Adjudicating “Caesar’s Cure for Poison”

By Claire Gherini

Part I of this series on the “discovery” and publication of Caesar’s poison antidotes and Sampson’s cure for rattlesnake bites examined why the members of the South Carolina Commons House of the Assembly wanted the recipes of Caesar and Sampson. Part 2 examines how South Carolina’s lawmakers in the Commons House of the Assembly evaluated the veracity of Caesar’s and Sampson’s medical claims. Lawmakers believed that in order to determine the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, they needed first to determine Caesar’s aptitude in the diagnosis of poison cases. Notably, the Assembly eschewed methods available from the world of natural history and experimental science. Lawmakers instead relied on sworn testimony from elite laypeople to assess Caesar’s antidote, a method that mirrored the legal practices prevalent in trials of slaves accused of poisoning in the colony’s courts and which, in court, often incorrectly led to the conviction of slaves. 

When Lowcountry colonists sickened and died suddenly, it was extraordinarily difficult to determine if death was the product of a poisonous mixture clandestinely mixed in “amongst the victuals served at table,” or a natural ailment. [1] The symptoms medical practitioners in the region used to diagnose cases of poisoning provided little insight. Poisons, one practitioner proclaimed, “causeth divers symptoms and the effect is various…..it kills sometimes in very few hours, sometimes in some months, and at others in some years.” The most telltale signs of poisoning were only discernable when the victims were African or Afro-Creoles, because, the practitioner explained, “the Negroes turn white.”[2] The incompetence of South Carolina’s white practitioners in the identification of many ailments exacerbated the numerous problems inherent in the diagnosis of poisoning in the colony, a situation that no doubt compounded the litany of false poison accusations made against enslaved people. “Hundreds died by the unskillfulness of the practitioners mismanaging acute disorders…they immediately call them poison cases so as to cover their own ignorance” the South Carolina naturalist and physician Alexander Garden observed. [3]

Caesar's Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Caesar’s Cure published in The South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1750. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

Contemporaries’ difficulties in assessing whether the origin of an illness lay in a poison or some other cause made it difficult to ascertain whether a purported poison antidote actually healed a poison. In order to determine whether Caesar’s antidote healed poisons and not some other illness, lawmakers proclaimed the necessity of evaluating Caesar’s dexterity in medical diagnosis and therapeutics. As stated in their own words, lawmakers wanted to hear  “the symptoms by which he [Caesar] knew when any person was poisoned.” Members also solicited from Caesar descriptions “concerning the cure of poisons, together with the names of plants which he made use of in performing the aforesaid cure, and his method of preparing and administering the same.” [4] To weigh the efficacy of Caesar’s poison antidote, Caesar’s competence as a diagnostician was put, in a manner of speaking, on trial before the members of the Assembly.

Instead of trying Caesar’s aptitude in diagnosis, lawmakers could have focused on the antidote itself.  Lawmakers could have used animals as experimental test subjects to see if  Caesar’s poison worked and was safe, a method used by many early modern people (a practice Alisha Rankin’s post explores).  Precedent existed, moreover, for this method in South Carolina where two decades earlier prominent colonists had published an article documenting their successful use of dogs, non venomous snakes, hens, and cats in experiments they made to determine whether antimony worked as a potential antidote for venomous snakebites. [5]  A less involved option would have been to look up the virtues of wild horehound and wild plantain, the two ingredients listed in Caesar’s cure, in one of the natural history texts describing the properties of different flora and fauna of the region. Consulting their personal copies of Mark Catsby’s two-volume (1731 & 1743) Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, lawmakers might have affirmed that these plants functioned as poison antidotes. Lawmakers, however, judged Caesar’s diagnostic skills by collecting sworn testimony from prominent (but by no means expert) white males who had witnessed Caesar’s work as a healer.

These methods of discernment replicated practices common in the trials of the colony’s slaves who had been accused of poisoning whites or other slaves, wherein juries were asked to determined whether the deceased had been poisoned or had died from other causes. To make this judgement, juries in poison trials relied in large measure on the testimony of propertied white laypeople who described the relationship between the deceased and the accused.

