When Equine Flu Burned Down Boston

Several months ago, I saw a fascinating column by John Kelly in The Washington Post that looked at an outbreak of equine influenza in 1872. The column looks at the impact on Washington, DC and Richmond of “The Great Epizootic,” a massive outbreak that impacted Canada and most of the United States between October and December of that year. Since my desk is less than 30 feet from the NSLM’s collection of 19th Century newspapers, I decided to see if any of our materials could help tell the story.

Two resources were most prominent in our collection on the topic: The Turf, Field and Farm and The Spirit of the Times. Both were weekly newspapers printed in New York City, but enjoyed a national audience that submitted small columns or letters spread throughout the paper.

“The disease appears to be a form of influenza, and is classed by veterinary authorities under three heads, viz., the catarrhal, rheumatic and the gastro-erysipelatous forms. The disease, which has made such havoc in the stables of Buffalo, Niagara and [Rochester], is of a catarrhal character, its first noticeable symptoms being a flow of tears from the eyes, a watery discharge from the nose, and general languor, followed by a cough.”

“The Horse Epidemic,” The Turf, Field and Farm, October 25, 1872

The papers assert that the disease first broke out in Canada and trailed south quickly, infecting stables across the United States in a matter of days.

Illustration from Every Man His Own Horse Doctor by George Armitage, 1877. The main symptom of “The Great Epizootic” was lethargy and weakness.

Almost overnight, “The Great Epizootic” became a national crisis. Although most food sources during the era were far more local than today, many other aspects of the economy ground to a halt without a means of transportation. The horse was still the main powerhouse for plowing and carting in rural communities, and by the 1870s, urban travel had quickly become dependent on the horse to pull rail cars and trolleys in the cities.

Horse-drawn rail car of the Toronto Street Railway Company, High Park line, at King and Queen Streets, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, circa 1889. Toronto Public Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

Even worse, the epidemic was a critical factor in the Great Boston Fire, which broke out on November 9 and destroyed over 750 buildings in twelve hours. The Boston Fire Department’s horses were unable to pull tanks and engines when the fire broke out, forcing the department to respond to the fire with volunteers pushing equipment on foot.

“The fire departments of London and New York have put out thousands of fires every bit as threatening in the commencement, and in as crowded neighborhoods, as the one at Boston. But at the latter place the sickness of the horses induced the fire companies to draw their own engines, heavy engines, to the fire. Before they reached it and got to work it was beyond their control.”

“The Horse Epidemic: The Boston Fire,” The Spirit of the Times, November 16, 1872.

Aftermath of the Great Boston Fire of 1872. Public Works Department photograph collection, Collection 5000.009, City of Boston Archives, Boston, via Wikimedia Commons.

The challenges of contemporary American veterinary science were on full display during the crisis as conflicting theories of medicine and contagion resulted in recommendations from sources reliable or otherwise. The editors of The Turf, Field and Farm took a commonsense approach to their advice, endorsing the course of action that history would bear out as correct: give the patient rest, keep her comfortable, and feed her well.

An ad for Taylor’s Great Compound in the November 16, 1872 issue of The Spirit of the Times. Businesses that lost money for each day a horse was ill were willing to pay well for those who claimed to have “the cure.”

The mortality rate of “The Great Epizootic” is estimated at no higher than 10 percent, but it likely could have been lower were it not for the great economic pressures to resist giving adequate rest. It appears that most casualties were very old, or had been overworked. The reality is sad in retrospect, but we might excuse some of it due to just how important the horse was to everyday life in the 19th Century.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail



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  1. My grandfather was a career firefighter a 100 years ago and had two fire horses under his care. He related how when any fire horse fell sick, even the off duty firemen would gather at the station to nurse the horse and take care of him/her. During city council meetings, the Fire Chief reported on the health of each horse as well.


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