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6 of the Deadliest Days in American History

According to trending articles, many of the deadliest days in American history have been in the last month.

Some suggest that on December 16 alone nearly 3,500 lost their lives due to the virus, and that on at least five other days the numbers hovered around 3,000, indeed making them among the top 20 deadliest days in American history. 

That said, in this video we’ll take a look at some of the other deadliest days, but we’ll pass over the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and D-Day, and focus on others that aren’t so well-known. 

1. Flu Pandemic, 1918

The 1918 or “Spanish Flu” pandemic was the deadliest influenza outbreak in recent history, but despite its name it probably didn’t originate in Spain. 

Caused by an avian H1N1 virus, the pandemic was so named because during World War I, neutral Spain reported statistics more accurately than combatant nations, which made it appear as though the country was the hardest hit and likely point of origin. 

Over nearly two years the pandemic came in a number of waves, of which the first had the lowest death rate. 

The second however, lasted between October and December and had the highest mortality. 

All told approximately 500,000 million people were infected worldwide and between 50 and 100 million died – or nearly 25% of the global population.

In the US the flu was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918, and CDC estimates suggest that in October 1918 alone, nearly 200,000 Americans died from the virus.

On average, that’s about 6,500 deaths per day, with total estimates coming in just shy of 700,000, though health officials and politicians may have downplayed numbers. 

Although there’s dispute about how and where the pandemic originated, scientists believe that a multi-year climate event in Europe – as well as conditions brought about by the war – may have been responsible for allowing it to spread so easily. 

Researchers recently discovered correlations between peak mortality periods and the low temperatures and heavy precipitation common during the winters between 1915 and 1918. 

In other words, the 1918 strain may not have been more deadly or contagious than previous strains, but flourished due to a “perfect storm” of conditions with which it coincided. 

Especially unique was the flu’s ability to kill young adults with healthy bodies and robust immune systems, as opposed to children and the elderly who typically fare the worst during such pandemics. 

With no vaccine or antibiotics to treat secondary infections, control efforts were generally focused on quarantine and isolation, personal and public hygiene initiatives and limiting public gatherings. 

Nonetheless, transmission was hastened by chronic malnourishment, overcrowded medical facilities, and all around poor hygiene in both civilian centers and the battlefields of Europe, which were exponentially worse. 

Though most who succumbed to the disease died from secondary infections, most who contracted the 1918 flu survived, and national death rates among the infected generally didn’t exceed 20%.

2. Galveston Hurricane of 1900 

The Great Galveston Hurricane was a tropical cyclone that took the lives of approximately 8,000 Americans over just a few days in early September of 1900, making it one of the country’s deadliest natural disasters. 

Located just 50 miles southwest of Houston, Galveston is a narrow barrier island about 27 miles long and three miles across at its widest point.

At the time the city had a population of about 40,000.

Its economy was largely based on shipping, and its abundant wharves and warehouses were full of cotton, sugar, molasses and hides awaiting shipment to east coast cities and Europe.

But though the citizens had been warned days in advance of the storm’s imminence, many chose to hope for the best and ride it out in their homes.

The cyclone originated in the tropical Atlantic, but its northwesterly course put it on a collision course with both Cuba and the American Gulf Coast, and by the time it reached land it was a Category 4 storm.  

Feeding off the Gulf’s warm water, it grew to epic proportions, and on September 8 when it finally did slam into the state’s largest port city, it brought with it winds in excess of 130 miles per hour (210 km/h) and storm surge that crested at 16 feet (4.8 m).

Though the low-lying coastal city was no stranger to powerful storms, its meager defenses proved woefully inadequate, and the majority of the island’s homes and businesses were easily leveled by the dual onslaughts of wind and water. 

Historical photographs show unimaginable carnage, not dissimilar to Nagaski and Hiroshima after the atomic bombs were dropped. 

The storm lifted multi-ton debris casually, battering it into still-standing structures until nearly 2/3s of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed. 

Tales abound of residents fleeing into the street, only to be bashed by bricks, impaled by flying lumber, and decapitated by slate from decimated roofs. 

