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Doctor Caesar: A Remarkable Black Herbalist of the 1700s

Doctor Caesar: A Remarkable Black Herbalist of the 1700s

 

A Black man gathering roots. This is not a photo of Doctor Caesar, who lived long before the camera was invented.

Each February we take some time to delve into the rich but often ignored history of African American herbalism. Our own products draw primarily on Asian herbal traditions rather than Western or Southern, so we’re less familiar with the history of African, European and American herbalism – which makes diving into Black herbal traditions a fascinating journey.

This month we came across the unique story of Doctor Caesar, an enslaved man who was “owned” by one Mr. John Norman of South Carolina in the 1700s. Doctor Caesar became well-known for his knowledge of medicinal plants and especially for his antidotes to poison; so much so that he eventually came to the attention of the South Carolina legislature.

Southern slaveowners at the time were quite paranoid about being poisoned by the enslaved men and women who worked in their households, so any information about remedies for poison was of intense interest to them. Realizing this, Doctor Caesar seized the opportunity to negotiate on his own behalf, offering to reveal his secret remedies to the legislature in exchange for a “reasonable reward.”

The South Carolina Commons House of Assembly (the lower house of the legislature) appointed a committee to investigate the Doctor’s claimed cures. They heard testimony from prominent witnesses who had personally witnessed his cures work for themselves and their families, quickly relieving the symptoms of suspected poisoning. They also heard from Mr. Norman who stated that the doctor had “done many services in a physical way, and in particular had frequently cured the bite of rattle snakes, and [Norman] never knew him to fail in any one attempt.” He stated the Doctor often ministered to the neighbors and also mentioned instances of the Doctor curing bacterial infections and pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest cavity).

The committee was persuaded that Doctor Caesar’s antidotes were legitimate and called him to appear before them. They asked him his terms to reveal the remedies and the Doctor replied that “he expected his freedom” as well as a sum of £100 annually for the rest of his life. At the committee’s recommendation, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly voted to take him up on his offer, as well as to pay Mr. Norman the “appraised value” of “his Negro” which was eventually set at £500. The upper house of the legislature was, somewhat reluctantly, persuaded to go along with this plan.

In exchange, Doctor Caesar provided the recipes for his poison antidotes and they were published in the South Carolina Gazette in 1750 and reprinted in 1751. They were also taken up and widely reprinted across North America and Britain for several decades. For this reason, Doctor Caesar is often considered the first African American to have his medical observations published in print.

Doctor Caesar’s antidotes rely on two of the great Old World healing herbs which were brought to the New World by colonists and are now widely naturalized here: English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) and horehound (Marrubium vulgare). English plantain is known to have a wide variety of benefits including as an antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, laxative, diuretic and more. And white horehound is used for lung complaints such as coughs, asthma, and bronchitis; it’s also known as a hepatic (liver) stimulant and protectant, which could be why Doctor Caesar found it useful in poisonings.

         

Marrubium vulgare and Plantago lanceolata         

Here are the remedies as described by Doctor Caesar:

THE CURE FOR POISON
Take the roots of Plantane and wild Hoare-hound, fresh or dried, three ounces; boil them together in two quarts of water to one quart, and strain it; of this decoction let the patient take one third part three mornings, fasting successively, from which is he finds any relief, it must be continued till he is perfectly recovered. On the contrary, if he finds no alteration after the third dose, it is a sign that the patient has either not been poisoned at all, or that it has been with such poison as Caesar’s antidotes will not remedy, so may leave off the decoction. During the cure the patient must live on a spare diet, and abstain from eating mutton, pork, butter, or any other fat or oily food.
N.B. The Plantane or Hoar Hound will, either of them, cure alone, but they are most efficacious together.
In summer you may take one handful of the roots and branches of each, in place of three ounces of the roots of each.
 
For drink during the cure, let them take the following.
Take of the roots of Golden Rod, six ounces, or in summer two large handfuls of the roots and branches together, and boil them in two quarts of water to one quart (to which also may be added a little Hoare Hound and sassafras); to this decoction, after it is strained, add a glass of rum or brandy, and sweeten it with sugar for ordinary drink.
 
Sometimes an inward fever attends such as are poisoned for which he orders the following,
Take a pint of wood ashes and three pints of water; stir and mix them well together; let them stand all night, and strain or decant the lye of[f] in the morning, of which ten ounces may be taken six mornings following, warmed or cold, according to the weather. These medicines have no sensible operation, though sometimes they work in the bowels, and give a gentle stool.
 
The symptoms attending such as are poisoned are as follows,
A pain in the breast, difficulty in breathing, a load at the pit of the stomach, an irregular pulse, burning and violent pains of the viscera above and below the navel, very restless at night, sometimes wandering pains over the whole body, a reaching [i.e., retching] and inclination to vomit, profuse sweats (which prove always serviceable), slimy stools both when costive and loose, the face of a pale and yellow colour, sometimes a pain and inflamation of the throat; the appetite is generally weak, and some cannot eat any; those who have been long poisoned are generally very feeble and weak in their limbs, sometimes spit a great deal; the whole skin peals, and likewise the hair falls out.
 
Caesar’s Cure for the Bite of A Rattle-Snake.
Take the roots of Plantane or Hoare Hound (in summer roots and branches together) a sufficient quantity; bruise them in a mortar, and squeeze out the juice, of which give, as soon as possible, one large spoonful; if he is swelled you must force it down his throat. This generally will cure, but, if the patient finds no relief in an hour after, you may give another spoonful, which never fails.
If the roots are dried, they must be moistened with a little water.
To the wound may be applied a leaf of good tobacco moistened with rum.
 

While many modern readers may view these remedies with skepticism, those of us who regularly use medicinal plants know how powerful they can be. In any case, we’re happy to have both Plantago lanceolata and Marrubium vulgare growing here on the Plantiva property!

We look back on the life and work of Doctor Caesar with admiration. He clearly possessed a deep knowledge of the botanical world along with the benevolence to use it for the good of those around him. He also had the acumen to seize on a life-changing opportunity when it presented itself. Unfortunately, he lived only a few years after manumission and his estate was not large enough to purchase the freedom of his family. Nevertheless, he made his mark on history at a time when few Black men were able to do so.

References and Further Reading:

https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/doctor-caesar-and-his-antidote-poison-1750

https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/caesar/

https://www.ahpa.org/herbs_in_history_marrubium

https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/herbs/p-q/plantago-lanceolata/

https://thenaturopathicherbalist.com/2015/09/06/marrubium-vulgare/

   

Doctor Caesar: A Remarkable Black Herbalist of the 1700s

Doctor Caesar: A Remarkable Black Herbalist of the 1700s

Comment (1)

Awesome article!

AE, MD

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