8 Weird Disasters from History

Florida's weather is often predictable—but few people would have expected “partly cloudy with a chance of golf balls” as the weather forecast.
One Florida town experienced a golf ball rain.
One Florida town experienced a golf ball rain. / filo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (umbrella) Rakdee/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (golf balls)

When you think of a disaster, things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes probably come to mind. But some catastrophes aren’t quite that run-of-the-mill. From downpours of mystery meat and golf calls to toxic smog and a sticky situation for Pepsi, here are some of history’s strangest disasters.

1. Punta Gorda’s Rain of Golf Balls

On September 1, 1969, residents of Punta Gorda, Florida, were stunned when, in the words of one newspaper, “dozens and dozens and dozens” of dimpled white balls rained upon the city during an otherwise commonplace rainstorm. The golf balls clogged gutters and cluttered lawns, but didn’t appear to do much harm otherwise. Although the incident was bizarre at first glance, there was likely a perfectly reasonable explanation: Severe weather in Punta Gorda tends to cause waterspouts. Waterspouts are capable of sucking up entire bodies of water, so the golf balls likely came from a pond on a golf course where many an unlucky golfer had lost a ball. The waterspout sucked up the pond, then released it on unsuspecting citizens shortly thereafter.

2. The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood, Boston
Aftermath of the Great Molasses Flood. / Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, American National Red Cross Collection, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-DIG-ppmsca-123456]. // Public Domain

A normal flood is disastrous enough—but mix in some sugar cane and you’ve got Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919, 2.3 million gallons of what has been called “sweet, sticky death.” The catastrophe occurred when a faulty tank finally burst, unleashing a wave said to be up to 40 feet tall and 160 feet wide that traveled 35 miles per hour. Several buildings were totally leveled, 150 people were injured, and 21 people were killed. Most deaths were due to suffocation by syrup, but other fatalities occurred when victims were struck by debris traveling in the molasses wave or collapsed buildings. As the molasses hardened in the streets, rescue efforts became increasingly difficult. 

U.S. Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the tank, knew it was problematic for years. Workers reported hearing groaning and creaking noises every time the tank was filled, and it leaked so much that neighborhood kids would sneak tastes of the stuff oozing out of the sides. Despite the widely known issues, USIAC later tried to claim that the exploding tank was the result of a terrorist attack—an anarchist dropping a pipe bomb into the top of the container.

The court didn’t buy the argument, and in a move that was unprecedented at the time, USIAC was held accountable for the deaths and injuries caused by their negligence. It set a much-needed new bar for construction standards in the U.S.—one small silver lining to come out of the disaster.

Clean-up took weeks, and citizens of Boston would claim that they could smell molasses in the air or in basements for decades after—even as late as the 1960s.

3. The London Beer Flood of 1814

More than a century before Boston’s disastrous deluge, London had a terrible tsunami of its own. On October 17, 1814, a huge vat of porter at the Horse Shoe Brewery broke, sending an estimated 3500 barrels’ worth of beer, or about 1 million pints, into the surrounding streets. Historians don’t quite agree on how much beer it was, exactly, but it was definitely a lotback then, it was fairly common for breweries to keep vast quantities of suds on hand in no small part just for the pure spectacle of the giant vat.

Shortly before the flood, a worker noted that one of the 700-pound iron bands holding the cask together had slipped off. He informed his boss, who said that “no harm whatever would ensue” from the broken piece. An hour later, the vat broke and the beer busted through the back wall of the brewery; the collapsing bricks instantly killed a teenage girl who had been washing pots in the alley. Others drowned when the beer flooded basement dwellings, and some were killed when a nearby house collapsed. Overall, eight people died, mostly women and children.  

In a stark contrast to the Boston Molasses incident, the brewery was not only found free from all responsibility, Parliament also granted them a special tax waiver to make up for the duties paid on the lost beer. But the families of those who perished and the people who had homes destroyed got nothing.

4. The Great Smog of London

Masked Cattle During Great Smog
A cow at the Smithfield Show at Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre wearing a mask to guard against air pollution during the Great Smog of 1952. / Reg Speller/GettyImages

The Great Smog of 1952 sounds like a dystopian movie plot—a toxic cloud descends upon a city, wreaks havoc for five days, and smothers thousands of people to death. But this was not a tale of fiction, as some of you may recall from season one of The Crown.

London had long been known for its heavy “pea-soupers,” thick fogs caused by a mixture of weather, emissions from industrial companies, and coal burning from home hearths. But on December 5, 1952, a perfect storm converged to create a deadly smog that killed 3000 in a week, and ultimately an estimated 12,000 over time. 

That week, a weather phenomenon known as an anticyclone hit London, causing a blanket of warm air to be suspended over the city. The conditions themselves were good for the formation of fog, but the anticyclone created something called a temperature inversion, so instead of dispersing the city's toxic emissions into the air, the temperature inversion trapped all of them, including sulfur dioxide, the gas created from burning coal. Sulfur dioxide combined with the water particles in the fog, essentially creating acid rain that assaulted the city for the better part of a week. It was later calculated that every day of the fog brought 1000 tons of smoke particles, 2000 tons of carbon dioxide, 140 tons of hydrochloric acid, and 14 tons of fluorine compounds—all in addition to the 800 tons of sulphuric acid. Most of the deaths were the result of respiratory failure, but some were also attributed to a number of transportation accidents. The smog was so dense in some places that people couldn’t see their own feet.

