This article was originally published on Kueez
It might seem like our societies are currently dealing with one disaster after the next. It can get overwhelming. But if it's any consolation at all, that's nothing new! We're here to put things into perspective today with some of the darkest times in human history. Have we forgotten these things happened? Probably. But that's about to change, as we review natural and man-made mayhem that made the record books. The question is, will the world ever learn its lesson? Read on to know more about these fascinating, terrible events.
The American Civil War Actually Killed 750,000 Men
Sure, America seems divided these days. But once upon a time, disagreement got much more violent. You've probably heard of the civil war, but how many people actually fought and died to free the slaves and keep the union together? As it turns out, a lot. The South declared itself to be a whole new country called the Confederacy. President Lincoln demanded they come back. The fighting that ensued took the lives of around 750,000 men. And then, there were the 60,000 amputees, like the man pictured here.
Honest Abe famously declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free...It will become all one thing or all the other." After a lot of blood, the slaves were freed, and the United States of America stayed united.
The Justinian Plague Actually Killed Half the World
Wait, what? The Justinian Plague killed half of everyone on the planet? Yes, indeed it did. It's likely you haven't heard about this one, but that is to the shame of our thin history books today. A lot of those ancient paintings depicting despair might just be about this period: Back in the sixth century, somewhere between 30 and 50 million people were killed by a mysterious plague spreading across Asia, Arabia, North Africa, and Europe. Yikes!
The illness started during the reign of Emperor Justinian in Constantinople and lasted for about 300 years. Painful lymph nodes, rashes, blisters, and fevers characterized this death sentence. Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, it seems to have been spread by fleas. Scientists think it came from China or India originally, but no one can be sure. It was a long time ago when the world was a lot smaller.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Took the Lives of 3000 Residents
We all know that earthquakes create disasters, but we now have seismic equipment to warn us. Apparently, that was not the case in 1906 in San Francisco. Out of the blue at five in the morning, an unexpected quake hit the Golden City. It lasted for around sixty seconds and moved 296 miles of earth. The collapse and chaos resulted in a fire that burned through the city for four days. A lot of people died in the flame, smoke, and rubble!
Hundreds of buildings folded, including San Francisco's City Hall. Those in the city's poorer districts were most affected, as usual. The final count: 3000 people were killed and 200,000 were left homeless.
200,000 Japanese Died in the Nuclear Attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
To end WWII, America made the radical, unprecedented decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan. The technology was brand new and top secret. There was no way that the Japanese military saw this one coming. After the mushroom clouds, President Harry Truman declared: "It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East."
Codenamed Little Boy, the first bomb was unleashed on Hiroshima. Three days later, a bomb named Fat Man hit the second city of Nagasaki. Most victims gruesomely evaporated, and some died from radiation poisoning. In short, the toll led to unconditional surrender from Japan’s Emperor and the end of WWII.
16,000 Indians Perished From the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
It's something few of us have even heard about, but it remains the worst industrial accident in history. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy happened on December 3, 1984, at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Dozens of tons of the chemical methyl isocyanate escaped in a leak. The result was catastrophic and resulted in toxic exposure for more than half a million locals. What was intended for the manufacturing of pesticides was now all around humans beings.
3,783 people were killed right away, but around 16,000 died in total due to later gas-related illnesses. The accident also caused 555,125 injuries, many permanently disabling and severe. Additionally, up to 150,000 survivors still struggle with side effects today, like cancer, nerve damage, and birth defects.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Annihilated 15 Million African Souls
We all know there was a history of slavery in the U.S. back in the day, but how did it all get started? The answer is in the belly of ships, by the thousands. Beginning in the 16th century, the transport of Africans to the new world lasted until the 1800s. Millions ended up working on plantations in North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. But the track record of travel was not the best, to say the least.
How many victims were lost along the way? The real number is shocking: Around 15 million died as a result of the crowded, filthy boats. Human trafficking was pretty profitable, even if a lot of cargo didn't make it. Cargo meaning men, women, and children.
Communist Joseph Stalin Murdered Almost 50 Million Soviet Citizens
Joseph Stalin is a name synonymous with mass murder, at this point. But it seems the details of his communist regime aren't talked about as often as you would think. For a guy that murdered 50 million of his own citizens, it's strange we don't hear about it all the time. This ruler's philosophy was simple: “When there's a person, there's a problem. When there's no person, there's no problem."
