This past weekend saw the Royal marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  In the procession following the ceremony, the happy couple rode through throngs of well-wishers in an Ascot Landau carriage drawn by a team of four Windsor Grey horses, including a father and son team named Storm and Tyrone.

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Prince Harry’s and Meghan’s carriage.

This mode of transportation added to the pageantry and glamour of the event.  Its slow pace gave spectators a good view of the newlyweds, and allowed time for them to wave and cheer the couple along.  The carriages, horses, and coachmen involved in this and other Royal state events are supplied by the royal stables, known as The Royal Mews.

The term “mews” originates in falconry.  It refers to the mewing, or molting, of the birds’ feathers.  During this process the birds were not used to hunt and were kept in a building called a mews.  The King’s Mews was at Charing Cross in London, where the National Gallery now stands, and housed the royal falcons and hawks from Richard II’s reign into Henry VIII’s.  A fire in 1534 destroyed the original building, and when King Henry VIII rebuilt it, he moved the hunting birds out, and instead housed the royal stables there.  The building retained the name “Mews” despite the absence of the hawks.

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The entrance to the Royal Mews.

Over time the buildings at Charing Cross became inadequate and a new mews was built on the grounds of Buckingham Palace.  It was designed by John Nash and completed in 1825.  While the Royal Mews remains in that location today, it has been renovated numerous times in the intervening years.  Today it houses the royal carriages and automobiles, the stables for the horses, an indoor riding arena, and apartments for the staff and their families.

Nearly all of the royal carriage horses are either Windsor Greys or Cleveland Bays.  Windsor Greys are not a breed but rather a type and are named for Windsor, where they were originally stabled.  They are all grey, at least 16.1 hands tall, and must have a calm, placid temperament.

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Windsor Greys.

Cleveland Bays are light draft horses.  The breed originated in the Cleveland District of Yorkshire during the 1600s.  Originally they were a mixture of English draft horses and Spanish Andalusians, bred to be sturdy yet swift pack horses.  Eventually Arabian and Thoroughbred blood was added resulting in the taller carriage horses seen at the Royal Mews today.  Cleveland Bays are now quite rare and the line bred at the Royal Mews is important in preserving the breed.

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Cleveland Bays.

Horses with the correct look and required calm demeanor begin training by being broken to saddle and are gradually introduced to harness work.  The daily routine consists of two exercise and training sessions broken by rest and feedings.  In addition to the typical training of a carriage horse, these horses must also learn to handle the unique challenges faced by royal carriage horses.  They receive intense training to desensitize them to the wide variety of stimuli they will encounter on the job, including loud noises and music, flapping flags, balloons, vehicles, and vast crowds.  Only horses that can remain poised in the face of pandemonium will make the grade and eventually participate in a Royal state event.

The horses reside in loose boxes which are large enough for them to turn around in and lie down.  They are trained and cared for by a team comprised of a head coachman, a deputy coachman, and four other coachmen.  Each coachman is responsible for about eight horses, and is assisted by four liveried helpers, who muck out the stalls, groom, feed, and exercise the horses.

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Windsor Greys in their loose boxes.

The Royal Mews also houses the collection of royal carriages.  This includes a variety of coaches, landaus, phaetons, barouches, broughams and even a sleigh.  The most elaborate is the Gold State Coach.  It was built for King George III and first appeared publicly in 1762.

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The Gold State Coach.  The Royal Mews, Mary Stewart-Wilson (1991), the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

Today it is used only for the most prestigious of occasions.  The coach is huge.  It is 12 feet tall, 24 feet long and weighs in at 4 tons.  It is always drawn by eight horses at a walking pace.  To prepare for pulling the coach, the horses are trained using an empty carriage to which sandbags are added over time, gradually increasing its weight until it matches that of the coach.

The operation of the Royal Mews supports the preservation of a number of artisan professions.  The carriages are maintained by restorers who make repairs and refurbish both the exteriors and interiors of the vehicles.

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“Carriage restorer Erik West with his assistant Martin Oates in the Royal Mews Paint Shop.”  The Royal Mews, Mary Stewart-Wilson (1991), the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

The leatherwork on the bridles, harnesses, and saddles is cared for by saddlers.  While leather is replaced regularly, most of the brass fittings date to the 19th century.  Parts of the harness are still hand stitched with the traditional 15-18 stitches per inch.

