April 2019

Migration, Madness, and Labor in Postemancipation New Orleans

These scientific servants of elite interests created a vision of the migrant body that perfectly matched the ideal working body of slavery that must be kept at labor to avoid illness.

On April 16, 1883, New Orleans City Physician Yves R. LeMonnier decided that William Sheldon was sane. He wrote that the African American patient’s “actions & reasoning were so lucid” that he nearly discharged him. But then Sheldon reported a medical discovery so urgent that it stopped the doctor in his tracks. “Jesus-Christ cut my nuts out last Monday,” Sheldon explained, “and it was not until Tuesday morning that I found it out, when I then missed them.” The good doctor suddenly reversed course, digging deeper for signs of madness. He examined the man’s testicles and, with the unyielding energy of a medical professional, tried to convince him that they remained where they had always been.

After a few minutes of this, Sheldon admitted that he had been having a little fun at the white doctor’s expense. “Well, I made a mistake,” he said. “I told a lie, but did not mean it. I take it all back. Sure enough they are there.” But it was too late. LeMonnier’s medical gaze had detected an abnormality. With precision and certainty, he put pen to paper to record the diagnosis: Sheldon was “suffering from Religious Mania.”[1]

A page from LeMonnier’s notes on William Sheldon. The diagnostic process reveals substantially more about LeMonnier and the asylum staff than the mental state of most patients. Many of the inmates, Sheldon included, appear to have been detained for violating racist and gendered cultural norms rather than for having trouble functioning due to mental illness.

Sheldon’s case was unfortunate, but in the postemancipation landscape, it was not unique. Hundreds of marginalized residents of the city found themselves in the asylum during the decades after the Civil War. The men and women confined there for madness were primarily working-class folk—freedpeople and migrants who were most vulnerable to court-imposed incarceration. This was at the very moment when region’s white elites were clamoring for migrant workers to labor at the wharfs and warehouses that made New Orleans one of the busiest ports in the country.

White elites constructed labor hierarchies in Louisiana’s hospitals and asylums based on the presumed mental incapacity of African Americans and migrants. They identified the minds of working-class Others as uniquely incapable of sound thought while imagining their bodies as perfect conduits of labor. The “treatment” they designed for these migrant workers—grueling manual labor—was drawn directly from the ideology of slavery and embodied their hopes for themselves in “regulated” labor, remade for the postemancipation landscape.

Following emancipation, ex-enslavers looked for new racial and ethnic groups to form the bulk of their workforce. As this article in the conservative Crescent implied, this did not mean giving up on “the previously established system.” Indeed, white elites’ attempts “to regulate labor in such a way that industry should prosper—a euphemism wage suppression and labor coercion—were ongoing and eventually solidified in Jim Crow. “Coolie Labor,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, October 18, 1866, page 4.

They hoped to identify an idealized migrant worker—Italian, Asian, or Caribbean—who was perfectly suited to manual work. These men and women would have strong bodies, could subsist on very little, and would work without complaint. In short, they hoped to find a group that would replace the profitability of enslaved people short of chattel slavery officially banned by the Thirteenth Amendment. To do this, they turned to racial science.

Elite ideas about race, ethnicity, labor, and hierarchy profoundly shaped every facet of the state-run asylum system in Louisiana, which buttressed a nativist vision of white supremacy. These popular notions that tied race to physical and mental ability were firmly rooted in slavery.[2]

According to Dr. Stanford Emerson Chaillé, one of the most influential physicians in Louisiana, antebellum Black workers were immune from mental illness. Writing on what he considered groundbreaking research in racial science, he argued in 1858 that enslaved laborers enjoyed a “great exemption from insanity” caused by “the restraint of a mild state of servitude, the freedom from all anxiety respecting their present and future wants.” Because slavery was fundamentally humane according to slavery’s doctors, enslaved men and women had to experience lower rates of madness than the rest of the population. Further supporting this conclusion, Chaillé declared that “free negroes… are peculiarly disposed to insanity.” The reason, according to Chaillé and other practitioners of enslaver science, was that their minds were incapable of coping with the decisions demanded by freedom. This claim was simply science doing the bidding of slavery.[3]

“Slavery’s science was a mix of racist fantasies and lies.”

Slavery’s science was a mix of racist fantasies and lies. Enslaved people were miserably tortured and did everything in their power to live with some scrap of dignity and, when possible, to escape. Nonetheless, the profits of slavery left former enslavers intoxicated after emancipation. They horded totems associated with slavery and scoured the world around them for ways to resuscitate their former power. As part of this project, they inaugurated a Lost Cause ideology—itself steeped in racial pseudoscience—that still shapes the ways we view slavery and its afterlives. Their belief in a natural racial hierarchy, even after its legal basis was overturned by African Americans, was fanatical.[4]

Two carceral trends illustrate the role of the postemancipation asylum as an amplifier of racial and ethnic difference in Louisiana. The first was the disproportionate number of migrants and racialized Others held in the asylum. The numbers varied based on time but hovered between seventy and eighty percent of the City Insane Asylum for much of the period. The second, the “diseases” for which these men and women were incarcerated, set them apart from the rest of the asylum’s population.[5]

A closer look at two common diseases—stupidity and religious mania—illuminates the interaction between ethnicity and class as contributing to incarceration. Each of these diagnosed illnesses skewed heavily towards Black and migrant populations, with 81.25% of patients with stupidity and 100% of those with religious mania composed of African Americans or patients who were either foreign-born themselves or had foreign-born parents.[6]

This note, scrawled in one of the asylum’s record books by a staff member in 1866, indicates a central problem with asylum culture after emancipation. Doctors hoped to tie the inner workings of the mind to visible class and labor hierarchies. Though it is surely not what the note’s author meant, this project was indeed “a damn Humbug.”

