Weird History Facts About The Blue Fugates, A Family With Blue Skin Thanks To Inbreeding  

Cheryl Adams Richkoff
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People come in all colors - to an extent. You wouldn't expect to see a human with naturally blue skin. But that's the case for the Blue Fugates. Who are the Blue Fugates? The title refers to members of the Fugate family of eastern Kentucky, particularly those who lived in the early- to mid-20th century. And according to firsthand accounts, the title is no exaggeration.

Why did the Fugates turn blue? The short answer has to do with a genetic mutation arising from inbreeding. The longer answer has to do with recessive genes and bizarre happenstance. If the Fugates hadn't lived in such a rural area, their condition might not have become as pronounced.

Blue skin is often seen as something not quite human: the Scottish Blue Men of the Minch, the Hindu god Krishna, even Smurfs all have it. But the Fugates are mortal, and however wild they may seem, these facts about the Blue Fugates of Kentucky are nothing but the total truth.

They Lived In Isolation

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The Fugate family first settled in Kentucky in 1820. Martin Fugate and his wife Elizabeth Smith came to Troublesome Creek, an out-of-the-way region of Appalachia. According to some sources, Fugate was blue himself, though this has been disputed. Whatever his color, his offspring ended up with an unusual appearance: his son Zachariah was born with blue skin, and so were three more of their seven children.

Due to the isolated nature of the community, the Fugate's neighbors knew about the "blue people," but few outsiders did.

They Had Unusual Blood

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So, where did that blue color come from? The Fugates had a genetic defect that resulted in a condition called methemoglobinemia, which means their blood didn't carry as much oxygen around the body. This makes the blood darker, which in turn causes the skin of white people to appear blue, and their lips to look purple. In addition, arterial blood looks chocolate brown rather than red.

People with methemoglobinemia have higher levels of methemoglobin in their blood; they may have 10-20 percent, versus the average person's one percent. The Fugates' very blood was different from that of their neighbors.

Their Condition Partially Arose From Inbreeding

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Photo: Wladimir Graf Logothetti, Bilowitz/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Martin Fugate and his bride, Elizabeth Smith, both carried the same recessive gene that causes methemoglobinemia. It wouldn't have affected future generations of Fugates - if they hadn't married within the family, that is.

In the 1880s, inbreeding wasn't quite the scandal it is today. The Fugates lived in an isolated area, which limited their options. Zachariah Fugate, one of the first known Blue Fugates, married his aunt; one of their sons married a close cousin. In turn, one of their children married another cousin.

It makes for a confusing family tree marked with plenty of blue individuals. As one of the family members quipped, "I'm kin to myself."

They Were Shunned

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The Fugates' blue skin was more than just startling - it was also a clear sign that the family had practiced intermarriage. As time went on and people began to discover more about the harmful effects of inbreeding, that blue skin became even more of a stigma.

Their neighbors were not always kind to the Fugates, and in response, they had withdrawn even more from their tiny community. By the time Dr. Madison Cawein contacted the family in the 1960s, it was clear they were all too used to being outcasts: "They wouldn't come into the waiting room. You could tell how much it bothered them to be blue."