The official death count stands at about 8,000, but some estimates suggest that another 4,000 may have died in the following weeks, many from malnourishment, dehydration and hypothermia – some as far away as the mid-Atlantic states and New England.

By comparison, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of less than 2,000.

Many argued that the damage to Galveston was too great and that the city should be abandoned.

But the rebuilding began, one of the largest projects of which was a 17-foot (5.2 m) seawall that still stands today.

3. Heat Wave of 1936

As if the Great Depression and the Dustbowl hadn’t made life unbearable enough by the mid-’30s, a massive heat wave gripped much of the struggling country. 

In fact, the great heat wave of ‘36 set sustained record high temperatures that stood for more than half a century, and ironically, it followed one of the coldest winters on record. 

In late June of ‘36, significant portions of the country began experiencing unseasonably high heat coupled with significant drought conditions.

High summer heat in America is par for the course, but this biblical heat wave devastated crops, wiped out businesses, and ultimately resulted in nearly 5,000 deaths.

The phenomena extended north into Canada and south into Mexico, but as hot as June was, July was even worse. 

In Steele, North Dakota for example, the temperature reached 121 °F (49 °C) – a still unbroken record. 

Texas, Minnesota and New Jersey also recorded record highs, as did Canadian provinces like Ontario and Manitoba where the mercury climbed to over 110 °F (43 °C). 

In Mount Vernon, Illinois, temperatures stayed over 100 °F (38 °C) for 18 days consecutive days between August 12 and 29.

Most victims succumbed to heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion, of which the elderly, the young, and those with preexisting medical conditions were hardest hit. 

But far from being limited to rural areas, conditions were often worse in cities like Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, largely due to the lack of air conditioning and heat retention in the abundant concrete, steel and blacktop. 

Decades after the event scientists discovered that in the early months of ‘36 ocean temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were particularly high, which resulted in lower than normal spring rains that set the stage for scorching temperatures. 

Even now heat waves kill more Americans than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

As recently as 1995 more than 700 residents of Chicago died from excessive heat.

4. Battle of Antietam, Civil War

The Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, occurred on September 17, 1862, at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. 

Tired, sick, hungry and wounded, and outnumbered two to one, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s battle hardened troops watched as General Geroge McClellan’s fresher, better equipped and more numerous Union soldiers amassed along Antietam Creek’s east side not 100 yards distant.

Then as the rising sun burned off the morning haze, hundreds of artillery pieces on both sides began firing explosive and shot-filled projectiles from more than 1,000 yards behind the lines. 

The deafening shrapnel-laden explosions killed hundreds, but when the barrage subsided, Union troops began mercilessly hammering the Confederate’s exposed left flank.

General “Stonewall” Jackson’s legendary brigade responded with vicious counterattacks that led Union officers to believe they were up against a much larger force than was actually the case. 

But despite significant gains, Union forces ultimately failed to capitalize on them, and when General A.P. Hill’s division arrived from Harper’s Ferry after a grueling 20-mile march, the Army of the Potomac’s advance was stopped in its tracks. 

Records indicate that after 8 or 10 hours, more than 3,500 soldiers lay dead and another 16,000 wounded.

Too weary to advance and sensing the futility of more assaults, both sides drew down late in the afternoon. 

As night fell and an eerie calm descended over the battlefield, soldiers from both sides began the grizzly task of gathering the dead and wounded.  

The following day Lee’s troops retreated back across the Potomac into Virginia, but though McClellan had the upper hand, he let them go unmolested. 

He may have suspected that their strength was greater than it really was, but historians suggest that he’d accomplished his objectives and saw little point in pursuing. 

He’d forced Lee’s troops from Maryland and prevented a Southern victory in Union territory, which could’ve changed the tide of the war. 

From a military perspective the battle was a draw, but even considering the heavy losses President Lincoln considered it a resounding success.

5. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906

On April 18, 1906 just after 5:00 am, an earthquake measuring nearly 8.0 on the Richter Scale struck San Francisco, California.

But in a cruel twist of fate, the earthquake itself was just one catastrophe that would overtake the sleeping city. 

