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The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend

Adrienne Mayor
The Journal of American Folklore
Vol. 108, No. 427 (Winter, 1995), pp. 54-77
DOI: 10.2307/541734
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/541734
Page Count: 24
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The Nessus Shirt in the New World: Smallpox Blankets in History and Legend
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Abstract

Stories of disease-infected blankets deliberately given to Native Americans surfaced after the first European contact and continue to circulate. The vitality of the "smallpox blanket" story is ensured by documented examples of germ warfare but also by its resonance with the classical Nessus shirt and other poison-garment/deliberate-contamination themes. The moral tension embedded in such tales derives from ambiguous definitions of the Other and boundaries of ethical behavior toward enemies. Analysis of historiography's role in the development of the smallpox blanket story helps clarify its relationship to the classical Nessus shirt and other poison-garment legends. The conclusion describes an emerging blanket story from the Amazon rain forest.

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