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State Harness Room at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace. Mr Peter Stark is depicted cleaning the harnesses (Circa 1950).

The livery for the coachmen is as elaborate as the fittings for the horses, and requires specialized tailoring skills to create and maintain.

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“Full State postilion jackets have over 41 metres of gold lace and tubular braid applied to them.”  The Royal Mews, Mary Stewart-Wilson (1991), the gift of The Chronicle of the Horse.

I hope this brief overview gives you an idea of the amount of work and the range of skills required to stage a Royal carriage procession.  The NSLM Library holds a variety of resources on carriages, coaching, horse breeds, saddlery, and the modern sport of driving.  Most of them are available to the public in the Main Reading Room.  Please consider dropping in to explore this fascinating subject more deeply.


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Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. 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 Erica by e-mail

 

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In 1830, a gangling, tall man named William T. Porter came to New York City from the peaceful countryside of rural Vermont. His towering height (six feet, four inches) gave him the nickname “Tall Son of York,” and Porter (1809-1858) was a man with a dream. He had a vision of launching his own newspaper dedicated to sports of all kinds, modeled after the fashionable London newspapers that chronicled the day-by-day activities of popular horse races, prominent fox hunts, and gave advice on raising dogs, fly fishing, shotgunning trips, and even billiards matches.

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Wm. T. Porter, editor of the Spirit of the Times / Pierce. From the collection of Thomas Addis Emmet, 1828–1919, NYPL Digital Gallery. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

By 1831, Porter made his dream a reality with the launch of Spirit of the Times. Porter was the owner and editor, and his four brothers were his business partners in the venture. Spirit of the Times grew a large audience in the American southwest, focusing on the active racing scene in the antebellum South. Porter encouraged humorous and satirical entries, and the Spirit played a significant role in popularizing the American tall tale and by 1839, Spirit of the Times was the most popular sporting periodical in the United States. Porter longed to establish a formal stud book for the United States, in similar vein to the General Stud Book in Britain. The goal would not be achieved in his lifetime.

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George Wilkes, Esq., Editor of Wilke’s New York Spirit of the Times. — Photographed by Brady. From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 7, 1860. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The history of Spirit of the Times is fractured and difficult to trace in its earliest roots, but things became complicated in the 1850s. In 1856, Porter sold his ownership of Spirit of the Times to George Wilkes (1817-1885), staying on as editor until his death in 1858. Abraham Dayton, a former employee at Spirit, launched his own rival publication in 1859, called Porter’s Spirit of the Times, creating a confusing rivalry of weekly sporting newspapers with very similar names. After a court case regarding the use of Porter’s name, the original Spirit was re-christened Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times.

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Masthead of Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, January 9, 1864. National Sporting Library & Museum.

The Civil War tore apart American society, including the sporting and publishing world. Porter’s Spirit of the Times struggled through the war, andwas eventually reunified as Spirit of the Times under Wilkes, who served as editor and publisher until his death in 1885. However, as the war raged, another luminary of sporting newspaper history was rising to military prominence.

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Masthead of Turf, Field and Farm, February 18, 1876. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Sanders D. Bruce (1825-1902), originally from Lexington, Kentucky, had joined his state’s militia as a captain in 1859, following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. When the Civil War began, Bruce chose to fight for the Union, taking a promotion to Colonel in the 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio. The highlight of Col. Sanders Bruce’s military career was leading his brigade in the Battle of Shiloh, but he was obliged to resign his commission in 1864 due to heart trouble.

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The Battle of Shiloh, Thure de Thulstrup, 1888. Restoration by Adam Cuerden. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. The Battle of Shiloh was the highlight of Col. Sanders Bruce’s military career.

Following the war, Bruce relocated to New York and launched his own sporting newspaper called Turf, Field and Farm. The new paper received an instant boost by purchasing much of its infrastructure and equipment from Spirit of the Times, which was struggling through reduced wartime readership. The two papers vied with each other for decades, and within a few years of the war, Turf, Field and Farm and Spirit of the Times made up two of New York’s three most popular newspapers.

