Saturday, May 16, 2009

Confederate bioterrorism back in the good old days

I would fully expect for the professionals to cringe when a hobbyist historian like me goes back to the original documents.

For a newspaper editor, it would be like sending a rookie reporter, fresh out of J-school, down to City Hall to cover a Board of Aldermen meeting, knowing they could not possibly understand the subtexts, backstories, orchestrations and alliances that make it all genuinely meaningful.

All that said, last night I took a leap back into the primary documents on John Wilkes Booth and the putative conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

I was sent back into the past by two local people I like and admire, Niyi Coker and Barbara Harbach, who have written a musical titled Booth! that is set to debut in New York. I'm excited for them and plan to do some straightforward newspaper journalism on their behalf.

But I also wanted to come up with something more quirky for Confluence City, so I cued up a good beer last night and went out browsing on the internet. Soon I was downloading the pdf of transcripts of a trial investigating an essentially Canadian conspiracy to snuff Lincoln.

I was struck right away by the testimony of what seems to have been a double agent, Sanford Conover, that the Confederate cooling their heels in Canada had plotted bioterrorism against the United States!

The Dr. [Luke Pryor] Blackburn to whom I referred in my previous testimony, is the same that packed a number of trunks with infected clothing, for the purpose of introducing pestilence into the States. [...] In June last, I knew of Dr. Blackburn s trying to employ Mr. John Cameron, who lived in Montreal, to accompany him to Bermuda, for the purpose of taking charge of goods infected with yellow fever to bring to the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and, I understood, Washington. Cameron declined to go, being fearful of taking the yellow fever and dying himself. Compensation to the amount of several thousand dollars, he told me, had been offered him, which I understood was to be paid by Dr. Blackburn, or by other rebel agents. [...] I heard Blackburn say that he went from Montreal to Bermuda, or some of the West India Islands, about a year ago last June, for the express purpose of attending cases of yellow fever, and collecting infected clothing, and forwarding it to New York, but for some reason the scheme failed.
Small wonder the scheme failed. As none other than the Central Intelligence Agency reminds us, "It was not yet known that the disease was spread by the bites of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes." The Confederate terrorists were trying the old measles blankets trick on yellow fever, but there are different vectors of transmission for the two diseases.

Sanford Conover testified that this apparently deadly doctor had another trick up his bioterrorist sleeve:

Dr. Blackburn proposed to poison the reservoirs, and made a calculation of the amount of poisonous matter it would require to impregnate the water so far as to render an ordinary draught poisonous and deadly. He had taken the capacity of the reservoirs, and the amount of water that was generally kept in them. Strychnine, arsenic, prussic acid, and a number of others were spoken of as the poisons which he proposed to use.
I gather that this one is still in the bioterrorist's working playbook. It fascinated me to find it in play in the 1860s as an imagined act of domestic terrorism - or international terrorism committed by someone born in the United States who had seceded from the U.S. and was plotting destruction from our nearest northern neighbor.

When I go far enough south in Missouri, I can't ever quite shake the feeling that these bad old days could come around again, if things get bad enough in this country. Maybe I am just one of those journalists who knows enough about hidden motives and covert operations to be paranoid. But, then, consider this from Sanford Conover, who was a freelance journalist as well as a spy*.
While in Canada I was a correspondent of The New York Tribune. I communicated to The New York Tribune the contemplated assassination of the President and the intended raid on Ogdensburg. The assassination plot they declined to publish, because they had been accused of publishing sensation stories.
How is that for the best freelancer gripe of all time? "I could have saved the president if my damn editor hadn't spiked my story pitch"!

The problem is - and here is where the shadow of the professional historian frowning over my laptop intrudes - Sanford Convover was really somebody else and most historians agree that he was an unreliable, perjurious witness. I'm going to flirt some more with the primary documents, and then go see what the pros have to say.

* "freelancer and spy": Conover may have known, and advocacy journalists of today may be pleased to learn, that the roots of journalism lie in espionage. Before there were international pages of newspapers, there were royal contract workers who traveled to distant nations to gather information and bring it home to the king and court.

* Photo of yellow fever virus from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

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