The “Blue People” of the Appalachian Mountains

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Martin Fugate and family are shown in this undated, colorized black and white photo.
Martin Fugate and family are shown in this undated, colorized black and white photo.

The Appalachian region is filled with incredible tall tales and mysteries, many of which are more grounded in fancy exaggeration than historic fact; however, one story that has been well documented is the existence of a peculiar mountain people whose skin color was blue.

Known as the “Blue Fugates”, the eastern-Kentucky family was said to have retained a genetic trait that led to a disease which made their skin color blue.

Born in France and orphaned as a child, Martin Fugate arrived in the Appalachian Mountains near Hazard, Kentucky, in the early 1800s.

Soon, the French-born Appalachian settler fell in love with a woman named Elizabeth Smith and in no time, a family was formed in the hills of Kentucky.

Unbeknownst to Martin, however, his red headed bride was a carrier of a rare genetic disease known as hereditary methemoglobinemia… don’t worry, we’ll just call this disease “met-H” hereafter.

In 1832 the first known descendant of the family was born blue skin.  With a limited selection for potential spouses, the family’s descendants continued to intermarry inside the isolated mountain region.

A 1998 Dear Cecil article states, “The Fugate family tree is a tangled mess of cousins marrying cousins — blue people started popping up frequently thereafter. A half dozen or so were on the scene by the 1890s, and one case was reported as recently as 1975. They were quite a sight. One woman is said to have had lips the color of a bruise.”

According to a report posted by Indiana University, descendants of the couple were being born with blue skin some six generations later.

In 1982, Cathy Trost published an article detailing the 1975-birth of Benjamin Stacy, the final “blue person” to be born in Kentucky.

“Doctors were so astonished by the color of Benjy Stacy’s skin that they raced him by ambulance from the maternity ward in the hospital near Hazard to a medical clinic in Lexington. Two days of tests produced no explanation for skin the color of a bruised plum.

“A transfusion was being prepared when Benjy’s grandmother spoke up. ‘Have you ever heard of the blue Fugates of Troublesome Creek?’ she asked the doctors.

“My grandmother Luna on my dad’s side was a blue Fugate. It was real bad in her,’ Alva Stacy, the boy’s father, explained. ‘The doctors finally came to the conclusion that Benjy’s color was due to blood inherited from generations back.’

“Benjy lost his blue tint within a few weeks, and now he is about as normal looking a seven-year-old boy as you could hope to find. His lips and fingernails still turn a shade of purple-blue when he gets cold or angry a quirk that so intrigued medical students after Benjy’s birth that they would crowd around the baby and try to make him cry. ‘Benjy was a pretty big item in the hospital,’ his mother says with a grin.

“Dark blue lips and fingernails are the only traces of Martin Fugate’s legacy left in the boy; that, and the recessive gene that has shaded many of the Fugates and their kin blue for the past 162 years.”

Around the 1960s, nurse Ruth Pendergrass and hematologist Madison Cawein III, began studying the family’s condition and treating them with methylene blue, which eased their symptoms and reduced the blue coloring of their skin.

He eventually published his research in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1964.

As travel became easier in the 20th century, and families spread out over wider areas and the prevalence of the recessive gene in the local population reduced, and with it the probability of inheriting the disease.

Benjamin Stacy, born in 1975, is the last known descendant of the Fugates to have been born exhibiting the characteristic blue color of the disease, and lost his blue skin tone as he grew older.

It has been speculated that some other American sufferers of inherited met-H may also have had Fugate ancestors, but searches for direct links have so far proved inconclusive.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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