The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations

Shannon Quinn - February 11, 2019

Deep in the woods of Kentucky, a fiercely private family gave birth to blue-skinned children since the 1800s. The color of their skin was so shocking for normal people to see, that they chose to stay hidden away from the rest of society in their small community. Very few people knew they even existed, until today.

This sounds like something out of a fairytale, or like the plot of the Smurfs cartoon. But for the members of the Fugate clan, it was all too real. Scientists say that multiple generations of inbreeding resulted in a genetic condition that caused them to be born with blue skin. It is so incredibly rare, nobody has ever seen an example of it since.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
This painting of the Blue Fugates is all we have left to represent the family. Credit: Owlcation

The Beginning of the Blue Fugate Family

In 1820, a very unique man named Martin Fugate immigrated to the United States from France. He wanted to settle down for a new life in Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. Because the United States offered free land to people willing to settle down there. He was born with blue skin, and his family had abandoned him in an orphanage when he was a baby. They could not handle raising such a different child, and even as an adult, he opted to help settle the wilds of Kentucky, where no one could see his face. Once he was in Kentucky, he met and married a red-haired woman named Elizabeth Smith. Even though they were from different countries, and the odds were probably a billion-to-one, they both carried the recessive gene for an extremely rare condition known as Methemoglobinemia.

Martin and Elizabeth Fugate would go on to have seven children together, and four of them were born with blue skin. Even those who looked normal were carriers of the recessive gene that caused the disorder. Despite having this incredibly different skin color, they were physically just as healthy as anyone else, if not better. They lived to be in their 80s and 90s, without ever suffering from heart or liver disease.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
Lorenzo and Eleanor Fugate. Lorenzo was nicknamed “Blue Anze” because of the color of his skin, though we cannot tell from a black-and-white photo. Credit: AllThatsInteresting

At that time, the group of people who took advantage of the land grants and founded the village of Troublesome Creek was incredibly small. There were only four other families besides the Fugates: Combes, Stacy, Ritchie, and Smith. Most of the founders were already married, and there were not enough single people going around for every one of their children to have a partner. So one of Martin and Elizabeth’s sons, Zachariah, married Elizabeth’s sister (Yes, you read that correctly. He married his own aunt.) This close relation triggered one of the bloodlines with the highest percentages of Methemoglobinemia that was so strong, the blue skin lasted in their family for over 150 years.

Normally, Methemoglobinemia is so rare, that this condition would no longer show up in the children of the next generation. But the town of Troublesome Creek was so small, they did not even have official roads. People lived in log cabins that were closely clustered together, and there would not be a railroad anywhere nearby to bring in new settlers until 1912. Since there was not a huge variety in the gene pool, there was a lot of inbreeding going on, with people marrying their first and second cousins. The predisposition to be born with the genetic disorder kept passing on to each new generation.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
Sketch of the original Troublesome Creek settlement. Credit: Kentucky Digital Library

These people who were born with blue skin were embarrassed, and even though their families accepted them, they knew that the rest of the world would not. For this reason, they did not want their picture taken, and they did not want to become the subject of medical experiments. So they continued to live deep in the woods, for fear of being called a monster. Some of the pink-skinned family members moved away in the 1900s, but for those who stayed within their comfort zone of Troublesome Creek, it only forced them to continue picking someone to marry from one of the four families. This meant the blue skin kept coming back every generation.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
A blue man who suffered from methemoglobinemia. Credit: DocumentingReality.com

Doctors Begin to Study The Blue Fugates

In the late 1950s, a hematologist named Martin Cawein from the University of Kentucky was fascinated by the stories of the blue Fugate family. In 1960, he decided to move near Troublesome Creek in the hopes to meet one of them some day. Hematologists study blood, so for him, the idea of blue-skinned people was like making a life-changing discovery that could make his name go down in history. Since this family was so secretive, no one knew where they lived. He would drive around to medical clinics and hospitals, asking other medical professionals if they had ever met a blue Fugate. One day, Cawein met a nurse named Ruth Pendergrass, and he heard the story he had been waiting to hear for a long time.

Ruth told the story of a woman who showed up to the doctor’s office, but instead of walking through the front lobby, she knocked on one of the back doors. She acted as if she was trying to hide herself from the public, and asked for a routine blood test. It was very cold outside, and this woman’s face and fingernails were a deep indigo blue. Ruth Pendergrass immediately became concerned for this woman. She was terrified, thinking that her blue skin was an indication that she was going to die of a heart attack. The blue woman quickly explained that she had a skin condition that ran in her family, and urged her not to be concerned. Her last name was Combes, and her maiden name was Fugate.

