Harriet Tubman's Boston: 1890s

The following article is part of a series exploring Harriet Tubman's deep connections to Boston, highlighting several key moments, people, and places that illustrate her long relationship with the city and its community. To learn more, visit Harriet Tubman's Boston.

Massachusetts General Hospital with a large lawn in front with trees bordering the lawn.
Massachusetts General Hospital, ca. 1888-1890.

Boston Public Library

"He sawed open my skull, and raised it up."

Massachusetts General Hospital

Sometime in the late 1890s, Tubman underwent major surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. As an enslaved child, she endured a severe head injury when an overseer hurled a lead weight at her in anger. Stemming from that injury, Tubman continuously suffered from debilitating seizures and other painful conditions. According to Tubman:

When I was in Boston I walked out one day, I saw a great big building, I asked a man what it was, and he said it was a hospital. So I went right in, and I saw a young man there, and I said, "Sir, are you a doctor?" and he said he was; then I said "Sir, do you think you could cut my head open?"...Then I told him the whole story, and how my head was giving me a powerful sight of trouble lately, with achin' and buzzin', so I couldn't get no sleep at night.

She refused anesthesia, instead preferring to bite on a bullet like the soldiers she saw undergoing amputation during the Civil War. She continued:

I just lay down like a lamb before a slaughter and he sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more hurt, of course; but I got up and put on my bonnet and started to walk home, but my legs kind of give out under me, and they sent for a ambulance and sent me home.1


1. Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: One World, 2005), 282.

Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: February 28, 2022