We often associate disasters either with colossal mechanical failures, such as sinking ships, building collapses or airplane crashes, or as 'Acts of God': hurricanes, tidal waves, or earthquakes. Here are four tragic events caused by ordinary things we see every day.


Too many beers, like too many bears, are likely to cause harm, although the damage inflicted on your liver through digesting beer is at least as slow and sweet, unlike bears digesting your liver. Imagine then, dying as if swatted aside by a grizzly plundering those beehives you keep as a tribute to Nicholas Cage’s performance in The Wicker Man, due a to sudden and overwhelming excess of beer.

This is what happened in the Tottenham Court Road – Oxford Street area of London on October 17th, 1814, when a brewery vat containing nearly 512,000 liters of a black-colored porterCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Henryk Kotowskibeer known as porter (a milder, sweeter form of stout beers such as Guinness) collapsed. The wooden vat, constructed thirty years before with the diligence and regard toward safety you might expect of the olden days (“What do you mean, ‘is it safe?’ It’s BIG, isn’t it?”), had grown worn with use and so, at six o'clock on the fateful, and yet long-dreamed of day, the fermenting porter decided it was quenchin’ time, and cracked open that giant barrel like it was, well, a giant cracker-barrel. After crushing a few other vats of beer just to show them who's boss, 1,200,000 liters of the good-stuff-turned-bad-stuff flooded the streets. This sounds a lot, but was only enough to keep around a hundred Londoners a year adequately drunk enough to stop them remembering they lived in abject poverty in a disease-ridden city ankle-deep in horse manure. Two houses were demolished, as was a pub, where a fourteen year old barmaid named Eleanor Cooper died although, as a young teenage girl exposed to the sexual mores of a Georgian era public house every day, this was probably a mercy killing. In all, nine people died after being hit by the booze, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning in an effort to stem the flood by drinking as much beer as possible. That man is my hero.  

The families of the victims conducted themselves with the somber dignity the British pride themselves on, by charging visitors money to view the corpses of their loved ones, on display in their home. I like to think they dressed the body in an amusing Beefeater or ‘British Bobby’ costume, propped up at a bar calling last orders. Or maybe dressed as a porter.    


In the UK in the 1850s, there were increasing concerns about food manufacturers adulterating foodstuffs using ‘benign,’ cheaper ingredients. The practice wasn’t new; many a medieval baker, for example, ended up in the village stocks for adding chalk dust to pad out flour for bread. By the 1850s however, the practice had become widespread, with unscrupulous merchants adding brick-dust to cocoa powder and sand to sugar to save costs. At the same time, advances in chemistry meant new medicines, or ‘poisons’ as they were often still referred to, appearing on pharmacists’ shelves. The profession had little regulatory control from laissez-faire Victorian governments, even though this meant anyone could buy a substance like arsenic with no questions asked (bookworms will recall this is how Emma Bovary is able to take her own life with arsenic in Gustav Flaubert’s 1857 novel Madame Bovary). These two factors came together with terrible consequences in the English city of Bradford on October 30th 1858, when sweets known as ‘humbugs,’ a type of hard, minthumbugsCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Ka Faraq Gatrichewy mint-flavored lozenge, killed twenty people and made two hundred others seriously ill.

The disaster occurred after confectioner Joseph Neal sent a lodger to a local pharmacist to collect 12 pounds of a substance known as ‘daft’ (usually a mix of plaster of Paris and limestone dust). Sadly, the regular pharmacist was unwell, and the lodger was served by his apprentice, who misunderstood the pharmacist’s directions as to where the daft was kept in the cellar. The apprenticed instead sold 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide, with Neal adding this to fill out his supply of expensive sugar, along with peppermint and gum. Having mixed up the new supply of candy using the arsenic, Neal sold the contaminated sweets to market stall holder William Hardaker, even though they looked and tasted different to usual; Hardaker himself fell ill after eating one of the sweets. As the day progressed, more and more peole fell ill, and only swift action by the local constabulary prevented a higher death toll; modern estimates suggest Neal produced enough poisoned sweets for Hardaker's stall to kill a potential 2,000 people. The tragedy led to government reforms in food production and pharmacy regulation - ten years after the disaster.


During the 1870s, Minneapolis became famous for flour manufacture, with the C C Washburn company the biggest of flour producers, with now more famous C A Pillsbury not far behind. Flour mills dominated the St Anthony’s Fall area of the city (grinding wheat still depended on water power back then), thriving through Minnesota flour's reputation as theflourCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain best and purest in the world. Washburn’s ‘A’ mill, opened in 1874, touted as the largest flour mill in existence anywhere in the world, underlined the company's ambition. As is often the case however, ambition vaulted knowledge and it's easy to view as ominous the contemporary practice of throwing away wheat bran, now known as the most nutritionally valuable part of wheat, then considered worthless. Also little understood was airborne dust combustion, a common reason for coal mine explosions, where if enough dust is suspended in the air of a confined environment, a spark or other flammable source can cause the dust to ignite and create a terrible explosion – even a hot surface can act as the trigger. Any form of dust is dangerous in such circumstances, including flour if a mill has insufficient ventilation.

And so, on the evening of May 2nd 1878, a spark triggered off a massive detonation of flour dust in the Washburn ‘A’ mill, totally destroying both it and four other adjacent mills. Eighteen workers died outright, with another five later dying of their injuries; had the tragedy taken place during the day, rather than the evening, the death toll would have been much higher. According to a contemporary news report, “The explosion...from which a column of flame was seen to shoot up several hundred feet, followed by a crash which crushed the immense structure like an egg-shell.” Estimates put the value of the damage caused by destruction of the mills, and of broken windows around Minneapolis, at $1,500,000, over $37,000,000 in today’s terms.    

A Soap Opera

Daytime soaps cause a great deal of metal anguish, but one youth soap in Portugal was so noxious it caused physical symptoms among its audience beyond the usual low self-esteem and overdosing on potato chips. Morangos com Açúcar, (‘Strawberries with Sugar’) began in August 2003 and became a hit with Portuguese teenagers, who loved the attractive cast, familiar setting, crazy plots and celebrity appearances from pop acts like the Sugarbabes, Simply Red and Daniel Bedingfield. One plotline in May 2006 however proved unintentionally compelling to its young audience, when characters fell victim to an infectious virus in the school. A few days later, and over 300 Portuguese youngsters were in hospital with rashes, dizziness and breathing difficulties. However, the ‘Strawberries with Sugar Virus’ soon became dismissed as mass hysteria, resulting from pressure of school exams, the powerful influence of television and possibly a delayed reaction to the death of actor Francisco Adam, who played the popular character of 'Dino,' before losing his life in a car crash in April 2006; Morangos com Açúcar had screened a touching farewell scene to Adam’s character not long before the ‘virus’ incident took place. The show ended its run in September 2012.