The story behind the chilling 'Deadliest Days in American History' meme

COVID-19 daily death tolls are right up there with tolls of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Civil War battles and Pearl Harbor.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
3 min read

The COVID-19 daily death toll in the US continues to rise, and numerous days have seen more deaths than occurred during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Silvio Avila/Getty Images

More than 2,400 people died in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. But a poignant graphic that's now spreading around the internet reveals the bleak truth: The day that will live in infamy is far from the deadliest day in American history. Even the death toll from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could soon be surpassed by the American death toll of just one random day during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ohio woman who put together the graphic asked to be identified only by her Twitter name, Carey B. Her list, which has been republished in multiple forums, often unattributed or wrongly credited, tells a bleak story. 

The list ranks the deadliest days in American history, including the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas; the Civil War Battle of Antietam in 1862; the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and others. 

Then comes the gut punch: Mixed in with those infamous historical events are recent days, simply identified as "last Thursday" or "last Tuesday," with the national death toll of coronavirus fatalities for each day listed. 

"Hard to believe we are here," she wrote. "And that it's only going to get worse. Stay HOME. Wear a mask."

Carey says her post wasn't just a spur-of-the-moment idea.

"I had been thinking about the climbing COVID death numbers for days, weeks," she told me. As the Dec. 7 anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack approached, she happened to be reading City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, a novel set in the 1940s, and was struck by how the Americans in the book pulled together and united to win the war.

"The stark differences between American society's reaction to Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and this pandemic hit me so strongly," she said, also giving credit to a similar graphic she saw. She used the best available estimates for the various historical death tolls, and pulled the numbers of COVID-19 deaths from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID Data Tracker.

Watch this: Will a COVID-19 vaccine be a triumph of science or soul-searching?

The graphic has been widely circulated, which surprised Carey.

"Friends have shared it without any idea I made it," she said. And plenty of strangers have shared the graphic and remarked on its impact.

"Even though I truly wish that none of these events happened, it shows us that the American spirit can prevail through tragedy," wrote one Twitter user. "We just all need to protect each other by masking up and social distancing!!"

The list's deadliest day is the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, which took 8,000 lives, according to the US Census Bureau.

"I grew up in Galveston in the 1970s," wrote one Twitter user. "We used to have 80- and 90-year-old survivors of the 1900 Storm come talk to our schools."

Some have criticized the graphic for not including daily deaths from other illnesses, for leaving off other major events, or for other reasons. Carey has heard the criticism but still sees the importance of the information. 

"The reality is that one single graphic can never capture the complexities, the horror, of this issue of lives lost," she says. "But can we recognize the bigger picture?"

She has updated the graphic several times since the first version, which included eight deadly days. She'd like to add numbers from the 1918 Spanish flu if she can find accurate sources. But the point remains the same.

"I may update the graphic or make an additional one as the death toll from COVID climbs, and I hate that we know it will," she said. "Will today be the day we lose more people in one day than we did on 9/11? We never should have had to ask that question."