09 March 2013

The Yellow Fever Plot

Luke P. Blackburn
I've got a problem with literary and dramatic portrayals of betrayal.  They're so damned obvious.  Of course, your best friend will pull the rug out from under you in the fourth act.  It's drama.  Failing that, it's politics.  C'mon, Mr. Ides of March, you mean you never noticed your "natural son" wanted a bigger piece of the action.  This is Rome--Hellooo! Ditto, most historical cases.  Backstabbing, assassinations, musical chair loyalties--they're the facts of life at any seat of power.  In Japan's Warring States Period, for example, you not only couldn't tell the players without a program, you needed a new program every eight minutes.
But sometimes, people betray what they are.  The U.S. saw a lot of that in the Civil War.  One of the most egregious cases involved a doctor.
Luke P. Blackburn was a Kentucky doctor routinely proclaimed a hero for his efforts to succor yellow fever victims.  He was also a loyal son of the Confederacy who wanted to use his expertise to aid the cause.  Not by ministering to the ill and injured, though he did some of that.  No, Blackburn sought to use his knowledge of yellow fever to commit what might have been the largest case of bio-terrorism in American history.
Yellow fever was one of the 19th century's most feared diseases.  Over the course of the century it would suddenly appear in the Caribbean, New Orleans, Philadelphia, even New York, and within days thousands would die in great pain, jaundiced from liver damage and vomiting blood.
By the time of the Civil War, medicine had advanced to the point where most doctors understood the concept of contagion--that infections could be spread by contact or, more importantly, contact with a diseased individual's bodily fluids.  As a result, Blackburn and many other doctors had embraced the then radical practice of washing their hands after dealing with each patient.
It's likely Blackburn attributed his immunity to the disease, despite treating so many yellow fever sufferers, to good hygiene.  If that was the case, the reverse must also be true--whoever touched the sufferers, their belongings, or their blood, urine and vomit, was at grave risk of contracting the disease.
So, after treating the victims of an 1864 epidemic in Bermuda, he collected their bloody, vomit- and urine-stained clothing in several trunks, and arranged to transport and sell the trunks in various northern cities and Union-occupied territories.  Purportedly, he even took credit for a yellow fever outbreak which killed over two thousand in a Union-occupied town.
This is a betrayal of epic proportions.  All is not fair in love and war.  It hasn't been since the 6th century B.C., when an alliance of Greek powers wiped out the city of Kirra by introducing hellebore root into its water supply.  "No poison" remained one of the few inviolable principles of western warfare until the early 20th century.
The general repugnance at the Kirra atrocity was so great, it is believed to have played a key role in the creation of the Hippocratic Oath, the basis of all medical ethics.  The fellow who devised the hellebore plot was a medical man named Nebros, who may have been an ancestor of Hippocrates of Kos.  Many Greek historians believe Hippocrates came up with the oath in an effort to expiate his ancestor's crime and distance medical practioners from the stain of his genocide.
In any event, the key provision of the oath, the same oath Blackburn had sworn to uphold, is to abstain from doing harm.  I think we can say he totally blew it.
Admittedly, much of the evidence of Blackburn's intent comes from a turncoat rebel who was well paid for his testimony in 1865.  However, independent investigations in Bermuda turned up hard evidence that Blackburn had been collecting the clothing for no comprehensible reason.  He wasn't saving the garments for the victims' relatives, and he didn't need the money the sale would bring.
Eventually, he was brought up on charges...in Canada, where he'd fled to avoid Union harassment.  Blackburn refused to testify at his trial, and ultimately all charges were dropped based on various technicalities.  It didn't hurt that he had money and was eager to get back to his work...with yellow fever victims. 
He returned to the United States in 1867 to minister to the victims of an outbreak in New Orleans.  He still didn't catch the disease.  Ultimately, he went home to Kentucky where he was elected governor.  Which goes to prove, girls and boys, that crime does pay--if the voters happen to agree with your position in "The War of Northern Aggression".  Four years after his death in 1887, the state erected a granite monument over his grave featuring a relief of the Good Samaritan. 
Never let it be said the universe lacks a sense of irony.
Perhaps even more ironic is that his plot couldn't have worked.  He may have taken credit for those two thousand deaths, but the clothes he so carefully collected had nothing to do with it.  Disgusting as the disease's black vomit is, it plays no role in the transmission of yellow fever.  For that you need mosquitoes.

Jean Marie Ward

If you'd like to learn more about Luke P. Blackburn and the Yellow Fever Plot, Wikipedia's article on the governor is a good place to start.  My favorite bit of trivia is the fact he graduated from Transylvania University.  Yeah, I know it's in Kentucky, but you've gotta admit Dracula would've loved him.
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