After locating the Combes family in a town near Troublesome Creek called Ball Creek, Dr. Martin Cawein went more than a little bit crazy over the excitement of finally meeting the blue-skinned people. He trudged through the woods at random until he spotted a blue-skinned person. As soon as he saw them, he began shouting at them to stop and ran after them. Of course, if you saw a random stranger chasing you in the woods, you would run, too! He did not exactly have a very good plan, but the actual location of these villages in the middle of nowhere was unknown to everyone, except for those who lived there.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
Reenactment of Patrick and Rachel Ritchie speaking to Dr. Cawein. of Credit: Screenshot from the TV series “Mysteries at the Museum”

Determined to meet another blue person, Dr. Cawein decided it was a better plan to simply stick around town for a while, hoping that eventually, one of the family members would need to go to the doctor again. After all, the blue woman had a good experience with Ruth Pendergrass, so she had gained a reputation of being trustworthy and non-judgemental. One day, he got lucky, because two siblings named Patrick and Rachel Ritchie showed up to see nurse Pendergrass. Dr. Cawein began to run some tests and asked them a million questions. He determined that they did not have heart or lung disease, and he wanted to map out their family tree.

Patrick and Rachel were visibly uncomfortable and embarrassed by all the personal questions, and they expressed that they did not want to be blue, but that they were born that way. After running some blood tests, he realized that they did not have abnormal hemoglobin, which had been his theory all along. After doing some more research, he found a similar case in Anchorage, Alaska, where a different doctor had found cases of blue-skinned people in some of the indigenous people. They were missing an enzyme, so their blood was not oxygenated properly.

Dr. Cawein ran a blood test which confirmed that the Fugates were also missing the same enzyme. So he created a substance called Methylene Blue, and Patrick and Rachel Ritchie agreed to allow him to inject them with it. The doctor called this an “electron donor”, which carried the oxygen to the blood that they were missing. For the first time in their lives, the siblings began to turn a more normal shade of pink. They were thrilled to finally look normal, but unfortunately, the effects were only temporary. Methylene Blue leaves the body after going to the bathroom. Dr. Cawein gave them tablets that they could take on a daily basis, or whenever they wanted to go out in public without blue skin.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
Image of an elderly woman who is apparently part of the Fugate family. Credit: The Lost Creek Medicine Show

The Trait Lived on For Generations

In the 1900s, the Fugates were no longer forced to intermarry in their community and would find partners at work and school. The blue skin disappeared in the future generations of the Fugate family. The last descendent to be born with blue skin was Benjy Stacy in Lexington, Kentucky. Doctors were horrified to see that the baby boy’s skin was so blue, it was practically purple. They ran several tests and were getting ready to give him a blood transfusion when his grandmother jumped in to explain that she was from the Fugate line. Since Benjy was farther removed from the bloodline, and he had modern science on his side, his skin became a rosy shade of pink after only a month. Curiously, though, when he gets angry, or when it is cold outside, his skin begins to turn blue again.

Several Fugate family members were interviewed in a medical book called Traits and Fates, and all of them eventually came to accept the color of their skin to the point where it was normal. Benjy’s mother, Hilda Stacy, shrugged it off, saying, “It’s common. It’s nothing.” At least, to their family, it was to be expected, and they still loved and accepted each other. To them, all that mattered was that everyone in their clan lived a long and happy life.

The Fugate Family of Kentucky Had Blue Skin For Generations
The hand to the left is the “normal” pink skin color, while the person to the right has blue finger tips, which is similar to what Benjy Stacy experienced throughout his life. Credit: Brown University

Once Dr. Cawein published the case in a medical journal, journalists began to request interviews with Hilda Stacy, but they were always rude, asking very personal and judgmental questions about her family’s inbred history. Film crews from Hollywood attempted to bring in cameras to make a documentary, but they were met with angry, hungry guard dogs that scared them out of the Kentucky woods. Because of this, there are very few photographs that exist of the Blue Fugates, at least in the public eye. Dr. Cawein was truly lucky to have met Patrick and Rachel Ritchie and finally solve the mystery of the blue Fugates. After this, he was able to consult for a few isolated cases of blue-skinned people in the United States, and give them the tablets to change their skin color.

The case of the Blue Fugates was a perfect storm of rural backcountry mixed with rare recessive genes and in-breeding, and if this had only happened once, the story of the blue-skinned person would be written off as a thing of fairy tales and urban legends. It makes similar stories, like the Green Children of Woolpit, suddenly sound far more credible. If it’s possible for humans to have blue skin, why not green? We may never see another blue-skinned person born again in the future, but at least we have the Fugates to help us remember that it truly did happen.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Owlcation – Blue People of Kentucky: Why the Fugate Family Had Blue Skin?

Business Insider – Is Marrying Your Cousin Actually Dangerous?

Mental Floss – The Mystery of the Green Children of Woolpit

Blog Bugger – The Blue People in Kentucky – Origins, and Myths Uncovered

Ancient Origins – The Green Children Of Woolpit: The 12th Century Legend Of Visitors From Another World

Traits and Fates. Kendall Hunt. Education Development Center. 1997

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