6 Historical Tragedies That Were Way Worse Than You Thought
During times of unbelievable tragedy and disaster, there's always some dingus who says "How could this possibly get any worse?" And fate answers them in all sorts of depraved and interesting ways. No wonder history books leave the worst parts out. Kids shouldn't have to learn about this stuff. But you do.
During WWII, Many Japanese Soldiers Turned Cannibal
While doing research in Australia on an unrelated topic, Professor Toshiyuki Tanaka stumbled upon a strange folder with the ominous title "War crimes documents." Unable to resist sneaking a peek, Tanaka discovered that for 50 years, the Japanese government had been covering up a series of atrocities committed by its soldiers during the Sino-Japanese War and World War II. And you know that's going to be real bad, given the atrocities it wasn't covering up.
The document helped Tanaka uncover over 100 hushed-up cases of confirmed cannibalism by the Japanese Imperial Army, with them eating Australian and Indian soldiers, and even Asian citizens. After several battles, Australian soldiers found that the corpses of their fallen comrades had been field-dressed, every ounce of their meat having been stripped off the bone. In others, Japanese soldiers treated prisoners like actual livestock, with one Pakistani corporal recounting how his captors dismembered and consumed one prisoner a day for 100 straight days, sometimes slicing meat off living prisoners like they were walking shawarma.
How did the Japanese high command react to all this? They reminded their soldiers that it was a crime punishable by death to consume human flesh ... that didn't belong to your enemies. So throwing a Papuan laborer on the campfire was a big no-no, but the brass considered chowing down on enemy combatants a mere "lack of thoroughness in moral training" -- less of a war crime and more of a dinner etiquette faux pas.
And their superior's permission wasn't just implied, either. On many of these picnics, the soldiers weren't even starving. Instead, cannibalism was practiced under the supervision of the commanding officer as a team-building exercise, meant to strengthen the warrior spirit and consolidate interpersonal bonds. And you thought your work retreats sucked.
Related: 4 Scary Moments In History That Were Worse Than You Realized
Firefighters Accidentally Destroyed San Francisco While Battling The Great Quake Fires
The 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. Around 3,000 people were killed ... some of them by emergency services. Using dynamite to save burning buildings isn't as crazy as it first seems -- which is good, because it seems unspeakably crazy. Blow up buildings strategically, and you create a firebreak, which can stop a blaze from spreading. And when fires erupted all across San Francisco after the quake, fire chief and explosives expert Danny Sullivan's dynamite plan was, well dynamite.
There was only one problem: Sullivan was unconscious, having been knocked out while rescuing his wife during the earthquake. So the city turned to the only other dynamite expert in the city: John Bermingham, an executive at an explosives manufacturer. And while Bermingham was definitely conscious, he was also drunk as hell. Predictably, he botched the plan, creating zero firebreaks but about 60 new and out-of-control fires in Chinatown and North Beach.
In a blind panic, both the fire brigade and the army started dynamiting buildings willy-nilly, and using gunpowder charges instead of nitroglycerin, since no one knew the difference. (The difference being that one of them blows up burning buildings, and the other one just makes fires bigger.) And when that all failed, soldiers started shelling residential blocks with artillery, which didn't put out any fires, but did set the city's gas lines alight.
In the end, roughly 80% of the buildings in San Francisco were destroyed, in part due to the wanton rampage caused by emergency services. Meanwhile, thanks to Bermingham, Chinatown had completely gone up in flames, which the city government used as an excuse to force all Chinese immigrants out of the city and ship them to faraway refugee camps. But while fighting fire with explosives, the fire department had let most of the government buildings burn, including the one that housed all the city's birth and immigration records. So after the fires settled down, all those displaced immigrants were able to walk right back in, claim they were born there, and rise from the ashes as citizens.
Related: The Most Awful Things You Know About History (Are WAY Worse)
Parisians Slaughtered And Ate Their Entire Zoo During The Franco-Prussian War
When the Prussians laid siege to Gay Paree in 1870, citizens quickly ran out of provisions. But the people of the City of Lights dipped into their rich history of culinary innovation and fricasseed every kind of animal they could get their hands on. It started with the horses. Between September 1870 and the end of the war in January 1871, Parisians ate over 60,000 horses. After the horse meat ran out, new butcheries opened which specialized in the best-quality cuts of dog, cat, and rat.
And when the street animals were all but gobbled up, the voracious citizenry turned to the closest thing to livestock pens you'll find in a modern city: the zoos and parks. While pretending to save the poor delicious animals from starvation, Parisians started butchering every zoo animal from aardvarks to zebras This included one of the city's main attractions, the Jardins des Plantes' celebrity elephant siblings, Castor and Pollux. Only the zoo's big cats were spared, because they proved too bitey, and the monkeys, because they proved too much like eating a dude -- and even to the Parisians, that felt more like a Year Two delicacy.
