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Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn

In the spring of 1865, Northern newspapers printed hysteria-producing reports about an alleged diabolical Southern plot to infect Northern cities and armies with yellow fever. On several occasions during the colonial period, the dreaded disease had devastated cities in the north, but after 1820 it was primarily an annual hot weather problem in the lower Mississippi Valley.

The cause of the disease was unknown, but it was believed to be transmitted through contact with infected persons or their personal possessions. Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn, a leading American authority on yellow fever who had won wide acclaim for his successful efforts in epidemic control, served as a Confederate agent in Canada during the war. When yellow fever broke out in Bermuda in April 1864, Blackburn went there and volunteered his services. He stayed until the disease abated in late October and received praise from the British authorities for his work.

Allegedly, Dr. Blackburn packed a number of trunks with infected clothing from disease victims and shipped the trunks to several Northern cities and army bases to be sold as secondhand clothes. One trunk reportedly went to Union-controlled New Bern, N.C., where, during the summer of 1864, an epidemic broke out and killed more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians. Godfrey Joseph Hyams, a Union informer of dubious reputation, provided details of the plot and claimed to have been working for Blackburn when he delivered infected clothes to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Norfolk.

Newspapers viewed the plot as an "outrage against humanity" and called Blackburn a "monster" and an "inhuman wretch." He was arrested in Canada, but was acquitted by a Canadian court in October 1865 because of lack of evidence. No further action was taken against Blackburn. Not until years later did scientists learn that yellow fever could be transmitted only by a type of mosquito.

The alleged scheme is inconsistent with blackburn's humanitarian services before and after the war. He resumed his practice in Kentucky after the war, and was elected governor. His gravestone is inscribed "the Good Samaritan."