Born in the nation of Georgia, he rose through the ranks of the red revolution. As the big boss, he killed off his opponents and competitors one by one. And the people? Whether you were a dissident sent to Siberia to freeze or a peasant left in Ukraine to starve, Stalin was terrifying.
The AIDS Epidemic Has Taken More Than 36 Million Lives to Date
In the 1980s, a scary new epidemic appeared. People started dying from something called AIDS. No treatments were available, and doctors were at a loss. The public was totally confused. It seemed to affect a lot of gay men, at first. Was it a gay disease? People really did not understand its transmission, and sufferers experienced personal and workplace discrimination. Luckily, with enough time, we figured out that you could not get it from sharing a cup or a handshake.
Today, we have developed incredible treatments that basically prevent death from the virus if you take all the right pills. But sadly, we cannot ignore the death toll: It's 36.3 million, as of 2020.
King Shaka Zulu Ruthlessly Massacred 2 Million Fellow Africans
We often think of modern warfare as the most deadly, with machine guns and tanks mowing over millions. But would you believe that this was sometimes accomplished the good old-fashioned way? Take King Shaka Zulu, of the Zulu tribe, for example. Around 1800, this African ruler made his way up the ranks through warrior ability, not through his birth. As king, he was brutal. Things got really bloody on his orders.
Shaka Zulu took his army of thousands and slaughtered rival tribes. His men killed two million with spears alone, which is pretty up close and personal. In the end, he was killed by his own half brothers as he screamed for mercy. Sorry not sorry, Shaka.
The Attacks at Pearl Harbor Took 2,390 Lives in a Day
WWII got pretty intense, as millions began to die on all sides. But the American leadership at the time did not think they had to join in. It was only the attack on Hawaii that changed things in an instant: 90 Japanese airships blew up Pearl Harbor and killed 2,390 United States civilians and servicemen. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called this event a “date which will live in infamy" when he addressed America.
About half the deaths were on just one ship: The USS Arizona. Sadly, the vessel exploded and sank into the ocean with everyone on board. The very next day, the United States joined the wider war. Surprise, surprise!
The Great Irish Potato Famine Starved a Million to Death
We've all heard there was once something called the Great Irish Potato Famine. But what really took place during what is now known in Ireland as the Great Hunger? From 1845 to 1849, Ireland faced mass starvation because of a fungus called Phytophthora infestans. This invasive species killed all potato crops, which meant the Irish were lacking this staple food, consumed mostly by the poor. Potatoes were also commonly used to feed livestock.
About a million people in Ireland died of starvation and hunger-related diseases. Many fled to different counties all over the world to avoid starvation. America is filled with Irish heritage today for a reason!
About 90% of All American Indians Died From European Viruses
We know that Europeans fill most of the space today, but there used to be a lot of natives on the North American continent. Sometimes folks got along and traded, and sometimes they got into bloody conflicts. Wars led to deaths on both sides. But the truth is, most of the Indians died off without much effort from anyone at all. The immune systems of each group differed! For thousands of years, these populations had been fighting off completely different germs.
The natives living in the Americas had never encountered smallpox, measles, or even the flu before. Bacteria and viruses wouldn't be formally discovered by science for hundreds of years, if we look up the dates. No one yet knew how it all worked. But regardless, 90% of the Native Americans died without a fight. Sad, but true!
The Great Smog of London Snuffed Out At Least 4,000 Brits
What in the world is this great smog, and why have most of us never heard about it? It sounds creepy, but it happened. In 1952, there was such severe air pollution in London that it caused a terrible reaction with the cold weather. Wind conditions swept up coal pollution and formed a really thick layer of smog over the city. It made visibility difficult and even filled people's homes. Disgusting! And as it turns out, deadly.
Government medical reports said that around 4,000 residents died from inhaling the filth, and 100,000 more got ill. But recent research says that between 10-12,000 died from the event. Soon after, new environmental regulations were passed. Too little, too late!
The Death Toll of WWII Is Estimated to Be 70-80 Million
WWII is still fresh in the minds of at least some older veterans. But there have been so many wars, in so many countries. What's the big deal about this one, in particular? Well, if you go by the death toll, it is the deadliest conflict in history. World War ll killed between 70 to 80 million, and most were civilians. It began in 1939 when Nazi Germany broke its promise and invaded Poland. Then, all hell broke loose.
