How Harriet Tubman’s brain injury made her the greatest slave stealer in American History

Harriet Tubman was born as Araminta Ross around 1822, to slave parents in Dorchester County Maryland. As well as taking up her mother’s name (Harriet) when she married, she was known by many other names, including General Tubman, Moses, and the Conductor of the Underground Railroad. Escaping to freedom in 1849 she returned a further 13 times as a ‘slave stealer’ to free other slaves and help them along the Underground Railroad to freedom in the northern states and Canada. In many ways, Tubman has her head injury induced epilepsy to thank for this career as it produced in her a religious fervour and sense of purpose that would last the rest of her life.

When she was a child she was sent by her master to the local town when she came across a fellow slave who had left the field without permission. He was caught and the overseer told Harriet to restrain him so that he could be punished. When she refused and the slave boy ran and the overseer threw a 2 pound weight at the boy, but it hit Harriet in the head instead. Unsurprisingly, as she was a slave, she received no medical care for this, despite the fact that the weight had cracked her skull. She was made to go back to work two days later, and said she worked until  “blood and sweat [were] rolling down my face“. She soon started to experience a number of neurological symptoms including severe headaches and seizures, as well as falling into a state of semi-consciousness, having vivid dreams and visions and hearing voices. She attributed the dreams and visions to messages from God, and soon became devoutly religious. Religion spurred on what would become a successful 13 trips to rescue slaves in bringing freedom, as she believed it was God’s will for her.

In the 1840s Harriet escaped to freedom, following the Underground Railroad up north to the free states. She followed the North Star, seeking refuge in the houses stationed along the route until she reached Philadelphia. It was after the passage of the 1850 compromise, which included the more stringent fugitive slave law, that she made her first trip back south. She went back with the intention of helping her husband to freedom, only to discover that he had remarried. Instead she found a group of slaves who were eager to leave, and helped them escape to Pennsylvania with her. It is estimated that over the next decade she made a further 13 trips south to free slaves, helping around 70 or more people escape. She is one of the only conductors of the Underground Railroad throughout history who can boast never to have lost a single person on the trip north.

After the Civil War she added women’s rights to her career in activism and in 1908 she opened a home for the aged in Auburn, New York. She took care of everyone from the “demented” to the epileptic, blind, paralysed and consumptive. It was the same care home that would take care of her in her later years. To this day she is heralded as an American hero, earning a place on the American banknote and has been repeatedly portrayed in popular media, such as in the hit TV show ‘Underground’. Her place as a hero in history is well deserved.