Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster

Khalid Elhassan - November 12, 2023

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
A Prohibition-era speakeasy. Legends of America

Prohibition’s Bootleggers and Industrial Alcohol

America saw a rise in the consumption of alcohol in the mid-1920s, despite Prohibition. The law was openly flouted, with too many speakeasies to count let alone raid, supplied by bootleggers who acted with impunity. So the federal authorities went after a key source of the illegal booze: the still legal industrial alcohol stocks. Industrial alcohol is undrinkable, but bootleggers had figured out ways to make it fit for human consumption. So in 1926, the federal authorities mandated that the amount of harmful chemicals in industrial alcohol be greatly increased. Disaster ensued. In that year’s Holiday Season, emergency rooms across the country saw an unprecedented spike in alcohol poisonings. By New Year’s Eve, 1926, New York City alone saw many fatalities. As the city’s medical examiner put it:

The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison … Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible“. Alcohol is always near us. Even for those who don’t drink or keep booze at home, alcohol is found as an additive in their fuel tanks, and many household products such as nail polish, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and perfumes contain alcohol. In 1906, the authorities mandated the addition of chemicals to industrial alcohol, to make it undrinkable.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
NYC Medical Examiner Charles Norris, right, with a toxicologist and forensic chemist. Wikimedia

The US Government’s Decision to Deliberately Poison Alcohol Harmed Thousands

Denatured alcohol, also known as “wood spirits,” is industrial alcohol adulterated with chemicals to make it undrinkable. This practice emerged as a response to liquor taxes imposed on drinkable alcohol, providing a legal exemption for manufacturers. Prohibition disrupted the supply chain of regular drinkable alcohol, leading bootleggers to steal and re-distill industrial alcohol, making it America’s primary source of liquor by the mid-1920s. The US Treasury Department attempted to deter this practice by revamping denaturing formulas, adding toxins such as acetone, quinine, formaldehyde, nicotine, camphor, chloroform, zinc, iodine, kerosene, and gasoline.

The most dangerous addition was at least 10% methyl alcohol or methanol, commonly used in antifreeze, resulting in a public health disaster. Contaminated alcohol led to numerous illnesses and deaths, prompting debates on the morality of deliberate poisoning by the authorities. Some viewed it as “legalized murder,” while defenders blamed bootleggers for selling labeled poison for human consumption. Prohibitionists considered the harm to drinkers an acceptable consequence, emphasizing the goal of creating a sober society.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
Ming soldiers use cannons to defend the Great Wall against the Manchus. Pinterest

A Disaster That Wiped Out Half a City

The devastating Wanggongchang Explosion of 1626 in Beijing unfolded at the heart of the Wanggongchang Armory, a vital facility producing weapons and ammunition for Ming China. The explosion, resonating far beyond the immediate destruction, claimed approximately 20,000 lives and obliterated half of Beijing. With a workforce of 70 to 80 individuals, the armory’s importance in maintaining the defense and military readiness of Ming China was paramount. Unfortunately, little consideration was given to protecting the city from the potential dangers posed by the gunpowder factories strategically placed within its walls.

The catastrophic consequences of the explosion extended beyond the immediate devastation. The Wanggongchang Armory, one of China’s largest weapons factories, housed the nation’s primary arms and munitions stockpile. The incident marked a critical juncture in Ming China’s history, occurring amidst a backdrop of internal strife, corruption, and natural disasters. Viewed as a sign of divine displeasure and punishment for the emperor’s perceived incompetence, the Wanggongchang Explosion played a significant role in hastening the Ming Dynasty’s decline. Eighteen years later, the dynasty succumbed to defeat, paving the way for the rise of the Qing Dynasty.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
Henry Clay Frick. Expensivity

The Rich Folk Club That Got Thousands Killed

Industrialist Henry Clay Frick and other Pittsburgh magnates bought the South Fork Dam, an earthen dam that formed an artificial Lake Conemaugh in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, in 1880. Originally built by the Commonwealth to service a canal system, the dam was abandoned when railroads superseded canals, and was sold to private interests. Frick and his fellows formed the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, a private resort for the wealthy based around the dam’s lake and shoreline. The club opened in 1881, and its well-heeled members mingled in its clubhouse and their cottages around the lake as they enjoyed the pleasures of nature.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
The Southfork Fishing and Hunting Club’s clubhouse. Wikimedia

The club lowered the dam to accommodate a road. To make sure that that the lake never ran out of fish, a screen was placed in the spillway – a structure that allows controlled release of water from a dam. However, the screen did not just stop fish from leaving the dam: it also trapped debris that clogged the spillway. That was especially bad because when the dam was built, it had a system of relief pipes and valves to lower water levels in an emergency. That system was sold as scrap metal, and never replaced. Between that and the clogged spillway, there was no way to release water in case of an emergency. Such an emergency occurred on May 31st, 1889, and it killed thousands in what came to be known as the Johnstown Flood, after the chief town struck by the disaster.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
The Johnstown Flood. Story of a House

A Nineteenth Century Disaster in Pennsylvania

Western Pennsylvania experienced the heaviest rainfall ever recorded there in late May, 1889, when up to 10 inches fell in a 24-hour period. As Lake Conemaugh’s water levels rose ominously on May 31st, the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club’s manager led laborers in frantic efforts to unclog the dam’s spillway. They were unsuccessful, and attempts to dig a new spillway also failed. Around 2:50 PM, the dam, which contained nearly four billion gallons of water, began to collapse. A wall of water thirty to forty feet high and as wide as the Mississippi River rushed downstream at speeds of up to forty miles per hour, and destroyed all in its path. The torrent sucked people from their homes, swept trains, and slammed massive piles of debris into bridges and buildings.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
Johnstown Flood’s path. National Park Service

