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When examining a life, how do we judge its merit? Was the person a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between?

From ancient times, people have opined on standards for a man’s character. Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius said, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.” Nineteenth-century American philosopher, William James, said simply that effort determined a man’s measure.

President Joe Biden had a folksier take. “My dad always said, ‘Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.’”

Graydon Carter, the Canadian journalist, measures a man’s quality by his sports manners.

What, then, of Luke P. Blackburn, a Kentucky-born doctor who later practiced in Natchez, Mississippi?

Dr. Blackburn specialized in infectious diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, which could kill up to 30% of those infected. It was commonly believed to be spread by contact with those who became ill and their clothing, or a miasma—bad air, such as swamp gas. We now know mosquitoes spread yellow fever.

Luke P. Blackburn

Dr. Blackburn moved to Natchez in 1847 where he built a hospital and a thriving practice. When one of the many yellow fever epidemics hit, Blackburn urged the community to quarantine for at least twenty-four hours, sanitize the city, and burn smoke pots. His recommendations led to a decrease in sickness and death. Unbeknownst to Dr. Blackburn, many of these practices reduced the number of mosquitoes. So, hey, it worked!

The good doctor refused any compensation for his efforts. He offered free healthcare to all sick rivermen who docked at the Mississippi port and built a small infirmary for black residents. No one was turned away for inability to pay the fee of $1 a day for room, board, and medical care.

Dr. Blackburn’s reputation grew as a champion of those fighting this gruesome plague. He traveled to New Orleans, Long Island, New York, and Europe to offer his services, often refusing compensation. The man was a saint.

Or so it seemed.

When the Civil War came about, Dr. Blackburn was dogmatically loyal to the Southern cause. He despised the Union and especially Abraham Lincoln. Too old to fight, Dr. Blackburn attempted to use his talents to secure arms for his native Kentucky. Then, he worked with the Confederate wounded, promoting his practices of good sanitation.

In 1863, the governor of Mississippi sent the doctor to Toronto, Canada, where a contingency of Confederate agents dreamed up schemes to help the Southern cause. Dr. Blackburn devised two conspiracies. In 1864, he left for Bermuda where yellow fever was running rampant. He would return, he said, with “an infallible plan directed against the masses of Northern people solely to create death.”

Yellow Fever Burials

Hippocratic Oath? What Hippocratic Oath?

While treating patients, nurses in Bermuda watched Blackburn collect foul-smelling sheets and perspiration-soaked shirts of patients who’d passed away. He placed them in trunks among brand-new clothing suitable for the well-to-do.

He brought five such trunks to Halifax, Nova Scotia. One he called “Big Number Two” that, once opened, he claimed, could kill a man at sixty yards. Promising a fee of $100,000, Blackburn gave them to an Englishman named Hyams to smuggle to Washington, DC and cities along the eastern coast. A special trunk was to be delivered to President Lincoln.

Once Hyams left, Dr. Blackburn returned to Toronto to work on a plan to poison New York City’s water supply.

Hyams did his part—mostly. He delivered “Big Number Two” and the other trunks to Northern cities but refused to take the one to Lincoln. He heard it had been delivered by someone else, but there’s no historical record of it. Despite a successful mission, he never received his $100,000.

Disgruntled, he entered the U.S. consul’s office in Canada and ratted out the whole operation. Known in the press as “The Yellow Fever Fiend” and “Dr. Black Vomit”, Blackburn was ultimately arrested, tried in Canada, and acquitted on a technicality.

How did the scheme work out? Was the yellow fever conspiracy successful? Many thought so. Outbreaks did occur. But remember? Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes, not the victims’ nasty sheets. Dr. Blackburn’s ignorance of the disease made his efforts moot.

Who? Me?

As for Lincoln, when warned of plots against his life, he reportedly said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that any human being lives who would do me any harm.”

I think we can all agree he was wide of the mark on that one.

So, was Dr. Luke Blackburn a hero or a villain?

After the Civil War ended, he sneaked back into the United States and resumed his work treating people for yellow fever, often refusing compensation. After huge successes in Kentucky, he ran for governor and won. In office, he worked diligently to improve the court system, education, and horrific prison conditions.

So, what of a man’s measure? I guess it depends on who you ask.


Baird, Nancy, “Luke Pryor Blackburn: The Good Samaritan” (1974). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 1870.

Lively, M. W., & Woodard, J. R. (2017, March 29). Yellow fever plot of 1864 targeted Lincoln, U.S. cities. Civil War Profiles. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from

“Yellow Fever Burials” Uploaded a work by Frank Leslie from with UploadWizard

2 comments on “The Measure of a Man

  1. Brenda Paulk Richardson says:

    “Good and bad ideas both come from the same fountain of speculation and experiment.”
    This is another well researched and well written article, Mary Beth.
    Can we assume that Dr. Blackburn will show up in some form in your next


  2. mbgibson345 says:

    Thank you! Good quote, Brenda. He may at some point. His name was Luke Pryor Blackburn which caught my eye as that’s a family name. But I don’t think he’s a relative of mine after looking into it. It was common in those days to name your son after someone you admired, so it may have been that.


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