KENTUCKY (FOX 56) — A remote settlement in eastern Kentucky known as Troublesome Creek had a surprise guest arrive in the early 1800s.
Martin Fugate, a French orphan, settled down in Troublesome Creek with his wife, Elizabeth. She was described as a red-haired woman who was as pale as “the mountain laurel that blooms every spring around the creek hollows.” Fugate did not share his wife’s pale complexion. Instead, his skin bore a “striking” indigo-blue color.
Fugate and his wife both possessed a recessive skin color gene, and, by “incalculable odds“, four of the seven children they conceived bore Fugate’s blue skin.
As a result of zero roads and railways, the Fugate children frequently intermarried.
“It was hard to get out, so they intermarried,” says Dennis Stacy, a descendant of the Fugates. “I’m kin to myself.”
The mysterious Fugates and their blue skin were the subject of much gossip. For over 100 years, nobody knew why their skin was blue. Some believed it was from heart disease or a lung disorder, and others believed their complexion came from blood being too close to the skin.
Still, members of the family clearly didn’t suffer from many health issues, as they frequently lived 80 to 90 years.
In addition to being a popular gossip topic at the local watering holes, the Fugate family was also the target of many superstitions. Some of the folks living in the hills of eastern Kentucky believe the Fugate skin condition was an act of the devil, and others chalk it up to a racial issue. This led to the Fugates continuing to intermarry.
In the 1960s, Dr. Madison Cawein, a hematologist at the University of Kentucky, heard rumors about blue people in eastern Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau. Cawein, who reportedly once said, “Blood cells always looked beautiful to me,” was naturally fascinated by the possibility of blue people so close by.
While in a heart clinic in Hazard, Cawein came across a pair of siblings, Rachel and Patrick Ritchie, who had blue skin.
Naturally, Cawein charted the family’s history and found nothing to support claims of heart disease. He suspected it to be a rare condition called methemoglobinemia, which is a rare form of anemia.
After extensive testing and research, Cawein found the two had methemoglobinemia consistent with an enzyme deficiency. The Fugate descendants were believed to carry between 10% and 20% of blue methemoglobin in their blood, which was more than enough to cause a distorted skin color. This was reasonably traced back to the initial Fugates, Martin, and Elizabeth, and was spread through the family tree by inbreeding. Cawein believed they both carried the gene.
The Ritchies, naturally, after years of being the subject of gossip and ridicule, were ashamed of their skin color. So Cawein administered methylene blue treatments to the Ritchie siblings to treat their complexions.
By the 1970s, it appeared as though the blue color began to fade from the Fugate clan until a baby born in 1975 at the University of Kentucky Medical Center was born purple. The baby, Benjamin Stacy, was the great-grandchild of Luna Fugate, who was known to be similarly colored.
Though Stacy’s blue complexion faded away as he grew up, rumor has it, when he gets angry or cold, his lips and fingernails turn blue again.
Fugate family in pop-culture
The Fugate family is featured in two books:
- “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michele Richardson
- “Blue-Skinned Gods” by S.J. Sindu
Editors note: A special thank you to the work of The Collector, IFL Science, and All That’s Interesting for their help in making this story come alive.