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Noah Y. Kim
By Noah Y. Kim December 11, 2020

Chart showing “deadliest days in American history” contains some errors

If Your Time is short

• The tally only includes daily deaths directly linked to a specific event resulting in mass fatality. It leaves out the number of deaths from all causes.

• The image omits some historical events that claimed more lives. ​

• The COVID-19 pandemic has seen daily death totals that have surpassed those of events memorialized as national tragedies, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. 

There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the deadliest events modern Americans have ever grappled with.

But how its death toll compares with other tragedies and natural disasters is being misconstrued in a social media post that purports to list and rank the "deadliest days in American history." 

The graphic shows that four of the eight deadliest days since the country’s founding took place between Dec. 2 and Dec. 7, 2020. The image places daily COVID-19 deaths from those days alongside death tolls from the Galveston Hurricane, the battle of Antietam, Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This post, which was forwarded to us by a reader, was also flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

Most of the figures cited are accurate and the general thrust of the claim is valid: The pandemic has produced staggeringly high daily death counts that reached 3,411 on Dec. 9 — a high that came after the image was created. Families have relayed haunting stories of heartbreak as their loved ones have died in isolation without the comfort of family members close by. 

However, the post contains some problems: It does not take into account daily deaths not linked to a specific cause, and it omits some historical events that resulted in greater numbers of fatalities.

Image doesn’t actually show "deadliest days"

Although the image purports to be a list of the "deadliest days in American history," it only lists fatalities related to specific mass-fatality events. It leaves out the number of deaths from all causes. 

For example, the list cites Dec. 4, 2020, as having a death toll of 2,861. 

It’s true that 2,861 people were reported on that day to have died of COVID-19, according to the CDC’s Data Tracker. This number doesn’t include any of the people who died from causes besides COVID-19, such as murder, heart attacks or cancer. 

In 2017, an average of 7,708 deaths occurred each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Other historical events omitted from the chart

The list doesn’t provide an accurate list of the top eight deadliest days in American history. 

Perhaps the most notable omission from the list is also the most directly analogous to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 1918 flu pandemic savaged the United States between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 1918, killing an estimated 381,019 people in those four months alone. That’s an average of around 3,123 people per day. 

Other notable mass fatality events left out of the chart include:

  • The Battle of Gettysburg, where an estimated 10,000 soldiers were either mortally wounded or killed over three days of fighting. 

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  • The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which killed 3,400 people according to an official fatality count conducted by archivist Gladys Hansen. 

  • The San Ciriaco hurricane, which killed 3,369 people in Puerto Rico on Aug. 8, 1899. 

  • The Lake Okeechobee hurricane, which killed an estimated 2,500-3,000 people on Sept. 16, 1928. 

And while the chart seems to focus on events that have claimed lives on U.S. soil, it does not explicitly say that. The D-Day invasion during World War II claimed the lives of 2,501 Americans, according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.

Liz Skilton, an associate professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, who specializes in natural disasters, disapproved of the way the image compared different types of disastrous events by placing them side by side.

"Different types of disasters rarely ever can be compared directly as there are different sets of hazards and reactions to these hazards that influence the outcome of events," she said. "This is not to say disasters cannot be compared at all, it just means that making direct comparisons between them in an oversimplified way is damaging to our understanding of their impact and could even harm our ability to react to these incidents appropriately."

The chart gets some things right

All that said, the numbers that the chart does rely on are generally accurate. 

The Battle of Antietam resulted in about 3,600 deaths, and the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in about 2,400 deaths according to the National Park Service. 

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The 9/11 attacks killed an estimated 3,000 people according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

The COVID-19 deaths in the chart are taken directly from the CDC’s Data Tracker

Our ruling

A viral image claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused 4 of the 8 "deadliest days in American history."

The image omits some historical events and only lists fatalities linked to specific causes. 

However, the broad claim of the image is accurate: the COVID-19 pandemic has seen daily death totals that have surpassed those of events memorialized as national tragedies, including Pearl Harbor and 9/11. 

We rate this image Half True. ​

Our Sources

A Facebook post, Dec. 7, 2020

CDC Data Tracker

CDC, QuickStats: Average daily number of deaths,* by month — United States, 2017, Jun.5, 2019

Email interview with Liz Skilton, associate professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Dec. 11, 2020

Emergency Management: Concepts and Strategies for Effective Programs by Lucien Canton, 2007

History, How many were killed on D-Day? Jun. 5, 2019

National Commission of Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 9/11 Commission Report, Aug. 21, 2004

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The deadliest, costliest, and most intense United States tropical cyclones from 1851 to 2010 (and other frequently requested hurricane facts), Aug. 2011

National Park Service, Gettysburg National Cemetery

National Park Service, Antietam: Casualties of battle

National Park Service, Pearl Harbor: People

The US Caribbean & Ethnic Florida Digital Newspaper Project, Revisiting past hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Jun. 1, 2018

US Census Bureau, Mortality Statistics 1918, 1920

Wall Street Journal, "I’m sorry I can’t kiss you" - Coronavirus victims are dying alone, Apr. 10, 2020

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Chart showing “deadliest days in American history” contains some errors

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