In the UK, Prime Minister Churchill declared: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!” That's pretty much what happened. But the body count is still astonishing, and probably won't be beaten.
The Huascarán Debris Avalanche Wiped Out 30,000 Peruvians
We often think of an avalanche as a snow event, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes, mud, dirt, and debris can also rain down on folks. Sadly, that's what happened in 1970 in the Huascarán debris avalanche in Peru. When an earthquake occurred in the region, mudflow was triggered. The result? The town of Yungay and ten smaller villages were destroyed. 30,000 people died, which is no minor natural disaster.
The Huascarán Debris Avalanche is still one of the biggest of its kind. But so far, these things remain rare. According to the United States Geological Survey: "Conceivably, such an event may not occur again for thousands of years."
Chinese Revolutionary Mao Starved 55 Million to Death
When we think of China today, it's easy to picture buzzing factories and massive cities. But once upon a time, the country was a lot less developed. When communist ruler Mao took over, he had a lot of novel ideas about how farming should work. Most notably, he declared that all sparrows had to be killed. They had been pecking at crops, so eliminating them would create more food for everyone, right? It was a command from one central place, and no feedback was allowed. What happened?
Somewhere between 40 and 55 million Chinese starved to death when the birds no longer ate the insects, and the insects ate the crops like never before. Did Mao consider this a success? According to Mao: "When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill."
The Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami Killed 230,000 in 2004
Natural disasters are terrifying if you have nowhere to escape. When it comes to tsunamis, that means a wall of water coming at you at top speed. The deadliest tsunami that we know of happened in the Indian Ocean in 2004 When 100-foot waves struck land. The death toll was a staggering 230,000, at minimum. This event affected 14 countries in the region. Indonesia had it the worst, and Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand also suffered mass casualties.
The tsunami was the result of an earthquake along the fault line between the Indian Plate and the Burma Plate. The quake itself was the third-largest ever recorded. It's no wonder the after-effect was so intense!
The Spanish Flu Killed 50 Million People in 1918
We may be dealing with a nasty virus now, but it's not even close to the deadliest virus in history. Let's take a look at one of the bigger outbreaks in modern history: The 1918 Flu, otherwise known as the Spanish Flu. This sickness spread around the world and killed 50 million people. They tried mask mandates in public, but there wasn't a lot they could do to combat the pandemic. There was no vaccine or any other treatment.
And in fact, it wasn't even all that long ago. Former President Donald Trump's grandpa died of the Spanish flu. They say that history doesn't repeat itself, but maybe it rhymes. COVID-19 might not be the last bad bug of the new century!
World War I Resulted in More Than 20 Million Deaths Globally
In 1914, WWI began. Around 13 million civilians died along with 8.5 million soldiers. The carnage took four years and was called "the war to end all wars." As we know now, it certainly did not. But before the second world war surpassed these totals, this one was simply called "The Great War". It seems that the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the last straw in the tension in Europe at the time. The continent exploded!
In an era of new weapons, soldiers fought in trenches and returned home mutilated. Fun fact: This war was the reason plastic surgery was first invented! The more you know, the more you wish you did not.
Terrorists Killed Almost 3,000 in the Attacks on September 11th, 2001
On September 11, 2001, two planes crashed into the world trade center towers in NYC. Another crashed into the Pentagon. It was pure pandemonium, and Americans watched it live on TV. Around 3,000 citizens were taken in a flash. Soon, it became clear that it was an act of terrorism. Over the next 20 years, the U.S. pursued conflict in the middle east as politicians explained that it was better to find them over there than over here, here being America.
The images of the American office workers jumping out of a skyscraper on fire still sadden millions worldwide who saw it at the time. But do younger Americans understand the trauma? As time passes, fewer understand it firsthand.
The Chernobyl Disaster Eventually Killed Thousands From Radiation Diseases
Back in Soviet times, nuclear power was cutting edge, but poorly monitored. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear facility melted down and killed 31 people immediately. But authorities did not want to admit what happened right away. They sent in the military to clean things up, and those people all died too. Radiation is no joke! This disaster was the subject of a hit HBO series recently, showing a new generation the history for the first time.
There have been an estimated 4,000 cancer deaths in the area in the years since. Plants and animals had visible mutations, as well. The impact of the disaster caused worldwide apprehension about nuclear power for decades, which persists today.
