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Looking Back: The horse epidemic of 1872

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 20, 2020


BIRMINGHAM — Something very weird was going on with the horses in the fall of 1872.

In her diary that year, Martha Durkee Blakeslee noted on Nov. 10, “There is a terrible time among the horses. It is called the horse epidemic. Every horse has it. It is a cough and their nose is so bad it discharges very bad. The horse has to be kept warm and given warm feed and their throat rubbed. (it is the throat). About 100 years ago there was such time then as now.”

The illness that Blakeslee wrote of we now know as equine influenza, and 1872 was a particularly large outbreak of it, affecting over 72% of the horses in North America, and also found throughout Central America and the Caribbean that year.

Horses were the primary way that goods and services were delivered throughout the United States, and so goods sat undeliverable on docks, doctors couldn’t reach their patients and some cities experienced devastating fires because the horse-drawn fire wagons were out of service.

Today, germ theory helps us understand diseases like the flu and how it spreads, but that theory wasn’t widely held at the time, and the “cures” that were promoted varied widely. Many blamed “bad air” from Greenland for the disease outbreak, and a widely promoted “cure” was to burn a match under the affected animal’s nostrils to induce violent sneezing. Another was to rub spirit of turpentine on the jaws and necks of the affected horses, never mind the resulting blisters.

Luckily for the horses and the population that depended on them, the mortality rate was between 1% and 2%, and most of the animals recovered within a few weeks if they were allowed to rest.

This photo, showing the Parks block of Birmingham, 110-116 N. Old Woodward Ave., in the 1880s, shows a common sight in cities all over the U.S. at that time: horses transporting goods and people.  It gives a sense of just how important horses were in everyday life and how crippling the epidemic was for people.