A Mysterious Disease | Prairie Public Broadcasting

A Mysterious Disease

Oct 24, 2019

On this date in 1912, concern was sweeping through the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. Horses were dying. Back then, farmers still relied on flesh-and-blood horsepower. Losing hundreds of horses throughout the Great Plains was a terrible blow. While tractors were coming into vogue, many farmers could not yet afford the newfangled machines.

The North Dakota state veterinarian traveled to Kansas and South Dakota to learn more about the mysterious disease. He found that it had killed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of valuable animals, but it was unknown whether the disease was infectious or caused by contaminated food.

Banks were concerned about the financial pressures the loss was causing farmers. They suggested the disease was related to blackleg. This is an often fatal condition that afflicted cattle. The banks suggested that farmers vaccinate their horses against blackleg. Many farmers took that advice, but their horses died anyway.

The suspicion that the horse disease was related to blackleg was understandable. There had been reports that fall of blackleg in Arizona that could move north. Northern newspapers had cautioned ranchers to vaccinate cattle. But according to the Cooperative Extension, horses were not susceptible.

The epidemic in the horses hit farmers hard and there were reports of suicide. A Kansas widow was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She had lost all of her horses. Some farmers rented tractors. Others resorted to oxen for plowing.

Some veterinarians suggested that the disease had been introduced by immigrants who brought horses from Europe, but most veterinarians said the disease was not contagious. They suggested taking horses off pasture grazing, suspecting an environmental source. The disease, whatever it was, eventually faded out with no name ever given to it.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Ward County Independent. “Horse Disease is Spreading.” Minot ND. 10/13/1912. Page 2.

Holbrook News. “Blackleg Among Northern Cattle.” Holbrook County AZ. 11/8/1912. Page 3.

Ekalaka Eagle. “How to Fight Blackleg.” Ekalaka Mt. 11/15/1912. Page 3.

The Sun. “Kansas Horses Are Dying.” New York City NY. 10/6/1912. Page 41.

Cooperative Extension. “Can Horses Get Black Leg?” https://horses.extension.org/2019/07/can-horses-contract-blackleg/  Accessed 9/29/2019.

Cattle Today. “Cattle Diseases.” https://cattletoday.info/blackleg.htm  Accessed 9/29/2019.