In the adjudication of Caesar’s cure, the witnesses’ status as white elite males augmented their reliability as interpreters of the natural world—their ability, that is, to differentiate between ailments caused by poisoning and those brought about by other causes. One of the largest landowners in the colony and a wealthy slaveowner, Henry Middleton Esq., testified that he believed “his disorder proceeded from poison, as he found a good effect from the first dose of Caesar’s antidote and after the second dose the symptoms of his disorder entirely left him.” Middleton also relayed the experiences of his white overseer who ““was in a worse situation than himself,” and was “entirely relieved by the same hand.” As a man of middling status, the overseer’s preliminary interpretation of having been poisoned received official recognition only when the elite planter (Middleton) spoke on his behalf. William Miles, a planter from St. Andrew’s parish, told the Assembly that “he verily believed his sister had been poisoned and was cured by Caesar, and that some time afterward his brother seemed effected with a very odd disorder, and suspecting that it was the effects of poison, sent for Caesar who relieved him instantly.”  Miles further testified that he currently “suspects his son to be in the same situation and wants Caesar to his relief.” [6] These testimonies served multiple functions: they affirmed Caesar’s original diagnosis of poisoning; established his competency as a healer in poison cases; and, on these grounds, vouchsafed the efficacy of his antidote.

Sampson's Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.
Sampson’s Cure for Snakebites in the South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756. Image Courtesy of Accessible Archives, Inc.

In taking stock of Sampson’s antidote for the snakebite, lawmakers did not bother to ascertain Sampson’s diagnostic abilities. There was no need. In contrast to cases of poisoning, it seemed obvious that if one had been bitten by a venomous snake, the infirmities and death that subsequently followed originated from the encounter with the animal and its venom. The members of the Assembly thought about testing Sampson’s snakebite antidote (presumably on a dog), but it was the middle of winter. “No experiment of the remedy can at this season be tried,” they reported. Dormant in the winter, the venomous snakes  lawmakers wanted were, I suspect, difficult to find. (Perhaps South Carolina’s vipers had shriveled up into brittle little frozen snake-sticks?)  Lawmakers instead heard affirmations from five slaveowners, who declared that “their negroes have been perfectly cured of the said Sampson [of their snakebites],” agreed with Sampson’s owner on the compensation he would receive, and called it a day.[7]

This post has shown the similarity between the types of evidence (testimony from elite male clients) that lawmakers used to make sure that Caesar’s antidotes for poisons actually worked to cure poisons and the types of evidence (sworn testimony from white colonists) that juries received when adjudicating poison accusations in the colony’s courts. In highlighting the juridical nature of the tactics lawmakers used to verify Caesar’s poison diagnoses, this post has tentatively located the origins of these methods in the socially and racially asymmetrical world of colonial poison trials.

[1] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS, III, 375/42, University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[2] Doctor Milward’s Letter to the President of the Royal Society reprinted in South Carolina Gazette, July 24, 1749.

[3] Alexander Garden, Charleston to Charles Alston, Edinburgh,  February 18, 1756, Laing MSS, III, 375/44,  University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 479.

[5] Captain Hall and Hans Sloane, “An Account of Some Experiments on the Effects of the Poison of the Rattle-Snake,” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 35 (1727-1728): 309-315.

[6] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterly (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[7] Journal of the Commons House of Assembly (November 21, 1752-September 6, 1754), Vol. 15, Edited by Terry. W. Lipscomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 335.

Valuing “Caesar’s and Sampson’s Cures”

By Claire Gherini

Between 1749 and 1754 in South Carolina, the South Carolina Colonial Assembly (the governmental body of the British colony) freed two enslaved healers, Caesar, and Sampson, in exchange for their willingness to publicize the ingredients in their antidotes for rattlesnake bites and poisons. This was not the first time that antidotes for snakebites and botanical poisons appeared in the colony. In 1743, a peripatetic Frenchman, Mr. Bonnetheau, set up in Charleston and boasted of his ability to cure “bites of the most venomous serpents, scorpions, and mad dogs,” with the use of “Rattle-snake-stones.” [1]   In 1749, the colony’s newspaper and journal of record, The South Carolina Gazette, reprinted an article from Britain on an herb known as the Sensible Weed, which the article claimed an “extraordinary specific antidote against the Indian or Negro poison” in South Carolina.[2] The prevalence of colonists’ fears about African botanical knowledge in societies like South Carolina where enslaved Africans formed a black majority certainly added to the credibility given to the therapeutic claims proffered by enslaved healers. But snakebites, this post shows, also formed an unrecognized feature of enslaved people’s work in plantation South Carolina, one that made antidotes for venomous bites part of enslaved people’s therapeutic armamentarium. These two features of plantation agriculture in the colony, this post argues, augmented the value of antidotes that functioned as specifics in the cure of snakebites and poisons and goes far to explain why lawmakers panted after Sampson’s and Caesar’s cures specifically. Sampson and Caesar, in turn, manipulated the environmental and social circumstances of colonial South Carolina for their own ends to augment the value of their cures and acquire manumissions from slavery.