Bruce would go on to write extensively on horse breeding, finally fulfilling William Porter’s dream with his production of the American Stud Book in 1873.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

“By means of a good telescope, a very distinct view may be obtained of the moon,” reads one of many short pieces that made up the 1882 edition of The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack. The Almanack had been in print for decades by 1882, tracing back into the 1850s as a dispensary of moral admonition and humorous stories. “With the highest power, however, yet employed, no trace of any inhabitants has been discovered,” the article continued. “Though any large towns must have been seen, did such exist on [the moon’s] visible side.”

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J. Gruber’s Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord 1856. National Sporting Library & Museum.

Despite the inevitable disappointment that the lack of habitations on the moon must have caused readers, almanacs were a staple of American popular literature in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Almanacs have been produced for centuries, dating back into the Middle Ages, with working theories on the earliest almanacs connecting them to Babylonian astronomers. Modern almanacs are known for conjecture on the weather, and for extensive handy reference charts. In the information age, the almanac is no longer a primary reference text, but the genre has continued on as a traditional publication. Poor Richard’s Almanack, produced by Benjamin Franklin, is a legendary title in the genre, and today’s most popular iteration is the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has been faithfully produced since 1792.

The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack was decorated by engravings that were recycled every year. The engravings depicted farm life throughout the year:

In the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room we have several copies of minor almanacs (including The Hagerstown Town and Country Almanack from the 1850s to the mid-1880s and Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina from the 1860s) that give detailed insight into daily life for the era. The heart of the annual almanac was the provision of ready details and charts for the year. Generally, these charts covered the weather, important dates, phases of the moon and tides, or lists of government representatives. The other articles maintained the interest of the reader, and were usually humorous stories or practical advice:

A Fast Frigate.
Dave Constable says there is one advantage about old-fashioned frigates. They drag so much dead water behind, that if a man falls overboard on Monday, you need not stop till Friday, to pick him up again.

The Hagerston Town and Country Almanack, 1856

The Library’s copies of Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina offer a very different tone. These copies were printed during the Civil War, and list facts and information on the government and daily life in the Confederacy, such as postage rates:

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Rates of Postage, Richardson’s Almanac of Virginia and North Carolina, 1864.

The 1864 edition contains no humorous articles and reflects in its offerings the somber trials in war-torn Virginia. Articles include instructions for how to prevent flies from wounds, how to make three dishes from a single beet plant, advice for crafting makeshift lamps from common animal grease, and directions for making shoes from squirrel skins tacked to plain boards. By the 1875 edition, Richardson’s Almanac had reintroduced humorous stories to begin the publication, and the recipes that hinted at the war’s impact had disappeared from from the publication.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

One of the valuable research resources at NSLM is The Thoroughbred Record, a major periodical of record for the horse racing world. NSLM holds issues of The Thoroughbred Record dating back to 1895, and each issue tells some story from the history of racing.

In January of 1896, the American champion money winning racehorse retired. Domino, “The Black Whirlwind,” was being put out to stud by his owner, Foxhall Keene (1867-1941). Domino had been bred by Keene’s father, James R. Keene (1838-1913). Foxhall bought the yearling Domino from his father for $3,000 and the stallion went on a three-year tear through United States racing.

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Portrait of James Robert Keene, 1901, from The World’s Work. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Domino was a sprinter, benefiting from the development away from timed heats in American racing. With less emphasis on stamina and more on outright speed, Domino won (among others) the Belmont Futurity, the Belmont Stakes, and the Great American Stakes.

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Foxhall P. Keene, 1909. Keene was a successful racehorse owner and breeder, and a World and Olympic Gold Medallist in polo. He purchased Domino from his father, James Keene, in 1892 for $3,000. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

During Domino’s two-year-old campaign in 1893, he split his hoof and never completely recovered, often racing in bandages. Consistent injuries to his feet interrupted his training following his 1895 campaign, and in early 1896, he was retired to Castleton Stud with career earnings of over $190,000.

