- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

The Civil War brought Southern blockade runners and commercial prosperity to Bermuda, but it also brought the yellow fever epidemic of 1864. That, in turn, led to one of the earliest attempts at germ warfare, courtesy of a Kentucky-born physician, Luke Pryor Blackburn.

Had Blackburn’s plot succeeded, he could have caused the deaths of thousands. It is a little-known story of the Civil War.

For the most part, the island had escaped the ravages of yellow fever, which had swept through the Caribbean, until two sailors sick with the dread disease arrived at St. George on the blockade runner Fannie. They would bear the blame for the infection at the time, although it actually was spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

Unsanitary conditions around the crowded town provided ample breeding grounds for the insect, and some 3,000 people died by the time the fever had run its course. It was a terrible epidemic, with the doomed suffering hemorrhagic fever, bleeding from the nose and mouth and producing a dark black vomit, usually said to resemble coffee grounds.

One man who arrived in Bermuda from Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the fall of 1864, when the epidemic was at its peak, stood out as a veritable hero at the time: Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn.

Born in Woodford County, Ky., he had gotten his medical degree from Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky., in 1835 and had begun practicing in nearby Versailles. Transylvania also counted Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby and Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan among its alumni. Blackburn would play a different role from the military men, but one potentially as deadly.

After college, Blackburn turned up in Natchez, Miss., where he established effective quarantines in the Mississippi River Valley against yellow fever. He also was recognized for work in Florida as well as his native Kentucky, where he appears to have lost just 150 patients out of 462 infected with the disease. In St. George, he was heralded as a compassionate savior of many ill people — but he had a more nefarious objective in mind.

It must be remembered that the connection of the disease to a mosquito carrier had yet to be determined. It was still believed that contact between persons, or even their clothing, could spread the disease, and Blackburn seized upon this idea to formulate a diabolical way of helping his Southern brothers.

Collecting the bloody clothing and even the vomit-stained bedding of those who had died of yellow fever, he packed the “diseased items” into a large trunk. He quietly purchased additional fresh linens and put them in with the supposedly infected ones. His plan was to ship the contaminated goods to several Northern cities, where he hoped the contagion would spread among Union troops and effectively decimate them.

In an attempt to distance himself from the ultimate effect he hoped to create, he left the trunk with an acquaintance in Bermuda, a Mr. Swan, and took off for Canada. He would, he said, let Swan know when and where to ship the trunk full of supposed contaminants. For some reason, his “friend” reported the scheme to the U.S. consul, Charles Allen, who passed on the information to local health officials. Swan was quickly arrested and charged with “harboring a nuisance,” and a warrant was issued for Blackburn’s arrest.

At the same time, local officials seized the trunk and quickly burned it and its contents to avoid the supposed spread of contagion. When Blackburn was brought to trial in Canada for the crime, the evidence had been destroyed, the case against him could not stand, and all charges were dismissed.

Though apocryphal stories spread across the South (and North) of yellow fever epidemics begun by Blackburn’s infected-bedding scheme, no clothing or linens ever left Bermuda, and of course, the mosquito remained the unacknowledged culprit.

“People were genuinely sorry” when the doctor left the island, Walter Brownell Hayward wrote in his 1910 book “Bermuda Past and Present,” but they would soon learn the cause of his hasty departure.

The rampant epidemic took a toll on blockade running, and at least one ship may have sunk because of it. Recently spotlighted on the History Channel were divers attempting to find the cause of the sinking of the Mary Celestia, which was berthed in Bermuda with several of its sailors debilitated by yellow fever.

She had made at least eight successful runs transporting blankets and ammunition, but the ninth was her last. When the regular pilot succumbed to the fever, a new pilot, John Virgin, took over the helm. He was unfamiliar with the surrounding reefs, and the ship sank in six minutes.

Blackburn would follow postwar epidemics of yellow fever, successfully treating victims in Florida; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans as well as in his native state. It would take the efforts of former Union Maj. Walter Reed to discover the mosquito carrier of yellow fever. Reed’s name would outlive Blackburn’s. The 92-year-old Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington bears his name.

As for Blackburn, he returned to Kentucky in 1872 and seven years later easily won election as governor, serving until 1883, when he returned to his medical practice. Among his accomplishments as governor were improvements in the state’s penal system, the issuing of pardons to alleviate overcrowding, and the securing of funding for what would be a new prison at Eddyville.

The mammoth building made of red stone known as the “Castle on the Cumberland” stands today, a maximum-security prison, as a monument to the hard work and dedication of Luke Pryor Blackburn.

Blackburn married Ella Gist Boswell, and they had one son. After her death in 1856, he married Julia Churchill. It is difficult to reconcile the doctor’s acts and apparent intentions during the war with his salutary ones both before and after it. He died Sept. 14, 1877, and is buried in Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort, Ky.

His tombstone says that “in his great soul, justice, honor and mercy ruled together and sordid aspirations held no sway. He rests with the blessed who have feared God and loved their fellow men.”

Thus is he remembered.

Martha M. Boltz, a member of the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table, is a frequent contributor to this page.

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