Slave, medical practitioner. Caesar was a slave and medical practitioner who gained his freedom in 1750 in exchange for revealing his knowledge of cures for poison and rattlesnake bite. He is widely considered to be the first African American to have his medical findings appear in print. In November 1749 a member of the Commons House of Assembly acquainted other members with “a Negro Man named Caesar belonging to Mr. John Norman of Beach Hill” who had reportedly cured several people “who had been poisoned by Slaves.” Caesar informed the representative that he would divulge the secret of his remedy for a “reasonable Reward.” Intrigued by the offer, the assembly appointed a committee to investigate Caesar’s claims and, if valid, determine his compensation. Several prominent witnesses testified to the efficacy of Caesar’s cure, including Dr. William Miles and Henry Middleton. Caesar’s master, John Norman, stated that his slave 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 added that Caesar was also “very famous in . . . the Cure of Pleurisies.” Satisfied of the effectiveness of Caesar’s antidote, the Commons House granted the elderly slave (he was believed to have been “aged near sixty-seven Years”) his freedom and an annual annuity of £100 currency for the remainder of his life. Norman was granted £500 in compensation.
The May 7–14, 1750, issue of the South-Carolina Gazette published Caesar’s cures for the benefit of the public. According to the Gazette, they never failed:
The Negro CAESAR’s 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 if 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 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.
CAESAR’s Cure for the bite of a Rattle-snake. Take of 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 swells, 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.
Demand for Caesar’s cures was so great that the Gazette reprinted them the following year in its February 25–March 4, 1751, issue. They subsequently found their way into publications from across North America and even England, including the August 1750 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine of London, John Tobler’s South Carolina and Georgia Almanack in 1777, Massachusetts Magazine in 1792, and in the 1797 edition of Scottish physician William Buchan’s classic work of lay medicine, Domestic Medicine. The Commons House continued to pay Caesar’s annual annuity until April 1754, when the House journal recorded a payment of £70.16.08 to the “Estate of Dr. Caesar, deceased, 8 months and a half annuity.” He died sometime before March 5, 1754, when the Gazette advertised the sale of his effects at public auction. These effects included “one negro wench, some provisions and household goods.”
Easterby, J. H., ed. The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly. Vol. 9, March 28, 1749–March 19, 1750. Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1962.
Klauber, Laurence M. Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind. 2d ed. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Lipscomb, Terry W., ed. The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly. Vol. 12, November 21, 1752–September 6, 1754. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1983.