It has also not been decided whether Domino will ever return to the turf; he probably will not, though “Billy” Lakeland, his trainer, during his visit here this week, stated that he was absolutely sound — that is, as sound as he has ever been since he split his hoof during his two-year-old campaign. This foot has always been under suspicion since, and to it more than to any other cause is attributed the comparative failure of his subsequent form compared with his wonderful two-year-old record.
–The Thoroughbred Record, January 25, 1896.

The following month, Domino arrived in Lexington to overwhelming acclaim. Huge crowds of onlookers, upon hearing about Domino’s arrival, swarmed the stable where he was being kept. So great was the demand to see “the great black” horse that Domino’s handlers spent an entire day parading him for onlookers. The Thoroughbred Record of February 8, 1896, describes the horse’s appearance for its national readership.

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Domino’s general appearance seems to have been a bit of a letdown. Apparently, eastern newspapers played up Domino as a dashing figure, a myth dispelled upon his arrival in Kentucky. Nevertheless, The Thoroughbred Record admits his many other anatomical advantages as a racer, and he is named “beautifully balanced” and “perfectly sound,” except for his nagging feet injuries.

Domino produced 20 foals before succumbing to spinal meningitis in July 1897. Of those 20 foals, eight became stakes winners and his most famous descendants include War Admiral, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Native Dancer and American Pharoah.

Domino was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1955.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head 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

While leafing through a copy of the June 3, 1905 edition of The Thoroughbred Record, I happened across a piece under the heading “Local Turf News,” that detailed the visit of John Porter to their editorial offices in Lexington, Kentucky.

Surely this didn’t mean the famous trainer of racehorses, John Porter (1838-1922), who trained horses for the likes of the Duke of Westminster and King George V? The first sentence describes the man who visited:

John Porter, jockey; 4 feet 1 inch in height; weight 98 1/2 pounds, was a caller at The Thoroughbred Record office on Thursday afternoon. There is nothing unusual about Porter’s being a jockey. His height and weight would indicate as much, but when one becomes aware that he is just about seventy-five years old — Porter says he is not quite sure as to his correct age, but “that’s how old white folks tells me I am” is the way he puts it — it dawns upon one that he must indeed be the oldest of all American jockeys now living.

It’s obvious this isn’t the British John Porter, but a man with no less remarkable experience with horses. Upon reading the small piece, I found myself drawn to the mysterious story of the unheralded African American jockey who was still riding at age 75.

The first thing to note is that it’s extremely difficult to find anything about John Porter. He is confirmed as an African American jockey residing in Lexington in the Directory of African Americans in Lexington, KY, 1893 by D. Y. Wilkinson. If he was indeed 75 in 1905, he would have been born in 1830. The article in The Thoroughbred Record says that

Porter was born at the Col. Innis place on the Maysville pike and has been a resident of Lexington all his life, and was exceedingly proud of his owners and trainers badge which gained him admittance to the recent spring meeting, which was by no means his first, and, it is hoped, will not be the last…

It’s likely that Porter was born a slave as were many jockeys of the period. The antebellum racing scene was run largely on the labors of talented African American trainers and jockeys. Porter worked with horses from an early age, exercising horses for John Cameron at the Kentucky Association Course.

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Kentucky Association Racetrack, 1920, by Kraemer Art Company Postcard Proofs – Kentucky Historical Association. Via Wikipedia.

His first mount for a race was on a half-sister of Lexington named Maid of Orleans. It did not go well, at least not immediately. From The Thoroughbred Record:

[S]he jumped the fence, spilling Porter, who claims she ran away clean to the Dicks River cliffs before she was caught. She was eventually found and brought back, and gave Porter his first winning ride on the next day of the meeting.

Success brought opportunity and Porter landed at the stables of Dr. Elisha Warfield, who bred Lexington, then known as Darley. The complexities of the ownership and running of Lexington are their own story, but when ownership shifted and Darley was re-named Lexington, the jockey who rode the newly-christened horse to victory at the 1853 Phoenix Hotel Stakes was John Porter.

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Lexington, c. 1870, Edward Troye (American, 1808-1874) charcoal on paper, 26 x 18 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Ms. Elizabeth J. D. Jeffords, 2008.

