Have you heard of this Civil War–era bioterrorism plot?
Though many assume that germ warfare is a fairly modern method of war, the use of biological weapons, including the use of venoms, plant toxins and other poisonous substances to infect and defeat enemies is, in fact, an ancient practice. The earliest documented incidents involve victims infected with tularemia being driven into enemy lands, which resulted in a widespread epidemic. Other notable examples include Scythian archers (during the 4th century BC) who dipped the tips of their arrows in snake venom, human blood and animal feces to cause enemies’ wounds to become infected. Similar efforts first occurred in North America as early as the French and Indian War, when the British provided representatives of indigenous tribes with blankets and smallpox-exposed handkerchiefs enclosed in small metal boxes.
One of the most organized and diabolical efforts to infect civilians in the United States occurred during the Civil War when Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn, a Kentucky-born physician–turned–Confederate agent, devised an elaborate bioterrorism plot to infect President Lincoln and major Northern U.S. cities with yellow fever. Blackburn had attended Transylvania University, the same school as Albert Sidney Johnston and Jefferson Davis, where he’d obtained a medical degree in 1835. By 1863 Blackburn had held a number of offices supporting the Confederate government. When the war began, he’d served as a surgeon on the staff of General Sterling Price, and during that time he’d established wide acclaim as an expert on yellow fever. When a sudden outbreak occurred on the island of Bermuda in the spring of 1864, he volunteered his services.
Like many Southerners, Blackburn possessed a deep, burning hatred for Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. While in Bermuda, he began considering a plot to introduce a disease into Northern cities that would demoralize the citizens and military and bring an end to the war. Because he possessed an extensive knowledge of the effects of yellow fever, he was particularly suited for the cause. He remained on the island until the outbreak ended in late October, even receiving praise from the British authorities for his work. While he was there treating patients, however, he’d carried out the details of the plot, secretly collecting the bedding and clothing from infected patients.
Upon leaving Bermuda, Blackburn packed the soiled linens into five trunks and one suitcase before traveling to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he met a man named Godfrey Hyams, an Arkansas cobbler, and offered him $100,000 to deliver the trunks to Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Washington, DC; New Bern, North Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia (the latter two cities were controlled by the Union army). In addition to instructing Hyams to dispose of the clothing by auction, he also specified that the suitcase was to be delivered to the Executive Mansion in Washington as a personal gift to President Lincoln. In July of 1864, while traveling under the alias of J.W. Harris, Hyams accompanied the trunks to Boston and Philadelphia, before arriving in Washington, DC. Once there, he sold the majority of the clothing to used-clothing merchants and to the local auction house of W.L. Wall and Co. The remainder of the clothing was given to a civilian merchant headed to Newbern, North Carolina, who agreed to sell the clothing on commission. That summer a yellow fever epidemic reportedly broke out in Newbern and killed more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians.
Having completed the assigned tasks and eager for payment, Hyams traveled to Toronto to meet Blackburn. However, Blackburn refused payment, insisting that Hyams provide proof from the Washington merchant. While Hyams waited to receive an auction receipt from the merchant, Blackburn traveled to Bermuda to aid in another yellow fever outbreak. While there, he again collected three trunks of infected garments. But because fall was quickly approaching, and because the potency of the disease is minimized in cold climates, Blackburn decided to delay the shipment. Soon after, he contracted the services of a shipping agent named Edward C. Swan, instructing Swan to ship the three trunks of contaminated clothing to New York City later that spring.
By April of 1865, however, Hyams had become frustrated. Convinced he’d never receive payment and frightened he’d eventually be charged with a crime, he walked into the office of David Thurston, the U.S. consul in Toronto, and agreed to expose Confederate espionage operations originating in Canada in exchange for remuneration and immunity. Later, Hyams testified as a government witness to Confederate plots against the president. As Hyams was testifying, an informant notified the U.S. counsel’s office that trunks of infected clothing were located at the house of Edward Swan, and Blackburn’s second plot in Bermuda was exposed. Swan was arrested for “harboring a nuisance detrimental to the health of the community.” During his Bermuda trial, nurses and other health officials testified that they’d witnessed Blackburn collecting soiled linen, sheets and pillowcases from patients and packing them into trunks.
Having secured sufficient evidence, the U.S. Bureau of Military Justice arrested and charged Blackburn with conspiracy to commit murder, and he was transferred to Toronto to stand trial. For a time, he remained in Canada, beyond the reach of military authorities. Northern newspapers soon smoldered with articles about the alleged diabolical Southern plot, calling the act an “outrage against humanity.” Many Southerners argued that Blackburn and his fellow Confederate sympathizers had acted alone and that such tactics had been considered by individuals on both sides, citing the case of New York schoolteacher John Doughty, who’d promoted the use of artillery shells filled with chlorine for use on the battlefield. However, evidence that surfaced later suggested that while Blackburn and Hyams were operating on their own initiative, the Confederate government was fully aware of their intentions. Apparently, prior to the war, Davis and Blackburn had been acquaintances, and Davis had received two letters from a mutual acquaintance who’d told Davis of the potential plot. Though Davis had dissuaded him from implementing such tactics, evidence later surfaced that Hyams received funds for his Washington trip from Jacob Thompson, a Confederate operative.
Despite the public outrage on both sides, Blackburn managed to avoid the charge of conspiracy. According to British law, conspiracy to commit murder could be charged only if the intended victim was a head of state, and because there was insufficient evidence that Blackburn had targeted such an individual, he instead stood trial for a violation of Canada’s neutrality. To the dismay of many Northerners, Blackburn was acquitted by a Canadian court in October of 1865 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove the trunks had ever been on Canadian soil.
Though he remained in Canada until 1867, Blackburn traveled to New Orleans to offer medical aid during a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Eventually he returned to his native state of Kentucky and assumed his private practice as a physician. In 1878 he ran for governor of Kentucky, winning the 1879 election by a vast margin. He died in 1887.
It’s important to note that while Blackburn and his accomplices were successful in distributing contaminated clothing, they failed to unleash yellow fever on the populace, due primarily to a misunderstanding of how yellow fever was transmitted. Not until years later did scientists learn that yellow fever was not transferred by clothing and could only be transmitted by a certain type of mosquito.