The massive quake was caused by tectonic movement along a nearly 300 mile stretch of San Andreas Fault, and it was felt as far away as Oregon to the north and Los Angeles 380 miles to the south. 

Though many of San Francisco’s buildings were brick, hundreds of Victorian-era wooden homes and warehouses burst into flames that would eventually spread and engulf the city in a massive firestorm. 

And broken water mains and impassable streets made it nearly impossible for devastated fire companies to prevent its spread. 

It’s estimated that 30,000 structures were leveled – about 95% of which were destroyed by fire, not the earthquake.

Fighting powerful aftershocks, firefighters and soldiers desperately tried to contain the fires, and in some cases they resorted to dynamiting entire city blocks to create firewalls, few of which had any lasting effect. 

Two days later on the 20th, in what may have been the largest evacuation of its kind until Dunkir, more than 20,000 citizens were taken to a number of Navy ships in the city’s harbor.

By April 23 most fires had been extinguished, but the city was in ruins and looting was rampant.

Ordering armed troops and their commanders to report to the Hall of Justice, Mayor E.E. Schmitz mandated a dusk to dawn curfew, and authorized soldiers to shoot anyone caught looting. 

All told 3,000 people died from the earthquake and fires.

Insurers eventually settled more than 100,000 claims totaling approximately $200 million, or more than $6.5 billion today, and at least a dozen insurance companies went bankrupt as a result.  

6. Johnstown Flood 1889

When the South Fork Dam 14 miles northeast of Johnstown, Pennsylvania failed on Friday, May 31 1889, it unleashed an unthinkable volume of water that devastated the city in what still stands as the country’s worst non-hurricane related flood.  

But though weather was partly to blame, the catastrophic incident largely resulted from the actions of some of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful business tycoons who showed blatant disregard for their fellow man. 

For years prior to the flood, industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick periodically met at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club along Lake Conemaugh to relax, enjoy the area’s idyllic scenery, and consolidate their economic might.

However unlike other municipality-owned dams, South Fork was the club’s property, and a number of modifications were ordered, the largest of which was removing a foot of rocks, dirt and clay from the top to compensate for the perpetually clogged spillway.  

The changes seemed benign enough, but they actually decreased the aging dam’s ability to cope with the epic forces to which it was about to be subjected.   

Then, three days before the failure a strong storm swept through the area dumping nearly 10 inches of rain in just 24 hours, causing the water level to rise significantly. 

A few days later, noting with despair that the water level wasn’t dropping, the club manager wrangled together immigrant laborers to unclog the choked spillway and dig a new one in an attempt to release the pressure.

All told the dam held back 20 million tons of water, or about the same volume that flows over Niagara Falls every half hour, and the destruction wrought by its catastrophic release is nearly incomprehensible. 

The initial wall of water hurtling toward the city at 40 miles per hour topped more than 40 feet, packing enough energy to carry locomotives weighing nearly 200,000 pounds almost a mile. 

The high water mark in some areas hit 90 feet, obliterating more than 1,500 homes, businesses and government buildings

In 4 square miles of downtown Johnstown only a few stalwart structures remained partially standing. 

The debris pile that collected at the city’s stone bridge covered nearly 30 acres, was dozens of meters high in some places, and hopelessly tangled with uprooted trees, boulders, building material, and the twisted bodies of dead humans and animals.

Of the more than 2,200 Johnstown residents who died nearly 400 were children, and almost 100 families were wiped out entirely. 

More than 750 victims remained unidentified and were laid to rest in an area of Grandview Cemetery, poignantly referred to as “The Plot of the Unknown.”

And though they may be exaggerated, claims abound of bodies being discovered more than a decade later in parts of central Ohio more than 200 miles away. 

In today’s money, total damage topped $600 million, and when the carnage subsided donations from all over the world poured in, totalling more than $3.7 million, or more than $100 million today. 

Led by Clara Barton, the American Red Cross arrived in Johnstown on June 5, marking the first major peacetime disaster relief effort for the fledgling humanitarian organization that’d been founded less than a decade before. 

Though the alterations made to the dam by the club were partially to blame for the disaster, high-priced lawyers called the event an “act of God,” and none were ever held legally liable. 

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