It started in Toronto in the summer of 1872, then spread to New England and Michigan before finding its way to New York in the fall.
“The Horse Plague,” read the headline of the New York Times on October 25. “Fifteen thousand horses in this city unfit for use.”
New York had seen outbreaks of disease among horses before, most recently in 1871. But this epizootic of equine influenza was different, sickening (but rarely killing) nearly all horses exposed to it.
This was a big problem in New York at the time. In a city powered by horses—pulling stages and street cars filled with people, hauling heavy wagons and drays of raw materials and merchandise—business and travel were all but shut down.
In a city without horsepower, men were forced to do the labor horses usually did (above sketch).
“People were forced to transform into beasts of burden, using pushcarts and wheelbarrows to transport the merchandise that was piling up at docks,” wrote Nancy Furstinger in Mercy.
Not every horse owner allowed his teams time to rest and recover. The New York Herald on October 26 reported that one street car line “is running the horses as long as they will stand up, and the result promises to be fearful in the extreme, as many of them have dropped down in the street from overwork.”
That angered Henry Bergh (left and checking street car horses in the illustration at top), who headed the recently formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Bergh stood outside of Cooper Union and personally “ordered the brutes to stop driving the gasping beasts.”
The conditions horses lived in were partially blamed for the outbreak. “The car and stage horses of this city suffer invariably from all possible forms of equine disease . . . badly fed, worse housed, overworked, and never groomed, they are ready victims of disease,” commented the Times.
The outbreak was over in New York by December, and horses went back to work, doing their duty as the “mute servants of mankind,” as Bergh called them, until they were largely replaced by automobiles.
[Top image: Harper’s Weekly; second image: NYPL; third image: NYT story October 27, 1872; fifth image: MCNY]