The Epizootic- 1872 September 24, 1941
American Slang has adopted the word “epizootic” to describe a general indisposition on the part of an individual to be agreeable in company. Scoffingly, persons will describe the disgruntled sulker by remarking: “The epizootic ails him.”
There was a time, however, when the word had a dreaded meaning for farmers and horse dealers in Berks and neighboring counties. The real meaning of the word is a contagion among animals, just as the word epidemic describes a plague among humans. Seventy years ago a mysterious disease attacked hundreds of horses in Berks stables, and for want of a scientific term the local veterinarians called the disease “the epizootics” New York newspapers named it “hipporhinorrhea” and in Philadelphia it was known as “pachydermatous.” An effort to pronounce these terms will convince anyone that the Berks word was the best of the three.
The malady was known to strike suddenly, most of the horses in a stable being affected at the same moment. The first symptoms usually took the form of violent coughing, a refusal to eat, a fever, and then a form of equine bronchitis. In severe cases prostration followed within a few hours after the initial attack and animals prostrated seldom recovered from the disease.
It was believed that the germs of the disease were brought to Reading by the horses and mules used on the canal tow paths. For this reason health authorities investigated the stables of the Schuykill Navigation Company to ascertain whether the horses owned by the canal people were affected. To their surprise the inspectors failed to discover any cases of epizootic among the canal animals.
The Reading livery stables were most severely infested with the disease. The stables of H.H. Hoch at Cherry and Wood streets reported 13 cases, all affected in one day; the Tobias Barto stable at Ash and Court streets reported the same number of cases; all of the horses in the Frame Brothers stables at Wood Street, below Franklin, were sick. Among these horses there were some valuable race horses. Similar reports came from the stables of Hiram Shitler, Poplar and Court streets, and the Boyer stables at 6th and Cherry Streets.
The disease spread into the outlying towns. The horses at Spatz’s hotel in Womelsdorf were affected. It happened that Hiester Clymer stopped at this hotel during the siege of the epizootic and stabled his horses there. These horses became ill during an overnight stay at the hostelry.
The treatment for the disease varied as applied by different veterinarians, but for the most part it consisted of keeping the animals warm, for it was in the month of November that the malady struck. The remedies included such ingredients as raw tar, bran mash, hay soaked in vinegar, water with flaxseed tea. In most cases the remedy called for an application of hartshorn and linseed oil rubbed on the necks of the animals.
The effectiveness of these treatments is attested by the fact that there were few fatalities among the horses after the veterinarians got busy.
Archival Notes: According to the 1870 census there were 7.1 million horses, 1.1 million mules, and 39 million people in the United States at that time. October 1, 1872 the first case was reported in Toronto, Canada. Within 3 days all street car horses and livery stables were affected. Within 90 days the disease spread throughout the United States as far as Cuba. Most regions experienced an 80-99% infection rate. Mortality rate averaged 1-2% but was as high as 10% in some areas.