Slave, medical practitioner. Although little is known about him, Sampson was a healer of some renown in colonial South Carolina, with an apparent specialty in curing those who had been poisoned. Reports circulated that he frequently went about with rattlesnakes on his person, placing them in his pockets, against his chest, or even in his mouth without being bitten. To demonstrate the effectiveness of his snakebite remedies, however, “he several Times suffered himself to be bitten by the most venomous Snakes” and then cured himself with his own herbal concoctions.
In January 1754 the Commons House of Assembly appointed a committee to investigate “the most effectual way to procure . . . a Cure for the Bite of Rattle Snakes from Sampson, a Negro fellow belonging to Mr. Robert Hume.” Several days later the committee reported that Sampson had successfully treated “several Negroes at different times, for many Years past” and were assured that “he has always had good success in such Cures, and have not heard he ever failed in such Attempts.” In addition, some slaveowners testified that “their Negroes have been perfectly cured by the said Sampson.” Deeming the discovery of a snakebite cure to be “a General benefit to Mankind,” the committee recommended that Sampson be freed and given an annual allowance in exchange for “the Cure of such Bites.” When committee members were satisfied with the effectiveness of his treatment, Sampson was freed by the Commons House in 1755 and awarded an annual annuity of £50 Currency. His master was paid £300 in compensation for Sampson’s manumission. The cure was ordered to be printed in the South-Carolina Gazette and appeared there on April 8, 1756.
Colonial South Carolinians greatly feared the rattlesnake, and poisoning in general, and the lack of effective treatments had only magnified their anxiety. Such uneasiness helps explain the generosity of the Commons House toward slave healers such as Sampson and his contemporary Caesar, a fellow slave healer who had been freed several years earlier in exchange for his poison and snakebite cures. Sampson’s cure differed somewhat from Caesar’s in composition but not in efficacy: “Take Heart Snake-Root, both Root and Leaves, two Handfuls, Polipody Leaves, one Handful, bruise them in a Mortar, press out a Spoonful of the Juice, and give it as soon as possible after the Bite; scarify the Wound, and take the Root of the Herb Avens, bruise it, pour a little Rum over it, and apply to the Part, over which is to be put the Heart Snake-Root and Polipody, which remains after the Juice is squeezed out. These Medicines and Applications must be repeated according to the Violence of the Symptoms, so as in some dangerous Cases it must be given to the Quantity of eight Spoonfuls in an Hour, and the Wound dressed two or three Times in a Day.”
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.
———. The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly. Vol. 13, November 12, 1754–September 23, 1755. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.