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Last Updated

11 Jun 2003

Source: New York Times, November 13, 2001.

New York Was Bioterrorism Target, in 1864


Bioterrorists want a horrible disease that is easy to spread and that has a high fatality rate. So, thought terrorists during the Civil War, what better disease than yellow fever? It kills within days, causing a hemorrhagic fever that makes victims bleed from the mouth and nose and vomit a black substance that resembles coffee grounds but consists largely of dried blood.

There was no effective treatment for yellow fever and no way to prevent it, and it could spread rapidly through a city, causing panic and social disruption.

Thus was hatched a plot by Southern sympathizers to seed a yellow fever epidemic in Northern cities.

The scheme began in 1864, when a mysterious Dr. Luke Blackburn arrived in Bermuda from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Bermuda was being devastated by a yellow fever epidemic, and Dr. Blackburn said he practiced medicine in New Orleans and had a special knowledge of the disease. Soon, he was visiting the sick, refusing all payments for his services or expenses.

"People were genuinely sorry when he returned to Halifax at the end of a month," Walter Brownell Hayward wrote in his 1910 book, "Bermuda Past and Present."

But, in fact, Dr. Blackburn had an ulterior motive: he was collecting the victims' clothing, poultices, blankets and sheets, many stained with black vomit. He planned to use these items for yellow fever bioterrorism. A Southern sympathizer, he put the items into three trunks and planned to ship them to Canada and, from there, to New York, where he hoped to start an epidemic.

The plot was foiled in a sort of spy-versus- spy drama. One spy told the United States consul in Bermuda about Dr. Blackburn's suspicious activities. The consul, a Mr. Allen, told local officials about the trunks and their cargo of infected clothing and bedding.

But one man at a town meeting was secretly a Southern sympathizer, and he signaled a Confederate spy who was lurking outside that Dr. Blackburn's plan had been discovered.

The Confederate spy, Mr. Hayward wrote, "lost no time in notifying the guardian of the clothing, a man named Swan, that trouble was in the air." Mr. Swan "was preparing to burn the damaging articles" when he was caught and sent to jail.

Mr. Hayward did not reveal what happened to Dr. Blackburn, only saying that "the chain of evidence was too much to absolve Blackburn." He added, however, that Consul Allen "said he believed that Dr. Blackburn's expenses had been paid with funds from the Rebel treasury."

"That so horrible a scheme should have received official approval seems hardly conceivable," Mr. Hayward wrote. Yet, he added, a blockade runner, Thomas E. Taylor, wrote of another such attempt at yellow fever bioterrorism.

As Mr. Hayward related, Mr. Taylor said that an "eminent Confederate military doctor proposed to me during the prevalence of the yellow fever epidemic that he should ship by our boats to Nassau and Bermuda sundry cases of infected clothing, which were to be sent to the North with the idea of spreading the disease there."

"This was too much," Mr. Taylor continued, according to the account, "and I shouted at him, not in the choicest of language, to leave the office."

The final twist, of course, is that neither of these plots would have worked. The virus that causes yellow fever is spread by infected mosquitoes, not people. But that was not discovered until 1901.