The Halifax Explosion Instantly Killed 2,000 Canadians
Everyone agrees that Canada is usually a pretty calm place. But there is one day in Canadian history that really stands out as an exception. Or rather, an explosion! The Halifax Explosion was a disaster that Nova Scotia will never forget. Back in 1917, a French cargo ship called the SS Mont-Blanc collided with a Norwegian ship called the SS Imo. One was carrying explosives, and the result was a big boom.
It was so big, in fact, that 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 were injured. At the time it was the largest human-made explosion, ever. Trees, bars, and bodies were everywhere. Mangled corpses were stuck two or three high at a makeshift morgue in town, as historians grimly recorded.
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Killed 8,000 Texans
They say that everything is bigger in Texas. In this case, sadly, that phrase is quite right. Nicknamed the "Great Storm of 1900", Galveston saw the deadliest hurricane in American history. 8,000 people were killed when 8 to 12 feet of water hit the coastline. In the process, around 7,000 buildings were destroyed. A lot of folks drowned in their own homes or were smashed dead by debris. It all sounds very scary, even reading about it nowadays!
In the aftermath, about 10,000 Texans were left homeless and traumatized. Everyone decided it was time for some new infrastructure: The city of Galveston created a 10-mile seawall for future disasters.
The Black Death Killed Up to 200 Million Worldwide
Many people might have heard there was something called the black death in old Europe. But what was it, exactly? Also known as the bubonic plague, this pandemic occurred in Asia, Europe, and North Africa in the 1300s. Overall, historians estimate that 75–200 million people were killed. As you might imagine, this constant death caused religious, social, and economic devastation. People just didn't understand their sad fates! How could they, before any modern science?
Like other plagues, this one came from bacteria on fleas: Yersinia pestis, to be exact. But humans really didn't take showers or wash their hands the way we do now, and they didn't know why everyone was dying. In the end, 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population was wiped out.
The Korean War Body Count Was 3 Million
Maybe we forgot about this war in between WWII and the Vietnam War. But it's time to look at the casualties from The Korean War, which lasted for three years and affected several nations. As the Soviets and allied communist China took over more and more territory for their movement, America stepped in to stop the spread. The setting here was Korea, and it ended up in a split of the country in half. Along the way, 3 million civilians and soldiers died on all sides.
Today, North and South Korea are still divided into communist and capitalist states. Americans still maintain a military base in the south, and the Chinese are still working with the north. Once upon a time, there was one Korea. Will that ever be true again?
The 1947 Texas City Disaster Blew up 600 Souls in Galveston
The Texas City explosion of 1947 is one we don't talk about much anymore. Perhaps other disasters have stolen the limelight. But in terms of industrial accidents, this event still has a place in the history books. In Texas City at Galveston Bay, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions exploded. It was all thanks to a boatload of ammonium nitrate intended to be fertilizer. Someone thought it would be a good idea to sail in with 2,300 tons.
Up to 600 were killed when the ammonium nitrate exploded from a small, accidental fire nearby. Around 4,000 more were injured. Eventually, there was a class-action lawsuit against the government, and safety regulations changed.
The Vietnam War Killed More Than 3 Million Over 19 Years
The Vietnam War was a lot longer than you think. Over a period of 19 years, Americans and their friends battled North Vietnam forces allied with communist China and the Soviet Union. It was bloody in the jungle, and the long affair killed 3,447,494 people, 58,220 of which were American soldiers. Over time, the war became very unpopular back home, and the U.S. pulled out in defeat. Had activists forced their hand?
From Martin Luther King Jr. to The Beatles to Muhammed Ali, there were a lot of big names calling for an end to the conflict. That, coupled with the television images of the carnage may have turned public opinion. But what was the final straw in the long battle? Historians debate the era, even to this day.
Communist Pol Pot Killed 2 Million Cambodians in 5 Years
After America pulled out of Vietnam, there was no one to fight communism in the region. Neighbor Cambodia was taken over by the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Its leader was a man named Pol Pot, and we don't often hear his name anymore. But he sure killed a lot of Cambodians at the Keung Ek torture camp. Piles of human skulls were found from political dissidents in mass graves. And that was just the beginning.
