Category Archives: Late Modern Period

Stories set in the time period between 1800 and 1900.

Asleep On The Run

Harriet Tubman’s Inconvenient Disorder

Anyone who knows a little about the history of African-Americans and slavery in the United States, probably knows the name, Harriet Tubman. Mrs. Tubman was born into slavery around 1821 in Maryland. After she escaped in 1849, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (a free state at the time), she would go back south 19 times, risking her own freedom, to save over 300 slaves through the “Underground Railroad”, an organized effort by both white and black abolitionists to help slaves escape to freedom.

Not only is this an accomplishment in and of itself, but what made this even more of a fantastic feat is that she did it while suffering almost her whole life from an ailment that could be quite detrimental while running from the law.  Harriet Tubman had narcolepsy…… a disorder that can affect one’s ability to stay awake.

Wikipedia had this to say on the subject, “A person with narcolepsy is likely to become drowsy or fall asleep or just be very tired throughout the day, often at inappropriate times and places.”

I think running from the law would definitely fall under an "inappropriate" time or place to fall asleep.
I think running from people who want to enslave you would definitely fall under an “inappropriate” time or place to fall asleep. This is a painting by Charles T. Webber depicting the Underground Railroad.

Though never officially diagnosed with narcolepsy, she had epileptic seizures that resembled the symptoms of narcolepsy. It is said that Tubman obtained this disorder when she was 12 years old. She was at a local store to buy supplies for her master when she saw a fellow slave running away from his master. The slave-owner asked that Harriet restrain the young man. She refused to and the slave-owner threw a two pound weight at him….or at least tried. Unfortunately, his bad aim ended up hitting Harriet in the head. Since then, she would randomly have seizures and fall into a sleep that she could not be woken from.

At 28, Harriet Tubman became ill so of course, her owner, Edward Brodess tried to sell her though he was unsuccessful. No one wanted a slave who would randomly have seizures and then fall asleep, unable to do her duties, though that’s one way to get out of work, right?

“‘And so’, she said, ‘from Christmas till March I worked as I could, and I prayed through all the long nights–I groaned and prayed for ole master: “Oh Lord, convert master!” “Oh Lord, change dat man’s heart!”‘….’Den we heard dat some of us was gwine to be sole to go wid de chain-gang down to de cotton an’ rice fields, and dey said I was gwine, an’ my brudders, an’ sisters. Den I changed my prayer. Fust of March, I began to pray, “Oh Lord, if you ant nebber gwine to change dat man’s heart, kill him, Lord, an’ take him out ob de way.”‘ – Harriet Tubman

A wanted sign for the arrest of "Minty" (Harriet's birthname was Araminta which she changed most likely around the time of her marriage). Minty is described as "a chestnut color, fine looking and about 5 feet high"....."also, you may find her asleep on a bench"
A wanted sign for the arrest of “Minty” (Harriet’s birthname was Araminta which she changed most likely around the time of her marriage). Minty is described as “a chestnut color, fine looking and about 5 feet high”…..”also, you may find her asleep on a bench”

Apparently, God was paying close attention to Harriet because a week later, Edward Brodess died.

Oh, then, it ‘peared like I’d give all de world full ob gold, if I had it, to bring dat poor soul back. But I couldn’t pray for him no longer.” – Harriet Tubman

This left more of a chance that she would be sold to someone else in the wake of Mr. Brodess’s estate settlement. Tubman would worry that wherever she was going to be sold to would be a worse fate than where she currently was. Before she could be sold, she fled for freedom with her two younger brothers.

“Harriet was married at this time to a free negro, who not only did not trouble himself about her fears, but did his best to betray her, and bring her back after she escaped.” – Sarah Bradford (Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman)

Shortly after leaving, Tubman’s brothers had second thoughts and all three of them headed back, but next time Tubman left on her own where she traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From here, she would help rescue slaves for over a decade, including her parents in one of her last missions. Harriet Tubman was a woman who, after gaining her own freedom, would continue to risk this freedom (and possibly her life) close to 20 times for others. She was a woman who knew betrayal from her own husband. She was a woman who possibly killed a man through her prayers. She was also a woman, who as a 12 year old girl, stuck her neck out and refused to help a slave-owner take a young man’s freedom away….. and for this she would always have trouble staying awake.

Thankfully, she managed to stay awake for this picture, though the same can't be said for the elderly blind woman on the right. (Harriet Tubman on left pictured with other freed slaves at her home in Auburn, NY circa 1887)
Thankfully, she managed to stay awake for this picture, though the same can’t be said for the elderly blind woman on the right.
(Harriet Tubman on left pictured with other freed slaves at her home in Auburn, NY circa 1887)
References

U-S-History.com: Harriet Tubman

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: Electronic Edition