5 of the Greatest Overreactions in History

  • Or, multiple cases of people who probably should’ve had a Snickers or something.

We all occasionally react much too strongly to things that aren’t that big of a deal. Luckily, our overreactions usually end only in a few poorly chosen words and hurt feelings.

But give one person enough power, or have a large enough mob react poorly, and you can run into some catastrophic results. Usually, that means a lot of people die.


Here are some of the worst overreactions through human history.

“Why are we going to war again?” “The emperor stubbed his toe.”

Salem Witch Trials

The cause: In February 1692, two girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts — 9-year old Betty Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams — fell ill. They experienced a series of fits, causing them to contort their bodies, scream weird things, and generally flail around.

The result: Local minister John Hale determined that the girls’ symptoms were “beyond the power of natural disease.” In his mind, there was only one explanation — the girls had been bewitched.

The “doctor’s” diagnosis kicked off a frenzy that were the starting point of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. People started accusing each other left and right of practicing magic and making deals with the devil.

Approximately 25 people died as a result of the trials, either through executions or while in prison. Just because two girls had convulsions because of a most likely perfectly natural illness.

The Great Depression

The cause: In 1929, the stock market fell a bit more than usual. Which — if you pay attention to stocks — you know is a thing that sometimes happens due to normal market fluctuations.

The result: For some reason, people took this drop in the market much worse than usual. A lot of folks stopped borrowing money, investing in new stocks, or spending much money in general.

The sudden stop in spending inflated bank interest rates, which caused people to withdraw their money from the banks. But since bank never have as much money in cash as they supposedly own, they couldn’t give people the money they wanted.

As a result, banks started closing, people’s live savings suddenly disappeared, and businesses started going under at a record pace. And there you have it — the Great Depression had kicked off.

Eventually, the resulting global economic turmoil would help put Adolf Hitler in power in Germany and start World War II and the Holocaust.  And it’s all because people got scared of normal stock price changes.

Stalin’s Painter Murders

The cause: The second famous mustachioed dictator, the Soviet Union’s own Josef Stalin, was obsessed with his public image. To enforce the people’s idealized image of himself, Stalin would regularly order paintings of himself.

The result: Unfortunately for Stalin, he wasn’t a very physically imposing man. He was short and his left hand was malformed due to a potential birth defect.

Stalin would usually ask his painters to depict him in a realistic manner. What the painters were supposed to get from that is “make me look good.”

But many of them painted a realistic portrait as instructed — too realistic. Once Stalin had amassed enough flattering paintings, he’d have all artists who painted him as he was arrested and executed.

We’ll probably never know how many people died because of Stalin’s fragile little ego. But considering the millions upon millions death he’s directly responsible for, it’s most likely no small number.

War Over Wine

The cause: Selim II, a sultan of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, was so into wine that we earned the nickname Selim the Drunkard. He had a particular penchant for wine from Cyprus — and one day he ran out of it.

The result: So, what is the ruler of one of the mightiest empires in the world at the time to do when he wants more of his favorite wine. Why, he decided to invade Cyprus, of course.

Now, it’s a historical fact that Cyprus’ strategic location played a part in the Ottoman invasion of 1571. But historians also state that he most likely wanted to control the production of Cypriote wine.

This wasn’t just some small clash, either. Estimates of the death toll on both the Ottoman and Venetian sides of the war reach around 30,000 people.

Granted, Selim II realized his dream. He won the war and got his precious vineyards — at a terrible price.

Chinese Emperor’s Recovery Party

The cause: Zhang Xianzhong wasn’t a nice man — historian speculate that his bloodthirsty reign killed or displaced up to 90% of entire population in the province of Sichuan. At one point, the murderous emperor fell ill, but he managed to recover.

The result: Praising the gods, Xianzhong promised them two “Heavenly Candles” in compensation for sparing his life. His servants and courtiers probably breathed a sigh of relief at that point — a couple of candles were a welcome break from his usual genocidal habits.

But the emperor’s idea of candles wasn’t a stick of wax. Instead, he had his men round up all the women they could find, cut off their feet, and place them in two separate piles.

Xianzhong completed his “candles” by personally hacking off the feet of his favorite concubine and placed them on top of each pile. Then, he had the piles set on fire.

What better way to celebrate getting over a sickness than mutilating dozens of people? If the gods of ancient China had spared Xianzhong’s life, they probably regretted that decision right away.

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