Some called the entire period a genocide: Between 1975 to 1970, 1.5–2 million Cambodians perished. Besides the executions, there was forced labor, disease, and torture. 20,000 bodies in mass graves were termed The Cambodian Killing Fields. Why don't we ever hear about it nowadays?
The Conquests of Genghis Khan Slaughtered 60 Million
Modern-day Mongolia seems to be proud of this fellow, as a legendary warrior and leader. But let's take a look at the dirty details of Ghengis Khan's life. The founder of the Mongol Empire is actually considered to be one of the biggest mass murderers in history. He conquered the majority of Eurasia with his armies, raping and pillaging his way across the continent. 60 million people were slain in the process.
His legacy is everywhere, quite literally. Besides Genghis Khan statues all around the world, around 16 million people carry his DNA today. Maybe it wasn't voluntary, but it's not going away anytime soon.
The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Killed More Than 4 Million Worldwide
On January 30th, 2020, it was official: The World Health Organization called Covid-19 a major outbreak requiring international attention. First discovered in Wuhan, China, it quickly spread all over the globe. The virus was extremely contagious and experts struggled for months to understand its mode of transmission. Treatments took a long time, too. As of 2021, we have data to suggest that it's most harmful to the elderly, the obese, and those with other diseases already. On the whole, how does the death toll compare to other pandemics throughout history?
As of 2021, 4.5 million have died from the virus. But is that totally accurate? Many don't trust the official numbers from countries like China. It might be worse than they admit. We wonder: Will the world ever know the truth?
The Taiping Rebellion Killed 30 to 50 Million Chinese
So many wars have happened since the beginning of human history that it's hard to keep track. It seems like that's just how people settled disputes, for a very long time. In the case of China, that has certainly been true in ancient and modern times. During the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese people had recently discovered opium, and they loved it. It created an opioid crisis of sorts, and the country experienced a lot of turmoil socially and economically.
During troubled times, war often breaks out. During this period, 30 to 50 million people died in a civil war between the Manchu Qing dynasty and the Han. Kind of a big deal, in Chinese history!
The Rwandan Genocide Murdered 800,000 Africans
Different tribes have their own grievances against each other in Africa, and it's not always a big, happy family. Rwanda experienced terrible bloodshed in the '90s when one minority group called the Tutsis was targeted for death. According to the UN: "By 1994, Rwanda's population stood at more than 7 million people comprising 3 ethnic groups: the Hutu (who made up roughly 85% of the population), the Tutsi (14%), and the Twa (1%)."
The collection of skulls left behind got worldwide attention but perhaps a little too late. Up to 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutu majority. 2 million refugees left the nation after all was said and done.
Warfare in the Yuan Dynasty Erased 30 Million People
One might think that the violence of Genghis Khan ended when he died, but that is not the case. His ancestors continued his legacy and ruled as part of the Yuan Dynasty over China in the 1300s. Grandson Kublai Khan was part of over a hundred years of war and famine, that killed 30 million people. Not quite his grandfather's record, but nothing to scoff at. What else was going on, besides all the killing?
A few things, it seems. For one, the Yuan Dynasty established relations with Marco Polo and the Europeans. And two, they used paper money for the first time in their history. Seems like that concept stuck!
The 2017 Las Vegas Shooting Murdered 60 and Injured 867
In 2017, a lone shooter opened fire on a crowd enjoying a country music festival in Las Vegas. It was terrifying and shocking to the entire nation, and those who weren't killed still have mental scars to this day. One survivor shared: "The weeks and months that followed left us finding it difficult to breathe and wondering how we'd ever move forward. Again on this day, thousands of lives changed forever when they had to live through that terrifying night and the days that followed."
The killer turned out to be Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old who was firing from a window of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. With more than 1,000 bullets sprayed on the people below, 60 were killed. More than 800 people were injured during the panic. In the end, he put a gun to his own head. To this day, his motives are undetermined!
36 Million Chinese Were Killed in the An Lushan Rebellion
Back to China we go. There seems to be no shortage of bloody history to analyze. The An Lushan Rebellion is one such bloodsoaked situation, and it took place from 618 to 907. The uprising was led by a general named An Lushan, and the event has been aptly named in his memory. He declared himself emperor and decided to lead a charge against the existing Tang dynasty. How did that go?
Well, the dream only lasted for seven years. Then, the Tangs came back and defeated An Lushan. In the process, 36 million people were killed. It was all a combo of war and famine, as these things usually are. Sad times!