Are there really blue skinned people living in Kentucky?
The short answer is no, but a more accurate one would be ‘no more’. Which suggests that the blue people of Kentucky are not just an urban legend. But how on earth can someone get blue skin? The answer is methemoglobinemia. It is a rare condition that arises when the methemoglobin levels in your blood rise above 1 percent. And that is the exact condition that plagued Martin Fugate, who moved to Troublesome Creek in 1820, a quiet settlement in eastern Kentucky.
Martin planned on marrying the girl of his dreams, one Miss Elizabeth Smith, and settling down in the idyllic little town, and living out a happy married life. Unfortunately that dream came only partly true. The 1800s was a time when science was often misunderstood for the supernatural and Martin’s striking Indigo blue skin, while having a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation, was not looked upon kindly by anyone who witnessed him in person.
It was a source of great shame for Martin, and he was subjected to the worst kinds of discriminaton by society, leading to a lot of psychological trauma for the Fugate family. Naturally, this drove the Fugate family to live in almost complete social isolation. And this caused the propagation of the gene (called met-H) that should have just been repressed over the course of multiple generations.
The reason why the gene was passed to later generations in the first place was due to a massive coincidence that Elizabeth was a carrier of the same gene that could cause methemoglobinemia (which was repressed in her but not her all of her children). Martin and Elizabeth had a total of 7 children in their lifetime, 4 of whom inherited the blue skin and became part of the myth that lived on for more than a hundred and fifty years. What caused the met-H gene to live on through the years was interbreeding, which was not quite uncommon in the 1800s and was also the only possible course of action for the Fugate family due to them being considered social outcasts.
What is methemoglobinemia and is there a cure?
As mentioned before, methemoglobinemia is triggered due to the level of methemoglobin in your blood rising above 1 percent. Symptoms include bluish skin, purple lips and brown colored blood. In the Fugates, this was brought about by a faulty gene that caused a deficiency in a class of enzymes called diaphorases, and more specifically an enzyme referred to as cytochrome-b5 methemoglobin reductase.
Sometime in the sixties, a Dr Madison Cawein got his interest piqued by rumours of the blue people of Kentucky, and decided to seek them out to see for himself. He recruited the aid of Nurse Ruth Pendergrass, who claimed to have been visited by a blue skinned woman when working for the county’s health department.
After tracking down the Fugate family, who had become more of a tribe by now, they started interacting with them on a regular basis. Dr Cawein suspected methemoglobinemia to be the cause of the Fugate family’s troubles, but wasn’t sure what was causing the methemoglobinemia. After chasing down potential leads and finding no culprit, a simple blood test revealed the lack of the enzyme diaphorase. The cure was simple, a shot of methylene blue and then a daily dose of the medication in the form of tablets.
Bye Bye Blues
The Blue Fugates were no longer blue, and the curse slowly lifted. Benjamin Stacy was the last of the family to be born with a manifestation of the repressed gene, but the color left his skin over the course of his life. Thus ended the myth and tale of the blue people of Kentucky. While the gene is still being passed on, there is a much lower chance of it manifesting, due to the family rejoining ties with the world and letting go of inter-marrying once and for all.
Fun Fact: The popular animated movie characters, the Smurfs, were inspired by the Fugate family. To read more such intriguing articles, make sure you subscribe to the newsletter over at internationalinside.com