Of course, the haute cuisine capital of the world wasn't going to let the decay of society get in the way of preparing these street meats in the most pompous way possible. Despite the rampant chaos, Parisians could still go to their favorite restaurants to order siege-inspired dishes like fillets au donkey, rat pate, dog cutlets, and ragout of cat -- all served with plenty of wine. The restaurant Voisin, among the city's finest eateries, even served an expansive Christmas feast on the 99th day of the siege. It included an aperitif of stuffed donkey head (served cold) followed by elephant soup, fried camel nuggets, and a literal rat-atouille consisting of roasted cat meat flanked by rats.
Not long after depleting the zoo, the Parisians decided they had had their fill of sieges and surrendered, which makes us think maybe they just really wanted an excuse to try elephant.
Related: 6 Reasons Famous Wars Were Even Worse Than You Imagined
The Krakatoa Eruption Sent Corpses As Far As Africa
Volcanic eruptions are generally bad for humans. Just ask one of the Pompeiians' zero descendants. But few were as disastrous as the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. By the time that chaos had ended, Indonesia had lost tens of thousands of people and several entire islands. But it was also an eruption felt around the world, messing up global temperatures for five long years and turning the sky blood red.
And now, for a brief scientific interlude: Rock perverts (or "geologists") will tell you that the ultra-light and porous pumice is basically magma after it cools down. That sounds lovely and exfoliating, until you realize that Krakatoa magma didn't only contain molten rock, but molten people as well. Tens of thousands of them.
After the disaster, ships sailing near Indonesia started reporting giant rafts of floating pumice, some several miles in width. These stony flotillas were dragged all over by the currents of the Indian Ocean, washing up on shores as far as Zanzibar and the rest of East Africa, over 5,000 miles away. Fused into them were, as one Zanzibar woman put it, "dozens of human skeletons, together with the bones of monkeys and, distinguishable only later in the day when the school biology teacher had appeared, the skeletons of a pair of big cats." That's a Cronenbergian level of body horror to throw at random beachgoers.
Related: 6 Disasters With Details So Awful, History Left Them Out
The Donner Party Chose Cannibalism Over Help From Native Americans
The Donner and Reed families, collectively known as the Donner Party, entered the annals of history the hard way. While traveling to California in the winter of 1846, a freak snowstorm marooned their wagon train in the Sierra Nevada range, where they were trapped the entire winter. With supplies running out, historians now believe the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive. But it turned out they had plenty of chances to avoid starvation, and all they had to do was stop being racist for half a second.
The story of the Donner Party is one of misfortune and woe -- unless you ask the wel mel ti, a northern offshoot of the Washoe tribe, who know it more as a dark comedy. While the the harsh winter caused the Donner Party to freeze their butts off, the Washoe had been thriving there for centuries. So when they saw the ill-equipped, starving strangers, they took pity on them and tried to help. To which the Donner party reacted in typical pioneer fashion: They shot at them.
The Washoe attempted to offer food to the Donner party multiple times, but the distrusting wagoneers wouldn't let them near. On one occasion, they approached the starving settlers with nothing but smiles and a whole deer carcass, and the Donners opened fire. The Washoe got so desperate that they snuck rabbit and potatoes near the camp in order not to spook these trigger-happy trailblazers. Of course, when they discovered the party had gone full cannibal, they broke off all contact out of fear they would be next on the menu, leaving them to their preference: eating white meat to avoid talking to red people.
Related: 5 Historical Tragedies That Were Even Darker Than You Think
Natural Disasters Cause Human Trafficking To Skyrocket
Here's some bad news followed by worse news: Disaster areas are a goldmine for modern-day slavers. Survivors can be easily swayed by the promise of a better life far away, and those who refuse are easily kidnapped while emergency services are too busy putting out fires. When two earthquakes around Nepal killed 9,000 and destroyed over 900,000 homes, thousands were plunged into extreme poverty and debt. This made many Nepalese vulnerable to the booming trafficking trade. Women and children were shipped off for sex work and forced marriages, while desperate men were freighted to India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia to work jobs barely one step above slave labor.
And if you think these horrors only happen in "third-world" countries, think again. In the aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, hundreds of Southern American women were gang-trafficked and forced into sex work all over the United States. Perhaps even more shocking, a lot of criminals also traffic victims to these disaster areas. Like the scores of women brought in to "service" the massive influx of (mostly male) aid workers in New Orleans. Or the 360 Filipino teachers "recruited" to Louisiana ... who had to first hand over $16,000, 10% of their salary, and their passports for the privilege of teaching math in half-submerged classrooms.
Michael Battaglino is a contributor to Cracked.com. Be sure to check out some of his other work if you enjoyed this article. Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
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