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My husband swears that when he took anthropology they talked about a race of blue people. How did I miss this? Don’t you dare say it was the Smurfs.

–Lonijo, via AOL

OK, it wasn’t the Smurfs. And my guess is you’re not going to buy the idea that it was the chronically depressed, fans of B.B. King, or Minnesotans in January, either. So I may as well tell you the truth, namely that your husband is probably talking about the blue Fugates of Kentucky, the best warning against the dangers of inbreeding prior to the arrival of Prince Charles.

The blue Fugates weren’t a race but rather an excessively tight-knit family living in the Appalachian Mountains. The patriarch of the clan was Martin Fugate, who settled along the banks of Troublesome Creek near Hazard, Kentucky, sometime after 1800. His wife, Mary, is thought to have been a carrier for a rare disease known as hereditary methemoglobinemia, which we’ll call met-H.

Due to an enzyme deficiency, the blood of met-H victims has reduced oxygen-carrying capacity. Instead of being the usual bright red, arterial blood is chocolate brown and gives the skin of Caucasians a bluish cast. Hereditary met-H is caused by a recessive gene. If only one of your parents has this gene, you’ll be normal, but if they both have it, there’s a good chance you’ll be blue.

None of Martin and Mary Fugate’s descendants would have been blue had they not intermarried with a nearby clan, the Smiths. The Smiths were descendants of Rich-ard Smith and Alicia Combs, one of whom apparently was also a met-H carrier. According to family historian Mary Fugate, the first known blue Fugate was born in 1832. Because of inbreeding among the isolated hill folk–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 (the most recent reported case was in 1975). They were quite a sight. One woman is said to have had lips the color of a bruise.

In 1960 a doctor named Madison Cawein heard about the blue Fugates and succeeded in tracking down several of them. Luckily some cases of hereditary met-H among native Alaskans had been written up in the medical literature not long before, so he was able to diagnose the problem fairly quickly. He also prescribed a simple, if temporary, cure–the chemical methylene blue, which replaced the missing enzyme in the blood. The results were dramatic. Within minutes after getting a dose, the blue Fugates became a normal pink for the first time in their lives.

Today, what with increased prosperity and mobility, the Fugates get around a lot more and the likelihood of further instances of blueness is thought to be low. Still, if you’re in the neighborhood of Troublesome Creek and someone tells you he’s feeling blue, it may be more than a figure of speech.


Cecil, my man!

You were right the first time. Yes, it is a joke. [In my June 19 column I suggested that author Paul Theroux was being facetious in claiming that Pacific islanders liked Spam because it tasted like the human flesh they had known in their cannibal days.]

In spite of my solemn declaration in The Happy Isles of Oceania, the voracious Spam consumption in the Pacific is not conclusive evidence of a cannibal past.

And I enjoyed seeing my laborious joke cleverly adumbrated in yet another of your witty, wide-ranging, and inexhaustibly erudite columns.

But also, speaking as a vegetarian, all meat eating looks to me like the first step down the road to anthropophagy.

–With good wishes, Paul Theroux


Regarding Lorna Doone–as in cookies and the R.D. Blackmore novel [in my May 8 column I doubted the claim that the cookies were named Lorna Doones because shortbread is a Scottish dish and Lorna Doone is a Scottish heroine]–yes, the book was set in southwestern England, but Lorna Doone was descended from Scottish lords. Hence, Lorna Doone is considered a Scottish heroine. –Kathy, via AOL

I wrote that someone along the line was reading the Cliffs Notes. What I didn’t say was, it was me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.