Accounts varied of the Great Famine of 1315–22, during which more than 10 percent of Europe’s population died. In Flanders: “Parents killed their children and children killed parents, and the bodies of executed criminals were eagerly snatched from the gallows.” In France: “There was no wine in the whole kingdom.”
Opening night of Henry James’ Guy Domville, on January 5, 1895, was “an unmitigated disaster,” James wrote in a letter, “hooted at, as I was hooted at myself, by a brutal mob, and fruitless of any of the consequences for which I have striven.” The play’s reception, he wrote, “has completely sickened me with the theater and made me feel, at any rate for the present, like washing my hands of it forever.”
The first mass extinction on earth occurred around 2.5 billion years ago, when a photosynthesizing bacterium appeared and released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that anaerobic life was largely wiped out. This is often called the Great Oxygenation Event, the Oxygen Catastrophe, or the Oxygen Holocaust.
A scientific study found that hurricanes given feminine names tend to be deadlier than those given masculine names; people consider them less risky and take inadequate precautions. “Changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise,” the study notes, “could nearly triple its death toll.”
Plutarch related that news of the Athenians’ brutal defeat at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian Wars first came from a stranger who told the story at a barbershop “as if the Athenians already knew all about it.” When the barber spread the news, city leaders branded him a liar and an agitator. He was “fastened to the wheel and racked a long time.” Official messengers later came with the “actual facts of the whole disaster,” and the barber was released.
Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.
In 1919 a steel storage tank burst in Boston and spilled 2.3 million gallons of molasses, creating a twenty-five-foot-high wave that killed twenty-one people and tore buildings from foundations. The tank had leaked since its installation, but the company had, in response to complaints, merely painted it a concealing brown.
When Albert Einstein visited Beno Gutenberg, a seismologist at Caltech, in 1933, the two strolled around the Pasadena campus while Gutenberg explained earthquake science. Suddenly their wives arrived to inform them there had been a massive earthquake. “We had become so involved in seismology,” recalled Gutenberg later, “that we hadn’t noticed.”
Sixteenth-century “father of mineralogy” Georgius Agricola critiqued “these attacks, which are so annoying,” made by those protesting how mining exterminated animals and poisoned brooks and streams. “With the metals that are melted from the ore,” he explained, “birds without number, edible beasts, and fish can be purchased elsewhere and brought to these mountainous regions.”
The first known legal use of the phrase act of God was in a 1581 English case concerning property inheritance. It referred, in that instance, to death, declared by the judge to be among “those things which are inevitable by the act of God, which no industry can avoid, nor policy prevent.”