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Harriet Tubman An Acquired Savant, Says Rain Man's Doctor

Underground Railroad heroine had profound gifts after a head injury.

By Maureen Seaberg and Dr. Darold A. Treffert

Harriet Tubman photo, public domain
Source: Harriet Tubman photo, public domain

They called her Moses. Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in Maryland in 1822 as Araminta "Minty" Ross, had such odds-defying success as a conductor on the Underground Railroad that she earned the honorific for the patriarch who led the Jews out of Egypt. More than 70 slaves were personally liberated by her and many hundreds more escaped to freedom due to her careful instructions from afar. But was it more than hard work and good luck?

It is time to reconsider the profound perceptual abilities of one of our nation's finest heroines.

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger,” she said at a women’s suffrage convention in 1896. By then she had added gender rights to her humanitarian efforts.

Though much has been written about the diminutive powerhouse (she stood only five feet tall) few people know that Harriet Tubman was a brain injury survivor. Not only did she live a heroic and extremely vital life despite the injury, it is our position that she likely became a savant from the blow to her head in childhood.

We scoured her biographies and found plenty of evidence -- albeit not emphasized -- in the histories.

According to Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., author of a 2004 biography of Tubman titled Bound for the Promised Land, the heroine was somewhere between 12 and 14 years of age when she was felled. “It was late fall, sometime between 1834 and 1836, when Tubman was nearly killed by a blow to her head from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer at another fleeing slave.”

The author states that Tubman was at the time working as a field hand for a farmer at a neighboring property to her plantation and was asked to accompany their cook to a store to purchase groceries. “When they arrived at the store, Tubman attempted to block the path of the overseer who was in pursuit of a defiant slave boy. The overseer picked up a weight from the store counter and threw it, intending to fell the fleeing young man, but it struck Tubman with such crushing force that it fractured her skull and drove fragments of her shawl into her head. Near death, she was forced to return to work in the fields,” wrote the author.

“I went to work again and there I worked with the blood and sweat rolling down my face till I couldn’t see,” Tubman reportedly told her friend, Emma Telford.

The massive blow resulted in headaches, seizures, and periods of semi-consciousness, and probably Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which she experienced throughout her life, according to Larson, who says that the injury caused her great pain and suffering.

But remarkably, “the head injury also coincided with an explosion of religious enthusiasm and vivid visions, which eventually took on an important role in Tubman’s life,” Larson states. This intense spirituality, punctuated by potent dreams that she claimed foretold the future, influenced not only her own courses of action, but also the way other people viewed her.’’

Is this a case of acquired savant syndrome? It would appear so.

Acquired savant syndrome is a rare circumstance in which an ordinary person develops extraordinary new skills and abilities following most often, a head injury, but it can also develop post-stroke or as a part of an ongoing dementia process. In this case the history of a severe head injury is well documented by a number of writers.

It's important in this postmortem diagnosis that there was an aftermath – an explosive onset of what appears to be temporal lobe epilepsy with absence seizures, spontaneous semi-conscious states resembling narcolepsy (except Tubman was aware of what was going on around her), visions, vivid dreaming and intense headache. Later in life Tubman had some neurosurgical procedures without any apparent relief.

With those painful and debilitating trade-offs though, there seems to the emergence of some special abilities as happens in acquired savant syndrome. Here is a person who could not read or write and who had no formal education. Yet some of the generals during the Civil War described Tubman as providing intelligence during battles using her extensive geography memory from her many complicated, but secret slave-releasing trips as “conductor” of the railroad. Like railroads, Tubman seemed to have a specific route and destination along with a precise timetable to begin and arrive, usually in darkness.

Some writers report that Tubman designed an ingenious code for signaling to her charges whether it was safe to proceed on the railroad that involved the speed at which she sang spirituals—faster rhythm meant danger ahead and so on.

Dr. Arthur Jones, associate dean of the Colorado Women's College at the University of Denver told USA Today last year that Tubman herself believed she had extraordinary abilities.

"She kind of attributed her safety and sense of safety to the sense that she had these supernatural powers," Jones said.

And former college professor Karen Fox, Ph.D., added that in the book Harriet Tubman: The Moses of her People by Sarah Bradford, the heroine is described as “using her nighttime dreams where to take slaves so they can be free. She also had waking visions that would modify the dreams if she felt like you better stop and not go that way she wouldn't," Fox said.

In Harriet Tubman: Slavery, the Civil War, And Civil Rights in the 19th Century, author Kristen T. Oertel said, “she believed her dreams and visions allowed her to foresee the future...bright lights, colorful auras (aura-seeing is now considered a form of emotionally-mediated synesthesia according to research by Dr. Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex in England:, disembodied voices, states of tremendous anxiety and fear alternating with exceptional hyperactivity and fearlessness, and dreamlike trances while appearing to be conscious.”

Emma Bryce recently wrote, “Afterwards, Tubman began to experience crushing headaches, and became epileptic as well as narcoleptic. She lived with the symptoms of these disorders for the rest of her life, regularly falling into deep and sudden sleeps that lasted up to an hour at a time. She claimed she was driven by messages from God. These directives, Tubman said, came to her during her narcoleptic dreams.”

Earl Conrad, a biographer who chronicled Tubman’s life in 1943, described her visions this way: “One of the results of the sickness was that she developed a very extensive dream life. These dreams she would relate to the people about her, and she began to present them as visions, and she gave vent to expressions of foreboding, omens, warnings, and signs of this sort."

Coincidentally there is another savant, born to a slave mother, who became a celebrity during almost exactly the same years as Tubman. Thomas Greene Buthune, known popularly as “Blind Tom” was born in 1848. His mother, Charity Wiggins, was sold as a slave to General James N. Buthune. He was blind and showed evidence of serious cognitive disability. Tom’s incredible musical abilities surfaced as a child with no formal training or education. By age 5 he had written his first song—”the rain storm”—and ultimately developed a repertoire of over 7000 songs. At age 8 he gave his first concert and at age 11 performed at the White House for President Buchanan, repeating one 13-page piece and one 20-page piece having heard each only one time. He went on to eventually perform internationally. He was the highest earning black concert artist of the 19th Century. One of his favorite feats was playing “Yankee Doodle” in B flat with the right hand, “Fishers Hornpipe” in C with his left hand, all the while singing “Early in the Morning”. Tom’s most famous piece is “The Battle of Manassas” reconstructing an eyewitness account of that Civil War confederate battle with notes to imitate cannon shots, troop train whistles and other battle sounds.

Tom died in 1908; Tubman died in 1913. Both had talents so great they're nearly inexplicable.

There are more childrens books about Harriet Tubman than any other African-American hero. A new HBO biopic is in development and her image will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill soon. However no one emphasizes the fact that she was a brain injury survivor who developed uncanny perceptive abilities after being hit in the head.

Tubman was truly an extraordinary person with exceptional energy, ingenuity and resolve all the while struggling with neurological symptoms that would have sidelined most people. Yet she accomplished much and is a true heroine. Her sensorium was heightened, including her sense of direction. Was she an acquired savant? We think so. And if so that makes her remarkable story, and her, even more remarkable.

Courtesy Darold Treffert
Source: Courtesy Darold Treffert

Thank you to Dr. Darold A. Treffert for collaborating with me on this post. Dr. Treffert is the Dean of Savants and was famously the physician of the late Kim Peek, known as "Rain Man". People with extraordinary abilities from all over the world seek his counsel, flying to his home state of Wisconsin to consult with him. The author of many authoritative books on the topic, more of his work can be seen here: