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Running Like Wildfire

A Study of the most destructive recorded episode of equine influenza in history.


CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS

Equine Influenza Devastates America


That would have been the headline in the Autumn of 1872 if the journalists in New York could have correlated the information pouring into The New York Times about the spread of the worst equestrian catastrophe in the history of the nation – and perhaps the world.


Imagine an equestrian health disaster that crippled all of America, halted the government in Washington DC, stopped the ships in New York, burned Boston to the ground and forced the cavalry to fight the Apaches on foot.  It was an equine tragedy so deadly that one wave of the infection swept south like a Biblical plague from its origin in Toronto, Canada, down the Atlantic Seaboard to Havana, Cuba, leaving everything in its path in ruins in weeks, while another branch simultaneously raced west to the Pacific.


Now imagine if knowledge of the greatest equine epidemic in North American history had been lost – until now.


The majority of Americans today cannot begin to conceive of life without the smooth-running transportation system which has been part of their lives since Eisenhower was president. Nor can Americans today imagine the inconveniences, and dangers, associated with a disruption of a system they simply take for granted.


Everything they know.

Everything they depend on.

Everything that defines their lives from Pampers, to insulin, to the New York Times, to coffee, to ambulances, to.........

Everything that protects them, keeps them warm, feeds them, defines their personalities and makes them feel safe.

Their entire world is tied into a transportation system that serves them silently from cradle to grave.


Now imagine

No food, no luxuries, no basics, not even any emergency services.

Imagine the recent scenes of floods of climate refugees fleeing on foot from a flooded New Orleans.

Imagine the recent scenes of crowds of frightened New Yorkers running from terror.


Now imagine that a transportation disaster occurred which didn't hit two cities.

Imagine a transportation disaster that crippled all of America.

Imagine a transportation disaster that within 90 days affected every aspect of American transportation, everything Americans took granted, everything that ensured their safety, every city, town and village where they lived and left everything in its path under siege.


Imagine a transportation disaster that monstrous, and then imagine if it had been totally forgotten today.


That's the story of how the horses were stricken.

That's the story of how the greatest equine medical  disaster in American history was re-discovered by a group of equestrian researchers.

That's the story of the Great Epizootic.


The information presented here is the result of  a three-year  ground-breaking academic research project undertaken by The Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation which was completed just as we heard the alarming news of the outbreak of Equine Influenza in Australia.


The LRG-AF collection includes a hitherto “lost” 19th Century American governmental study which documents the horrifying spread of the equine influenza, the first map detailing the frightening rapidity of the diseases spread, an interview with Dr. Murnane, and assorted historical documents related to this ground-breaking project.  In keeping with their academic mission of studying all aspects of the hippological arts and sciences, the LRG-AF is providing all of these documents gratis to readers of its website.   We would, however, be grateful if you would credit the LRG-AF if you republish any of the material presented here.


What you are about to read is the unbelievable, but true, story of how the greatest equestrian medical disaster in American history was rediscovered by accident. This is a story that says, “No one knew why it came or if it will come again.  No one knows because no one remembers the Great Epizootic….”


That’s the story that is intimately linked to today’s headlines about the outbreak of equine influenza in Japan and Australia.


The Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation would like to thank the following individuals for the role they played in exposing and documenting this crucial equestrian event.


Robert White – Curatorial Assistant at the Buffalo Bill Cody Historical Center, whose discovery of obscure references to “the Great Epizootic” resulted in this global study.

Professor Nancy Duran – Librarian at Texas A&M University who re-discovered Professor James’ Law’s ground-breaking 1874 study of the Great Epizootic.

Brigadier General Dr. Thomas Murnane – a leading expert from the prestigious American Veterinary Medical History Society.  Dr. Murnane’s expertise has been of critical help in understanding the historical implications of the disastrous Great Epizootic.

For more information, please click on the boxes below.

The official American government report on the Equine Influenza Epidemic  of 1872 Map showing the spread of the Equine Influenza Epidemic of 1872 Interview with Brigadier General Dr. Murnane, discussing the Australian equine influenza How Boston burned - no horses to pull the fire-engines!

New!  In 2012 the LRG-AF received information from a researcher who had found a personal letter about the epizootic

Reporting on the Epizootic - Press Accounts from 1872

Fighting the Apaches on foot - how the Equine Influenza Epidemic was rediscovered

What to do if you encounter an outbreak of equine influenza

Paper presented by Brigadier General Thomas G. Murnane, to the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Veterinary Medical History Society in New Orleans, LA, July 21, 2008

Click to enlarge map of spread of the Epizootic in report to the American Public Health Association in 1873. 

Public Health Reports and Papers presented at the meetings of the American Public Health Association in the Year 1873.


A fascinating overview of the Epizootic by Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns, with interviews with many modern scientists and their views of what could happen if a similar virus struck today.  It was published in Tri-State Livestock News in November 2008.


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