It was a disease that no one really understood and even fewer people had any idea how to treat.
From time to time, the horses that lived among us began to become quite ill. When they did, our whole world began to change. It was a terrible time that most of us have chosen to forget. It is not hard to see why. Today we live in a world moved by cars and trucks. We ride horses for pleasure and for sport. But we tend to forget that there was a time — not that long ago — when horses pulled almost everything worth pulling.
Columbus is a created city. There was no town here until the Ohio General Assembly brought it into being in 1812. The town grew slowly until the National Road and Ohio Canal arrived in the early 1830s. Soon, Columbus became a city of 5,000 people.
Over the next few decades, Columbus became the hub of several different railroads and a center of commerce and trade. Columbus by 1850 was a town living through a lot of change. German and Irish immigrants were transforming the city. The arrival of the railroads brought many more people to the capital city.
The Civil War transformed Columbus into a major regional center. The population jumped from 18,000 at the outset of the Civil War to more than 30,000 in 1870. In the age of steam, people looked to the new railroad networks to be the wave of the future.
In 1872, Columbus and America were reminded of to how the world actually worked. It worked on the backs of a lot of horses.
It was not something new in the experience of the city: About the middle of 1855, the epizootic, which had already been prevalent in Cincinnati, appeared among the stage horses in Columbus and proved fatal in several cases. “There is but one remedy,” said the Ohio Statesman, “and that is bleeding very freely, after which give the horse eight drams of Barbadoes aloes, being very careful not to give him cold water.”
According to newspaper accounts, the decaying bodies of dead animals were still allowed to lie in the streets. On July 13, 1851, the Ohio Statesman reported, “The alley running from High to Third between Friend (Main) to Mound, seems to have been made a depository for all the dead hogs, cats and fowls in that vicinity.”
But the Columbus of the 1870s was a much different town than the capital city of the 1850s. It was a lot bigger. No longer was a town of 6,000 people, Columbus a city of more than 30,000. More importantly, Columbus was an urban place that relied on animal power to make things happen. And that animal power came from horses.
In the fall of 1872, an “epizootic” attacked the horses of Columbus. “Epizootic” is one of those words designed to say a lot while conveying a little. Literally, an “epi,” or epidemic, among animals, or “zootic,” an “epizootic” is an outbreak of disease among animals. What the disease is or how it might work is not disclosed.
Today, it seems pretty clear that the Columbus epizootic of 1872 was probably equine influenza, a disease with nasty consequences. But no one knew that at the time. And what one does not know can cause more than a little fear.
According to one local account, “The epizootic reappeared in Columbus Nov. 17, 1872, shortly after which date a great many horses were seized with chills and coughing, accompanied in some cases, by the discharge of yellowish green matter from the nose, and a swelling of the glands. Prevention was attempted by wrapping asafoetida around the bridle-bits and administering bromi-chloralum. Owing to this contagion, the running of streetcars had to be suspended Nov. 18 and the horses of the Fire Department, all being infected, volunteer companies of men to draw the engines and hose carts had to be organized.
“By Nov. 26, all of the horses in Columbus were more or less affected, bakers and grocers were obliged to deliver their goods by footmen, and ox teams for heavy loading became as numerous on the streets as to cease to be a curiosity. Stages, streetcars and omnibuses all ceased running, passengers were obliged to walk between the hotels and the railway station, and the country mail transportation was seriously embarrassed. Many alleged remedies for the malady, most of which it would be unprofitable to reproduce, found their way into print.”
As fast as the “epizootic” hit, it was generally gone. We say generally, because in some cases, the disease lingered on for years.
We do not worry about this particular epizootic these days because most of us do not much rely on horses. But the “Great Epizootic of 1872” reminds us once again how disease can affect us all.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.