In 1820 a French orphan named Martin Fugate settled near Hazard, Kentucky. He eventually married a woman who carried a recessive trait he also unwittingly carried, called methemoglobinemia. The effects of this rare blood disorder cause the skin a blue tint because the hemoglobin in the blood is unable to release oxygen effectively to body tissues. It would be nearly 150 years before the disorder would be understood and a treatment discovered.
The Fugates bore seven children, four of whom were bright blue. As you might guess, the response by others to this dramatic difference was not tolerance. “The Blue Fugates” or “The Blue People of Kentucky” were shunned at best and horribly mistreated at worst, sometimes even lynched. So they retreated from the wider population, only making the situation worse as intermarriages among cousins, aunts and other close relatives took place.
There were varying degrees of the blue color. Those with lower concentration of methemoglobin might only blush blue in cold weather, while people with high concentration were bright blue from head to toe. While the condition didn’t cause any special health problems, the social embarrassment and mistreatment certainly were problematic.
A doctor named Madison Cawein III, a hematologist at the University of Kentucky, discovered a cure in the 1960s. He convinced the blue people tucked back in the hills to let him draw blood which he could then analyze. The solution turned out to be a commonly used dye called methylene blue with which he initially injected them. He later found pills containing the same ingredient worked better.
In the material I found online, Benjamin Stacy, born in 1975, was reported to be the last known person born with the active gene and his treatment was successful. So imagine my astonishment last week when I encountered a woman at the local nursing home with this noticeably blue skin. I, of course, can not say that it was this same condition. But she looked much like some of the pictures I found online.
In 1943, Kentucky banned first-cousin marriages, in part to prevent birth defects. However, the Ku Klux Klan fought vigorously for the bill’s passage to maintain “white supremacy.” Others were interested in keeping their clans strong by preventing young lovers from marrying enemy cousins, loyalty to one’s clan being deemed crucial. Both the intolerance of difference and the mentality that would seek to keep a bloodline “pure” are reminders to us of the need to be welcoming of others and open to a culture that is growing increasingly diverse.
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: I learned about this condition several years ago when I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The novel was about The Pack Horse Library Project, which ran from 1935 to 1943. The horse riders braved incredibly bad roads and weather to deliver literature to isolated families in Appalachia. These folks lived in the poorest and most isolated areas of eastern Kentucky and had inaccessible roads, few schools and no libraries. Thus, these brave riders encountered the “Blue People.” The book is well written and very informative about this era of “book women” and this genetic condition of “blue blood.”
Also of note is the author’s mention that the Fugates originated from France and were descendants of French Huguenots, as nearly as can be determined. She questions: “Could the Fugates’ medical anomaly mean they were true “blue bloods” descended from European royals?” (If so, what irony to have been so shunned and regarded as repulsive in Kentucky).
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What a fascinating story and lesson. Thank you Kate.
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