heroic medicine, but rather used it to self-authorize, in his particular
abolitionist rhetoric.
28 While Norcom’s papers and other documents in the North Carolina State Archives
provide plenty of information on his activity in the Horniblow family and in the town,
Norcom does not often refer to his interactions with enslaved people, and makes no
reference to Harriet Jacobs. Although many letters have excised pieces, it is unwise to
speculate as to the missing content. At the same time, there is no surviving manuscript of
Incidents that might lend clues to Jacobs’s shaping and revision process. In the reading
that follows, I draw on the medical and social contexts established above to interpret
Jacobs’s representation of Norcom as Flint in ways that are rhetorically consistent with
the established concerns of a northern, white, female, reform-minded readership.
J Med Humanit (2014) 35:1–18
29 Nineteenth-century attitudes toward female reproduction applied not only to medical
theory but also to social and political arguments for women’s inferiority. The foundational
study in medical history is C. Smith-Rosenberg and C. Rosenberg, “The Female Animal”
30 See, e.g., Joanne M. Braxton’s discussion of “sass” (1989), especially Chapter 1.
31 See, e.g., D. Keetley, “The Ungendered Terrain of Good Health: Mary Gove Nichols’s
Rewriting of the Diseased Institution of Marriage” (2000). Nichols was a water-cure
physician and writer who agitated against the institution of marriage.
32 In another episode where she defied Flint in the professional space of his office, Linda
reported to readers the symptoms of Flint’s own illness. He “flew into a passion” (1987,
61). Her brother, his assistant, cried at hearing the doctor’s invective against his sister, and
this “manifestation of feeling irritated the doctor” (61). The doctor “vented his spleen” on
William. Linda’s clinically-resonant vocabulary—she observed that he was “in a passion,”
was “irritated,” and “vented his spleen”—comes from eighteenth-century medicine such
as that in which Norcom was trained (see, e.g., William Buchan’s diagnostic categories in
Domestic Medicine [1785]); Norcom used these terms in his private writings. Jacobs here
has not just appropriated medical language generally, but parroted Norcom himself and
exacted a very personal revenge.
33 By contrast, extreme illness in other heroines during the 1850s made them the most docile
and angelic of all women. See, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prototypical Little
Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1994).
34 The network of women who aided Linda and who inspired her model of an antislavery
community for her readers practiced alternative therapies, including herbalism over
bleeding and purging, and the heart history, or healing through the reparation of social
bonds within the patient’s family. Because space does not permit here, the women’s
healing network in Incidents forms the subject of a separate study.
Acknowledgments Many thanks to Amy Schrager Lang and Cindy Linden for their feedback on early drafts.
Special thanks to Biman Basu and Jeanne Britton for their insightful readings of recent drafts. My gratitude also
goes to the staff at North Carolina State Archives and to Mary M. Huth and the generous staff of Rare Books,
Special Collections and Preservation at Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester.
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