Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Wicked Dr. Blackburn

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on August 24, 2010

I’ve just finished Andrew McIlwaine Bell’s Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Course of the American Civil War. It’s a wonderful book, and while I’ve had a good idea of how the spread of yellow fever affected events on the Texas coast, it’s revealing to see how widespread the problem was and how fundamentally it shaped operations during the war. Early in the war, Winfield Scott had cautioned against hasty and ill-prepared operations in the South, and instead urged General McClellan to wait for “the return of frosts to kill the virus of malignant fevers below Memphis.” In this, as so much else, the old general proved prescient.

One of the great stories Bell reveals is the Confederacy’s attempted use of biological warfare — specifically yellow fever — against the North.

Luke Pryor Blackburn (left; 1816-1887) was a Kentucky physician who had gained an international reputation as an expert on the treatment of yellow fever. Although no one, including Blackburn, recognized mosquitoes as the vector by which the disease spread, by the early 1860s Blackburn was famous for his knowledge and understanding of the disease. With the outbreak of the war, Blackburn held a number of offices supporting the Confederate government before, in late 1863, he relocated to neutral Canada to help in making arrangements for blockade runners.

Like another well-known native of a border state, John Wilkes Booth, Blackburn harbored a deep and smoldering hatred for the Union cause and, in particular, Abraham Lincoln. Like Booth, Blackburn never quite managed to find a way to get into a gray uniform during four long years of hard war. And like Booth, Blackburn would channel his anger and intellect into an improbable scheme that would, in his own mind at least, topple the Union government and its president.

In December 1863 Blackburn met in Toronto with Godfrey Hyams, an English-born Arkansas cobbler who’d skeddadled to Canada to get out of the way of the war, but who subsequently decided he needed to do something more substantial to support his adopted home. Like Blackburn, Hyams seems not to have been interested in military service, so the two Southern expats instead cooked up a plot to spread yellow fever throughout Northern cities, where the disease was less common than in the South, and where they believed the population would be far more vulnerable to it. Now all the pair needed was an epidemic, from which they could “harvest” the disease in a transmissible form.

In the spring of 1864 an outbreak of yellow fever occurred in Bermuda. Blackburn offered his services to officials there who, aware of his reputation as an expert on the disease, quickly agreed. Blackburn ministered to the sick and, in the process, accumulated a large collection of clothing from the dead and dying. The idea was that the (supposedly) infectious clothing could be easily and widely distributed, spreading the disease silently and without a trace to its origin. Blackburn returned to Halifax in July 1864 with eight trunks packed with yellow fever victims’ clothing, along with a fine new valise packed with expensive new shirts. The trunks were to be delivered to New Bern, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia (both cities at the time being under Federal control) and Washington, D.C. The valise was special, Blackburn told his accomplice; he had previously stored fever victims’ clothing in it, and Hyams was to deliver it directly to the Executive Mansion in Washington, where he was to leave it as a personal gift for the president. Hyams flatly refused to deliver the valise, but took the rest to Washington, where he sold five trunks of clothing at a local auction house, and arranged to have the others sent on to Norfolk and New Bern. Hyams then returned to Toronto, where he found Blackburn preparing for another “collecting” trip to Bermuda.

This time Blackburn collected three trunks full of clothes stained and soiled with the infamous “black vomit” — actually half-digested blood from internal hemorrhaging — and other excretions of yellow fever victims, and made arrangements for them to be shipped to New York. By this time, though, it was fall and Blackburn decided to delay the shipment until the following spring, when rising temperatures would aid in the spread of the disease. Blackburn left his trunks full of clothing with a shipping agent named Swan, and boarded a steamer for Canada.

In the meantime, Hyams had gotten tired of cooling his heels in Canada, waiting for the $100,000 payoff that Blackburn kept promising but never came through on. He crossed the border to Detroit, strode into the U.S. attorney’s office there, and told all he knew in return for immunity. About the same time, local informants in Bermuda tipped off authorities about the trunks in storage there, and Blackburn’s game was up.

There is ample evidence to show that while Blackburn and Hyams were operating on their own initiative, they did so with the full cognizance of the Confederate government. Hyams revealed that funds for his Washington trip had been provided by Colonel Jacob Thompson, a Confederate operative who was involved in other covert operations to sow destruction and unrest in the North. Thompson’s secretary, a man named Cleary, was a close confidant of Jefferson Davis and revealed that the Confederate president was aware of the plot, although not directly involved in it. Davis and Blackburn had been friends before the war, and Davis had received two letters from a mutual acquaintance who told Davis of the plot, and urged him not employ such tactics against their enemy. Davis ignored the letters and did nothing to discourage Blackburn.

In April 1865 Blackburn was charged by the U.S. Bureau of Military Justice with conspiracy to commit murder, but he remained in Canada, outside the reach of military authorities. The Canadian government tried him for violating their neutrality laws, but he was acquitted and allowed to remain in Toronto. He returned to his native Kentucky, which had never been placed formally under congressional control during Reconstruction, in 1872 and gradually rebuilt his prewar medical practice. He successfully ran for governor of Kentucky, serving from 1879 to 1883.

Upon his death in 1887, Luke Pryor Blackburn was buried beneath a monument bearing a bronze relief depicting the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

h/t: Jane Johansson’s Trans-Mississippian Blog.