If any silver lining can be taken from this awful event in history, it’s that the British government passed the Clean Air Act of 1956 a few years later in direct response to the Great Smog. The Act allowed for the establishment of smoke-free areas in the city and brought in new restrictions on furnaces. Eventually the air of London would clean up and there hasn’t been a great pea-souper since 1962.

5. The Kentucky Meat Shower

On March 3, 1876, Mrs. Crouch of Bath County, Kentucky, was outside making soap on a perfectly clear day when it began to rain. That’s already odd when it was a completely cloudless sky, but odder still when you consider that the rain wasn’t water, but a light drizzle of meat. According to Mrs. Crouch, the chunks were a grisly, gory substance that fell like “large snowflakes.” When the shower was over, chunks of meat lay scattered across the yard and stuck to the Crouch’s fence. Two brave men tasted the mystery meat and declared that it was venison or mutton, but no one was able to offer an explanation of where it came from or how it had arrived. 

Pieces were taken for testing, and a month later, one scientist felt like he had come up with a plausible explanation: the meat was nostoc, also known as star jelly, a cyanobacteria known to occur when it rains. Except ... it hadn’t rained. Back to square one. Testing by other scientists revealed that the flesh came from the lungs of an infant, or maybe a horse. Someone else thought perhaps a passing balloonist had let lunch fall out of the basket. And finally, Dr. LD Kastenbine came up with the theory that most modern-day scientists subscribe to today: the meat was vulture vomit. 

The black vulture and turkey vulture are common to Kentucky, and both are able to projectile vomit the contents of their stomachs to make themselves lighter or as a defense mechanism. Kurt Gohde, a professor at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, has since completed additional research that adds credence to Kastenbine’s theory. Black vultures, specifically, have been known to fly in flocks of dozens or even hundreds, and they can fly at altitudes up to 20,000 feet—meaning that Mrs. Crouch wouldn’t have seen a large flock of giant birds before they regurgitated lunch all over her property. The vulture vomit theory would also explain why scientists testing bits of meat ended up with different results, since the vultures would have eaten different meals. Case closed? We’ll never truly know for sure, but it seems more likely than a clumsy balloonist—unfortunately for those brave taste-testers.

6. The Carrington Event

Solar flare.
Solar flare. / Print Collector/GettyImages

On September 1, 1859, amateur astronomer Richard Carrington was watching the sun at the observatory attached to his home in Redhill, England ... as one does. To his astonishment, while he watched, two bright spots flared up intensely from a group of sunspots. They were gone within five minutes, but soon after, things on earth started to go haywire. Telegraph systems shocked their operators and burned papers. In fact, the air was so electrically charged that telegraph operators discovered they could work their systems without batteries at all.

Auroras flared so brightly in the middle of the night that birds began chirping and people could read newspapers in the middle of the night. In other areas, the sky was so red that people thought something nearby was on fire.

It was later determined that the bright flashes Carrington had observed were actually solar flares with the energy of 10 billion 1 megaton atomic bombs. Things were somewhat back to normal by the afternoon of September 2, but we wouldn’t be so lucky if such an event happened today. A modern-day Carrington Event could mean an “internet apocalypse,” as Space.com explained, which is why many governments call space weather one of the most serious natural risks that earth faces. GPS could go down, disrupting cars, planes and cell phones. Satellite communications would likely be severely impacted, bringing things like credit card transactions to a grinding halt. And transformers across the world would probably blow, damaging and even destroying power grids.

By some estimates, the social and economic disruptions caused by a solar flare of this magnitude would cost up to $2.6 trillion in damages in the U.S. alone. Lucky for us, flares like this tend to happen once every 500 years, so hopefully we’re safe for a while.

7. Erfurt Latrine Disaster

In late July 1184, Henry VI, King of Germany, was holding court in the city of Erfurt to help settle a long-lasting feud between Ludwig III of Thuringa and Archbishop Conrad of Mainz. Many people showed up to watch the mediation process, including a number of noblemen from across the region. 

Events had just gotten underway when the wooden floor, under immense strain from the number of people packed into the proceedings, suddenly collapsed. This would have been awful on its own, but things were about to get much, much worse. Beneath the floor was apparently an immense latrine built to serve the large order of monks. Its sheer size was meant to ensure that it didn’t have to be emptied often—a benefit to the monks, but not the poor people who found themselves swimming in it when the floor gave way.

It’s believed that at least 60 people died, some from the fall itself, and some from drowning in excrement. King Henry and Archbishop Conrad made it out alive; they had been sitting in a stone alcove and grabbed window rails to prevent themselves from falling. Despite falling into the depths, Ludwig III managed to survive as well.

8. Pepsi’s Fruit Juice Flood

On April 25, 2017, the roof of a warehouse in Lebedyan, Russia, collapsed, damaging giant vats inside. The warehouse happened to belong to Pepsi, but the destroyed vats didn’t contain cola. Instead, 28 million liters of juice—cherry, pineapple, tangerine, orange, pomegranate, and more—spilled out into the city, leaving the streets sticky and smelling bizarrely tropical. Two people were injured, but unlike the devastating beer and molasses floods, there were no fatalities. The biggest concern came from the fact that much of the juice flowed into the nearby Don River, bringing worries of contamination, pollution, and harm to local aquatic life. Thankfully, studies conducted a week later showed that no lasting damage had been done.

This story was adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.