Patients could be diagnosed with stupidity for an array of reasons. According to City Physician LeMonnier, Mike Murphy, a fisherman and New Orleans native who was almost certainly ethnically Irish, became stupid on November 14, 1882 “from an abuse of alcohol.” Although “his reasoning was good,” LeMonnier felt he had nonetheless “fallen into a state of childishness” leading to his arrest for vagrancy and incarceration in the asylum.

LeMonnier declared the 21-year-old Paul Pichet stupid on March 29, 1883, finding that “he cannot bear the sight of his father” and “breaks things about the house.” His French-born father and Irish mother delayed just over six months before agreeing to have their son committed to the State Insane Asylum in December at LeMonnier’s suggestion. [7]

The doctor declared African American inmates stupid too.

Mary Louise Morton, a Black patient suffering from stupidity, was arrested because she had hit another woman for beating her child. LeMonnier found her “sluggish” while her stutter and “ragged” appearance were sure signs of stupidity. He diagnosed Susie Lee, another African-American inmate, with stupidity for being “very stubborn” and refusing to answer his questions.[8]

By examining their physical appearance and demeanor, LeMonnier could gaze inside patients’ brains and separate the stupid from the sane. He possessed this same remarkable ability to decipher religious mania—the diagnosis that left William Sheldon bound to the state for insanity.

King Robinson, for example, believed that Jesus spoke to him. “Whatever you say to him or ask him,” LeMonnier observed, “he attempts to preach to you, in answer.” Likewise, Louisa Edwards, claimed “that the spirits are in her [and] have taken away her children.” As with his diagnoses of stupidity, LeMonnier converted normal human activity, in this case religious devotion, into aberrance with his medical gaze.

LeMonnier’s notes on King Robinson who, like William Sheldon, received a religious mania diagnosis from the doctor. LeMonnier declared him insane in part because the African American inmate tried to preach to him.

LeMonnier’s expert gaze, like the enslaver science that informed it, lingered on the laboring body. These bodies were designed, according to the findings of racial science, not for thought but for grueling physical labor. Thus, the medical experts consistently prescribed exercise for those they deemed insane. Chaillé recommended labor to treat the overwhelmingly foreign-born population of the State Insane Asylum in 1858 and perform “light work” including planting, chopping wood, hauling water, “giving them moderate exercise, and keeping their minds employed, thus calling them away from the various subjects upon which they are concentrated.” In fact, as the superintendent later testified, “were it not for the vegetables raised upon the premises, and mainly by the labor of the male patients,” the patients would have starved. In this sense, the asylum was both a space where racial science was constructed and deployed—where racist labor hierarchies were rationalized and enacted.[9]

Just as white elites were scouring the globe for a perfectly exploitable working body to replace formerly enslaved men and women, Louisiana’s asylums were doing the difficult work of constructing theories of mental incapacity to justify coercing the workers of the future. Such workers suffered from the same “stupidity” or “religious mania” that afflicted the Black working body. Using them for the same grueling work that had been done by former slaves, then, was not merely “humane,” but actually “treatment” for their alleged mental incapacity. Forced labor, by this logic, benefitted the coerced.

When the asylum ensnared Ah Sing, “a Chinaman,” it performed the difficult work of tying race and mental incapacity to new waves of “coolie” and migrant workers. LeMonnier wrote of Sing that “this man is very excited. Being a Chinaman nothing can be obtained from him.” Indeed, unable to communicate with his captors, it seems unlikely that LeMonnier even recorded the man’s real name. Unable to understand Sing, the doctor diagnosed his patient with “raving mania.” A few days later, he appeared better, but LeMonnier theorized that his “improved state is probably due to exhaustion.” As with the bound workers in the State Insane Asylum, the only logical “treatment” for Sing, who suffered from the serious affliction of speaking a different language, was strenuous manual labor.[10]

LeMonnier’s doctorly gaze into Sing’s mind accompanied more conventional avenues of Othering Chinese workers. This article in the New Orleans Republican, for example, told a likely apocryphal story about Chinese “coolie” Lee-Fouk-Wing’s offer to pay the city 15 cents for stray dogs to enjoy “pillowed upon snowy rice” on the sugar plantation where he and other migrants labored.
“The Coolie Appetite,” New Orleans Republican, November 24, 1870, page 4.

