T.S. Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” and April 20 stands out if you want to zero in on a specific date besieged with bad news.
Across American history and beyond, this particular spot on the calendar is blood-soaked, marked by significant catastrophe and upheaval. Some of the negative energy coiled around the date stems from the fact that Adolf Hitler was born on April 20 in 1889. For militia groups and anti-government types, the middle of the month is also significant as the beginning of colonial America’s fight against the British following the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
“It’s a question we talk about all the time,” Heidi Beirich, a domestic terrorism expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Washington Post‘s Michael S. Rosenwald in 2016. “It’s a really strange phenomenon. We sometimes refer to April as the beginning of the killing season.”
The radioactive nature of the time period has even prompted watch groups to issue warnings to law enforcement about possible violence. “April is a month that looms large in the calendar of many extremists in the United States, from racists and anti-Semites to anti-government groups,” the Anti-Defamation League cautioned in 2005.
But a deep dive into the history books proves the month has regularly seen violence beyond what can be pinned on the Nazi leader or the iconography of the American Revolution. And although any date will yield a dark past if you drill far enough down into the timeline, April — specifically April 20 — has a particularly long, strange history of death and disaster, human violence and random accidents.
Full disclosure: April 20 is also this reporter’s birthday. Each year is a reminder of how the date has meant something else completely to many people across history.
The days leading up to April 20 have their own grim record, too.
On April 15, 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev launched their deadly attack on the Boston Marathon, leaving three dead and hundreds injured. In 2007, 32 people were killed on the campus of Virginia Tech when Seung-Hui Cho opened fire on April 16. In West, Tex., a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant killed 15, injured 252 and damaged 500 buildings on April 17, 2013.
If another spot on the April calendar was in the running for the bloodiest day of the year, it would be April 19.
A 16-inch gun turret on the USS Iowa exploded in the water off Puerto Rico, killing 47, on April 19, 1989. The two most significant events tied to the 19th both center on anti-government sentiments. On April 19, 1993, federal agents stormed the Branch Davidians complex in Waco, Tex., following a 51-day standoff. The raid resulted in the deaths of 76 members of the religious sect, including women and children.
Two years later, Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 adults and children in the blast.
“For many people who labor under the idea that the federal government is a tyrannical foreign oppressor like the British monarchy, Waco symbolizes a war of a government against its people,” Robert Blaskiewicz, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, told CNN in 2011. “Nonetheless, in the mythology that has grown up around Waco and Oklahoma City among self-identified patriots, the 19th has become a sort of high holiday for those who think that they live under the thumb of a tyranny.”
But April 20 has its own long strange history.
One of the earliest ugly moments on April 20 occurred in 1898. On that date, the U.S. Congress adopted a resolution spearheaded by President William McKinley declaring war on Spain. The conflict had been long-building, thanks to the expansion of American interests across the world. But the main justification for war was the February sinking of the USS Maine (“Remember the Maine”). Hoping to sell newspapers, publishers — specifically, William Randolph Hearst — alleged Spain was responsible for the disaster, an unsubstantiated claim at the time that has since been debunked.
“In 1976, Adm. Hyman Rickover of the U.S. Navy mounted yet another investigation into the cause of the Maine disaster,” reported Smithsonian magazine. “His team of experts found that the ship’s demise was self- inflicted — likely the result of a coal bunker fire.”
April 20, then, saw the declaration of the first “fake news” war.
Another American business titan was tied to the events of April 20, 1914. At the time, labor activists were striking at the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, a large mining operation owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. On April 20, members of the Colorado National Guard opened fire on the strikers at an encampment in Ludlow. At least 66 men, women, and children were killed in the attack and subsequent violence, making the massacre “one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of American industrial enterprise,” according to the New Yorker.
In 1961, April 20 marked the end of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, an ill-planned attack on Fidel Castro’s government organized by elements of the U.S. government. The botched invasion left 118 anti-Castro Cuban rebels dead and another 1,202 captured.
The date also marked a grim milestone in Northern Ireland. On April 20, 1974, the country’s “Troubles” — a violent conflict between Protestants, Catholics and British soldiers — notched its 1,000 death when the body of James Murphy, a Catholic, was found dumped on a roadside.
In the United States, the most high-profile April 20 incident arrived in 1999, when high schoolers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked the hallways and classrooms of Columbine High School. The pair, who committed suicide in the attack, had originally planned the shooting for April 19. The date was pushed back after a local drug dealer failed to provide them with ammunition on time, the Guardian has reported.
Eight years later, on April 20, 2007, William Arthur Phillips Jr. walked into NASA’s Johnson Space Center with a gun. He killed a supervisor before taking his own life.
April 20, 2010, marked the start of one of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history. On that date, an explosion tore through the Deepwater Horizon exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 crew members. The blast caused 3.19 million barrels of crude oil to spill into the gulf over the next 87 days, The Post reported. The spill and cleanup would eventually cost BP $61.6 billion.
The latest catastrophes to fall on the date have happened overseas.
Bhoja Air flight from Karachi to Islamabad went down during its landing on April 20, 2012. The crash, blamed on the weather, claimed all 127 passengers and crew. A year later, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit China’s Sichuan province on April 20. More than 150 people were killed and 5,700 injured in the natural disaster.
And last year, a gunman attacked Paris police with an AK-47 on the Champs-Elysees on April 20. One officer died in the attack and two others were wounded before Karim Cheurfi took his own life. The shooter was reportedly inspired by the Islamic State.
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