In A Nutshell
Bioterrorism is a specter modern science and technology has inadvertently unleashed upon the world. Yet the attempt to turn disease-carrying viruses and bacteria into weapons of mass destruction is nothing new. Medieval warfare saw corpses of plague victims thrown at the enemy to spread disease. White settlers sometimes deliberately infected Native Americans with smallpox. During the US Civil War, Confederate sympathizers hatched a plan for a massive biological attack on major cities of the Northern states. Only the rebels’ ignorance of the capabilities of their weapon of choice spared the North from what could have been an apocalyptic scenario.
The Whole Bushel
In the summer of 1864, the Confederacy appeared to be a losing cause. Northern industries were turning out war materiel in quantities the agricultural South could not possibly match. Shorthanded on the battlefield, the Confederates decided to take the war to the civilian population of the North. Their weapon of terror was the dreaded yellow fever.
The terrorists were aware of the gruesome fate their victims would face. The disease, nicknamed “Yellow Jack” for the flag carried by quarantined ships, was accompanied by hemorrhagic fever that caused bleeding from the nose and mouth. The victim vomited a black substance consisting mostly of dried blood. Sufferers were dead within days.
That year, Bermuda had an outbreak of yellow fever. A doctor from Kentucky named Luke Blackburn went to Bermuda to offer help free of charge. Dr, Blackburn had experience in treating patients of yellow fever in Louisiana and Mississippi.
People impressed by his apparent altruism didn’t know of his darker motive. Dr. Blackburn was a Southern sympathizer, and he was in Bermuda to collect what he hoped might be infected articles from the victims. Soiled bedding, clothes, rags, and other items were packed into five trunks. His nefarious deed completed, Dr. Blackburn returned to his base in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The plan was to deliver the trunks to Halifax and from there send the (hopefully) plague-ridden articles to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Washington, where they would infect the populace. Dr. Blackburn was also said to have included new clothing in the trunks which, after being contaminated, could be sent to clothing merchants in the target cities, who would then spread the fever among their customers. A witness testified that Blackburn had prepared a valise of infected shirts to be delivered by express to President Abraham Lincoln as a gift. The contents of the largest trunk was bound for Washington, where, Dr. Blackburn remarked, “It will kill them at sixty yards.”
Another conspirator named Godfey Hyams smuggled the apparent weapons of mass destruction into Washington and returned to Halifax to collect the $100,000 promised him by Blackburn. The doctor withheld payment until Hyams produced proof of his delivery. While Hyams waited for the receipt from the clothing merchant in the capital, Blackburn returned to Bermuda to gather more infected clothing. This time, he entrusted one Edward Swan to ship three trunks to New York for “the destruction of the masses there.”
Swan was never able to transport the trunks. In April 1865, the still-unpaid Hyams vented his frustration by revealing the plot to the US consul in Toronto in exchange for immunity. Another informant tipped off authorities in Bermuda about the suspicious trunks in Swan’s house. Police and health officers raided the house, arrested Swan, and confiscated the evidence. At Swan’s trial, nurses implicated Dr. Blackburn, whom they saw taking the linen and clothes contaminated with black vomit out of patients’ homes. The physician was arrested in Montreal in May.
Meanwhile, President Lincoln had been assassinated, and Hyams became a government witness to Confederate plots against the president. He testified to hearing about the valise of shirts being sent to Lincoln, though no record exists of what actually happened to the valise. Without any solid evidence that he specifically targeted a head of state, Blackburn could not be charged with conspiracy to commit murder under British law. Instead, he was charged with violating Canada’s neutrality law in allowing the trunks, as weapons of war, into Canadian soil. But neither did prosecutors have sufficient proof that the trunks were smuggled into Canada, and Blackburn was eventually acquitted.
Dr. Luke Blackburn served one term as governor of Kentucky after the war. He dismissed all accusations against him as “too preposterous for intelligent gentlemen to believe.” Whatever his real role in the plot, Blackburn never knew that it would not have worked anyway.
Yellow fever cannot be transmitted from person to person or from “contaminated” items. It is a virus spread by mosquitoes, a fact only discovered in the early 20th century. Dr. Blackburn had no way of knowing that his bombs were actually duds.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo via Wikipedia
NY Times: New York Was Bioterrorism Target, in 1864
Oddly Historical: Confederate Bio-warfare: Dr. Blackburn and the Yellow Fever Plot
Civil War Profiles: Yellow Fever Plot of 1864 Targeted Lincoln, U.S. Cities