2209 people were killed in the disaster, including 400 children. Bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati, 400 miles away. More than 1600 homes were demolished, and the damage was around $5 billion in current dollars. It was America’s deadliest non-hurricane flood. As the shock wore off, it was replaced by anger as people’s gazes turned towards those responsible. However, the private resort’s rich owners were never held accountable. They claimed that their modifications of the dam made no difference because they had only lowered it by one foot, and their lawyers argued that the flood was “an act of God”. Evidence emerged in 2013 that they had actually lowered the dam by three feet, which drastically increased the risk of a breach. That came too late for the victims: they lost every case brought against the resort’s owners, who walked off scot-free.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
A dam similar to Banqiao, completed in 1954. Sovfoto

Yet Another Catastrophe in Mao’s China

Bad as the Johnstown Flood was, its destructiveness paled in comparison to this next disaster, the Banqiao Dam Collapse. The toxic fruits of Mao’s Great Leap Forward continued to inflict misery upon China for many years, long after it was wrapped up. While the program was still a going concern, Mao’s government had what was on its face a good idea: build a series of dams, to retain water and provide hydroelectricity. They were built with the help of Soviet experts, but in what turned out to be a bad idea, costs and time were cut by cutting corners on safety – especially flood control safety. A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of lacking communist zeal, and exiled. One of those dams was constructed at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan.

It stood 387-feet-high, and had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. The dam was rated to withstand “a thousand-year flood”, that is it was deemed safe against any flood other than one so severe that odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium. It took considerably less than a millennium for such a flood to arrive. A dam strong enough to withstand anything but a fluke thousand-year flood was sound in theory. As it turned out, however, planners had either miscalculated what a thousand-year flood was, or Mao’s China was simply unlucky. Either way, in early August, 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, stalled over the Banqiao Dam area, and produced flooding double the anticipated thousand-year-level maximum. Even then, what came to be known as The Banqiao Dam Disaster could have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
The Banqiao dam collapse killed hundreds of thousands. Popular Mechanics

A Dam Disaster That Killed Hundreds of Thousands

On August 6th, 1975, as water levels rose in Banqiao’s reservoirs, officials requested authority to open the dam to relieve the pressure. They were turned down because of ongoing flooding downstream. The request was finally approved the following day, the 7th, but the telegram failed to reach Banqiao. In the early hours of August 8th, the water crested a foot above the dam’s wave protection wall, and it collapsed. The resultant Banqiao Disaster was history’s worst structural failure. The Banqiao Dam was one of 62 dams that collapsed because of Typhoon Nina. When it gave way, it released almost sixteen billion cubic meters of water. They produced a wave 6.2 miles wide and 10 to 23 feet high, that rushed downstream at 31 miles an hour. It left a swath of devastation 9.3-miles-wide and 34-miles-long.

Historic Catastrophes: Tales of Tragedy and Unforgettable Disaster
Banqiao dam’s breach. Wikimedia

The collapsed dam unleashed history’s third deadliest flood ever, devastated thirty cities and counties, inundated three million acres, and destroyed almost seven million houses. Over ten million people were impacted, and the death toll might have been as high as 240,000. The disaster occurred at the tail end of Mao’s regime and his Cultural Revolution. That was yet another bad idea that produced years of turmoil, because Mao wanted to retain power by getting rival communist factions to fight each other, and leave him as arbitrator. China’s government did its best to hide the extent of the disaster. Solid information – or as solid as governmental information ever gets in China – did not emerge until the 1990s. The extent of the disaster finally came to light when a former Minister of Water Resources wrote a preface for a book, in which details were revealed for the first time.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Association of State Dam Safety Officials – Case Study: Banqiao Dam (China, 1975)

Atlantic, The, December 2nd, 2014 – Bhopal: the World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later

China Project – A 17th-Century Mushroom Cloud: The Wanggongchang Explosion

Daily Beast – How the US Government Enforced Prohibition by Poisoning Americans

Daily Beast – The Giant Space Rock That Wiped Out Biblical Sodom

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sodom and Gomorrah

Fortweekly, The, April, 2018 – Curio #1: The Erfurt Latrinensturz

Gizmodo – China’s Worst Self-Inflicted Environmental Disaster: The Campaign to Wipe Out the Common Sparrow

History Collection – Historic Military Blunders That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes

History Network – How America’s Most Powerful Men Caused America’s Deadliest Flood

International Atomic Energy Agency – The Radiological Accident in Goiana

Irish Examiner, June 21st, 1875 – The Great Fire in Dublin. Thirty Five Houses Destroyed

Irish Times, August 3rd, 2016 – The Night a River of Whiskey Ran Through the Streets of Dublin

McCullough, David G. – The Johnstown Flood (2004)

New York Times, December 11th, 1984 – Indian Journalist Offered Warning

Science, New Series, Vol. 238, No. 4830 (Nov 20, 1987) – Radiation Accident Grips Goiana

Science Times – Erfurt Latrine Disaster

Scientific Reports, 11, Article Number: 18632 (2021) – A Tunguska Sized Airburst Destroyed Tall el-Hammam, a Middle Bronze Age City in the Jordan Valley Near the Dead Sea

Slate – The Chemists’ War

Timeline – The Deadliest Structural Failure in History Might Have Killed 170,000, and China Tried to Cover it Up

Time Magazine, January 14th, 2015 – The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The US Government

Vox – The US Government Once Poisoned Alcohol to Get People to Stop Drinking

Weather Underground – The Deadliest Weather-Related Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

World of Chinese – The Blast That Nearly Destroyed Beijing