Rattle-snake with section of rattle and tooth, from Mark Catsby, (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Rattle-snake with section of rattle and tooth, from Mark Catsby, (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

For enslaved people, encounters with venomous snakes formed a significant occupational hazard of tidal rice cultivation, one that often terminated in death. Far too often, the fangs of Cottonmouths (water moccasins), Copperheads, as well as Pigmy, Eastern Diamondback and Timber Rattlesnakes pierced the legs and arms of the slaves as they tramped out into maritime grasslands and tidal pine forests, pulled weeds and hunched down to plant rice at the behest of their owners. Whites probably suffered less from actual cases of poisoning than they imagined. But colonists’ fear of enslaved people’s motivations and loyalties made them wary of the botanical knowledge possessed by many slaves even as they acknowledged their skill in this area of medicine. “The negro slaves here seem to be but too well acquainted with the vegetable poisons… which they make use of to take away the lives of their masters who they think uses them ill, or indeed the life of any person for whom they conceive any hatred or by whom they imagine themselves injured,” the South Carolina naturalist Alexander Garden complained in a letter to the Edinburgh botanist Charles Alston. [3] The idea that enslaved people were exceptionally skilled with botanical poisons and their antidotes enhanced the epistemological weight of the medical claims made by enslaved healers like Caesar and Sampson.

The members learned about Caesar and his cure before hearing of Sampson’s. In November of 1749, “another member,” of the Assembly “acquainted the house that there is a negro man named Caesar belonging to Mr. John Norman of Beach Hill, who had cured several of the inhabitants of this province who had been poisoned by snakes.”[4] Caesar leveraged the urgency for an antidote to snakebites in his dealings with the Assembly. Caesar “expected his freedom and a moderate competence for life, which he hoped the committee would be of opinion deserved one hundred pounds currency per annum,” in exchange for “the satisfactory discovery of his antidotes against poison.”[5] Yet as a slave, the value of Caesar’s knowledge was not legally his to claim, it belonged to his owner, John Norman. The Assembly resolved to manumit Caesar and to compensate Norman for the loss of “all the advantages the said Negro Slave Caesar (aged nearly sixty-seven years) might be to the owner of his knowledge and skill,” which they set at £500 Carolina Sterling.

Caesar had been unknown to the colony’s lawmakers. Sampson, in contrast, cut a striking figure in Charleston as a snake-handler, one who “used frequently to go about with rattle-snakes in Calabashes, and who would handle them, put them into his pockets or bosom, and sometimes their heads into his mouth, without being bitten.”[6] In January of 1754, a motion passed in the Assembly to form a committee in order to find “the most effectual way to procure a discovery of the cure for the bites of rattle snakes from Sampson, a negro fellow belonging to Mr. Robert Hume.”[7] Sampson’s pension and valuation were considerably less than Caesar’s.  Sampson was paid less, I think, because he only offered an antidote for rattlesnake bites whereas Caesar’s cure could alleviate both poisons and venomous bites. In exchange for his cure, the Assembly decreed that “the said Sampson be from thenceforth manumitted and delivered from the yoke of slavery,” and the members resolved to provide a lifetime annuity “for the said negro Sampson,” which amounted to £50 per year.[8] The Assembly paid to Mr. Robert Hume £300 Carolina Sterling to compensate Hume for the loss of Sampson’s earnings.[9]

Part I of this series on the “discovery” and publication of Caesar’s and Sampson’s poison antidotes examined why the South Carolina Colonial Assembly was so keen to get their hands on the two enslaved people’s medical secrets as well as lawmakers’  struggles to determine the monetary compensation the two enslaved men would receive in exchange for their cures. In their negotiations with the Colonial Assembly, Caesar and Sampson exerted a strong hand in determining the value of their antidotes: by deliberately leveraging their familiarity with the destruction that poisons wrought on the social fabric of white colonists as well as their intimate knowledge of the havoc that venomous snakebites visited on the fortunes of slaveholders (and, by implication, the economy of the colony), the two healers put manumissions from slavery and annual annuities on the bargaining table and won these compensations from the colonial government.

[1] Mr. Bonnetheau’s adverstisement for Rattle-snake-stones in South Carolina Gazette, November 21, 1743 and September 10, 1744.

[2] South Carolina Gazette, July 24, 1749.

[3] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[5] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 303-04.

[6] South Carolina Gazette, April 8, 1756.

[7] Journal of the Commons House of Assembly (November 21, 1752-September 6, 1754), Vol. 15, Edited by Terry. W. Lipscomb (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 313.

[8] Ibid, 333.

[9] Ibid, 513.

[1] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 293.

[2] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, January 21, 1753, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[3] Alexander Garden to Charles Alston, February 18, 1756, Laing MSS. III University of Edinburgh Special Collections Library.

[4] Journal of the Commons House of the Assembly, (March 28, 1749-March 19, 1750), Vol. 9, Edited by J. Easterby, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983), 303-04.