The new generations of migrants sought out by white elites to till the state’s soil and harvest its crops required a revamped racial science to justify the systems of compulsion the state created to force their labor. Medical professionals like LeMonnier prodded the migrant body, even taking notes on Sing’s tongue, to produce an anatomy of its alleged physical capacities and corresponding intellectual deficiencies. These scientific servants of elite interests created a vision of the migrant body that perfectly matched the ideal working body of slavery that must be kept at labor to avoid illness.

As the Trump administration pushes one of the most racist anti-immigration programs in our country’s history—seeking not only to thwart undocumented migrants but also to suppress legal immigration—it bears noting that it tied its policy shift to spectacular displays of migrant bodies. Migrant children are locked in cages like dogs or housed behind barbed wire under an overpass. Historian Carly Goodman recently reminded me on Twitter that these displays of migrants, though they can elicit sympathy, also serve to depict the migrant body in functional terms.

Within Goodman’s framework, the president’s penchant for cruelty points to a fanatical belief in racial hierarchy. Indeed, the Trump administration brazenly administers antipsychotic drugs to migrant children, tracks migrant teens’ pregnancies, and even discusses testing “abortion reversal” methods on undocumented children. Migrant minds, depicted as criminal and perverse, are divorced from migrant bodies, uniquely capable of withstanding incredible torment while retaining their fearsome ability to “take our jobs.” These characterizations, amplified by our president, draw on a long history of racial science designed to show racial and ethnic Others as ideally suited to manual labor. Similar ideas have been used to justify—and even to exacerbate—existing inequality for generations. They remain, as they have always been, racist lies.

Further Reading

For more on race and asylums, see Peter McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996); Matthew Gambino, “‘These Strangers Within Our Gates’: Race, Psychiatry, and Mental Illness Among Black Americans at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, 1900-40.” History of Psychiatry 19, no. 4 (2008): 387-408; Martin Summers, “‘Suitable Care of the African When Afflicted with Insanity’: Race, Madness, and Social Order in Comparative Perspective,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 84 (Spring, 2010): 58-91.


[1] Yves R. LeMonnier, Record of Patients, 1883, p. 81, New Orleans City Insane Asylum, City Archives, New Orleans Public Library (NOPL). I do not mean to suggest that Sheldon did or did not suffer from mental illness, but to indicate the ways that elite notions of labor and power mapped morbidity onto the working body of the Other. Foucault famously takes this approach in A History of Madness and, while it has its limits, I find it useful when narrowly applied to the “discoveries” of postemancipation racial science. Michel Foucault, A History of Madness (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1972).

[2] A growing body of literature shows that wealthy white elites shaped our understanding of race by using “science” to cement existing systems of power in slavery. See Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[3] Stanford Emerson Chaillé, A Memoir of the Insane Asylum of the state of Louisiana, at Jackson (Baton Rouge: J.M. Taylor, State Printer, 1858), 9-10. A similar example of science doing slavery’s bidding is the 1840 census, which infamously recorded an impossible number of free persons of color as insane in an attempt to make a statistical argument against abolition. See Paul Schor, Counting Americans: How the US Census Classified the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 30-42.

[4] As Christopher Willoughby argues, slavery’s science exerted an overwhelming influence on the burgeoning American medical profession and embedded racism in subsequent medical practice and research. Christopher Willoughby, “Running Away from Drapetomania: Samuel A. Cartwright, Medicine, and Race in the Antebellum South,” Journal of Southern History 84, no. 3 (2018): 579-614.

[5] Those interested Louisiana’s asylums should see Nathaniel P. Weston, “The Evolution of Mental Health Administration and Treatment in Antebellum Louisiana,” Louisiana History 40, No. 3 (Summer, 1999): 305-326; Gilles Vandal, “Curing the Insane in New Orleans: The Failure of the ‘Temporary Insane Asylum,’ 1852-1882,” Louisiana History 46, no. 2 (Spring, 2005): 155-184.

[6] LeMonnier, Record of Patients, City Archives. If Mike Murphy, mentioned below, is counted as being ethnically Irish, as he almost certainly was, diagnoses of stupidity rise to 87.5% African American or migrant.

[7] LeMonnier, Record of Patients, 75.

[8] LeMonnier, Record of Patients, 41, Michael Murphy, 1880 Census, New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana, Roll 459, Enumeration District 024; Page 576A, line 27; Paul Pichet, 1880 Census, New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana, Enumeration District 037, Roll 461, Page 256D, line 40.

[9] Chaillé, A Memoir, 8;Louis Burgess, “Report of the Superintendent,” in Annual Report of the Board of Administrators of the Louisiana Insane Asylum to the Legislature (New Orleans, 1874), 5.

[10] LeMonnier, Record of Patients, 12; For more on the so-called “coolie” labor movement, see Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

William Horne, Associate Editor of The Activist History Review, writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His research interests include systems of power revolving around concepts of race, labor, incarceration, capitalism, and the state. He is a former high school teacher, barista, and warehouse worker and is an avid home gardener. His dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He holds a PhD in history from The George Washington University and can be followed on Twitter at @wihorne.

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