In fact, it appears that Porter was the preferred jockey for Lexington again for his most famous match against Le Compte, but Porter, according to The Thoroughbred Record, was “with” a Mr. Viley who refused to allow Porter to travel to Louisiana to ride.

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Lexington in Stable, James Mullen – Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views of Kentucky, 1875. Via Wikipedia.

A facial infection caused Lexington to go blind, forcing his retirement in 1855, but was a leading sire 16 times before his death in 1875. Porter, however, went on to success as a jockey, and trainer.

I found another article in The Thoroughbred Record about John Porter, this time from September 7, 1918:

An unique figure at the Kentucky Association track is an exercising boy named Porter, grandson of the famous jockey, John Porter, who rode at Lexington in many races, including the Phoenix Hotel Stakes, and who had the mount on Ten Broek in the St. Ledger at Louisville when the noted record-holder finished second to King Alfonso in that classic.

Another John Porter, a grandson carrying forward the family tradition of working with horses. When giving tours at our Library, I often point out that the threads of history are extremely delicate. Although John Porter was considered famous in Kentucky horse circles in 1918, he is today very difficult to find in the pages of history.

The contributions of African American jockeys were so often unacknowledged in historical accounts, but they made huge contributions to their sport. Although the record-keeping is imperfect, we’re fortunate to have at least some resources that let us trace the events. Without them, I never would have heard about our John Porter, the man who once rode to victory aboard one of the greatest race horses in American history.


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

Finding blog post topics is a challenge. I was leafing through an 1888 copy of The New York Sportsman when a headline caught my eye. It documented an embarrassing (and dangerous) episode that occurred in Chicago on Monday, July 16 of that year. The article was reprinted from a Chicago Tribune report, politely entitled “A Panic-Stricken Race-Crowd.” The original article was far less flattering, terming the event a “Ludicrous Panic at the West Side Driving Park.”

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Garfield Race Track, 1890. From Chicagology.

I was born in Chicago, and grew up knowing almost nothing of the city’s horseracing history. The Chicago Driving Park was founded in 1863 and operated continuously under many different owners into the early 20th Century. The track eventually became known as Garfield Race Track, on a portion of today’s Garfield Park in the western part of Chicago.

The track was a trotting track, a hugely popular form of racing for urban communities in the 19th Century. Thousands of attendees would attend (and gamble) on the races, with the massive crowds often packed shoulder-to-shoulder. It created a situation that could easily devolve. Our Tribune reporter paints a scene that’s both humorous and exasperated:

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“All sorts of cries were raised. Some one yelled ‘Dynamite!’ Another cried, ‘Mad Dog!’ Another, ‘The stand’s falling!’ Another, ‘A runaway horse!’ Another, ‘Anarchists!'”

The reporter tells that his notepad and paper were knocked from his hands in the stampede as racegoers crowded to climb the fences and escape the threat of doom. Never forgetting his role, our reporter immediately began interviewing people in the bedlam:

“Every one was asking what the trouble was and no one knew. ‘I had to run,’ explained one, ‘or I would have been knocked down and trampled on. I didn’t know what I was running for, but when I got going I made great time.'”

Racegoers, policemen, and even the bookmakers joined the estimated 12,000 stampeders. The bookmakers kept their priorities in the confusion:

“When the scare came they grabbed their cash-boxes and departed, and the way the clerks got out over the sides of their inclosures would have made a cat envious. Four of them even forgot to take their money drawers with them. But everything was found intact when they returned.”

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Chicago Trotting Park (West Side Driving Park), Picturesque Chicago, by Chicago Engraving Company, 1882 From Chicagology.

But what was the mysterious cause of the stampede? The answer was nothing nearly as fearsome as an anarchist’s bomb:

“[A]s a matter of fact, not one man in a hundred knew what the trouble was until it was all over. The trouble was that the flooring under the gambling shed cracked. That made the noise and started the stampede.Some one heard it, and raised the cry that the stand was falling. In such a crowd it required little to make a scare. The stand was in no more danger of falling than it has been for years.”

Racegoers were lucky that there were no fatalities from the mad dash for the exits. The main result was a sheepish crowd returning to the track and a snarky report in local and national papers the following day.


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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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