These 10 historic end-of-the-world predictions missed the mark.
A constant stream of bad news can certainly make it feel like the end of the world, but congratulations — this big rock we inhabit has made it to 2017! Throughout the course of human history people have predicted our planet’s actual demise. Some people have even gained fame and fortune for their predictions. Others, when proven wrong, met a harsh end themselves. Let’s look at the most bizarre prophecies, the most anticlimactic predictions, and the end-of-the-world forecasts that aligned with real natural disasters. And don’t get left behind — there’s a bonus item at the end.
3 Bizarre Failed End-of-the-World Predictions
1. Mary Bateman and the Prophet Hen of Leeds
In 1806, the people of Leeds, England, whipped themselves into a frenzy over an allegedly prophetic chicken owned by the “Yorkshire Witch,” a farmer’s daughter by the name of Mary Bateman.
Bateman was no stranger to mischief. Around the age of 10, she was fired from a position as a servant girl for petty theft. A few years later she convinced her village she possessed supernatural powers. And by the end of the 1780s, she was running her own business, selling potions and magical remedies as well as fortune-telling services.
But Bateman’s career didn’t really take off until 1806 when she claimed to possess the Prophet Hen of Leeds, whose eggs predicted the end of the world. Specifically, the egg messages said “Christ is coming!” The people of Leeds took this as a sign that doomsday approached, and a great many people traveled from around the country to visit this apocalyptic hen. But disaster struck when one of these visitors caught Bateman writing the message with a corrosive ink, or some kind of acid, on each egg before reinserting them into the unfortunate hen. Then in March 1809 Bateman was executed — not for the Prophet Hen but because she had poisoned a husband and wife with a magical pudding she claimed would heal their chest pains. Supposedly, after her execution, Bateman’s skin was sold to villagers in strips as a magic charm to ward off evil spirits.
2. Chen Tao, or The True Way
Founded by Hon-Ming Chen, a university professor in Taiwan, Chen Tao was a religious movement that combined UFOs with Buddhism, Christianity and Taiwanese folk religions. In Taiwan, the group was registered as The Chinese Soul Light Research Association. But in 1997 the group of 160 people moved to Garland, Texas, because the city’s name sounded like “God Land.” Shortly after the move, Chen predicted that on March 31, 1998, at 12:01 a.m. God would appear on channel 18 of US television, whether that television had access to cable or not. He went on to explain that God would then descend to Earth the following week in a human form identical to Hon-Ming Chen himself. The following year Chen predicted a mass extinction of humanity due to flooding and millions of devil spirits descending to Earth. He sold his own version of indulgences to followers by having them purchase tickets to spaceships, disguised as clouds, that God would send to rescue them. When none of this occurred, Chen offered to be crucified or stoned by his followers, but none took him up on it. Instead, the group went into a steady decline and many were forced to return to Taiwan due to visa problems. Chen’s response? He stated that he had obviously misunderstood God’s plan.
3. The Russian Antichrist & The Old Believers
Vasily Surikov’s Boyarynya Morozova. Should two or three fingers be used when making the sign the cross? Here, an Old Believer named Feodosia Morozova argues it should be two.
When leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church proclaimed major ecclesiastical reforms in 1666, the Old Believers — who strongly believed the preservation and practice of certain rituals and traditions were the only way to achieve salvation for their souls — declared that the reign of the Antichrist had come. Leaders of the Old Faith went so far as to predict that this reign would last three years, causing the world to end in 1669.
Viewed as dangerous to the State, these Old Believers were harshly persecuted for their beliefs and many leaders were arrested and executed. Others were burned at the stake. Panicked, and buckling under heavy taxation, thousands fled to settlements on the outskirts of Russia. When the world did not end in 1669, leaders of the group suggested the Antichrist’s reign had been merely spiritual. But now that the Czar had changed the calendar, married a “heathen” Protestant and prohibited beards, Peter the Great himself was declared the visible Antichrist, determined to end the world.
Driven by distrust and panic, thousands chose to burn themselves to death rather than submit to the Antichrist Czar. In 1678, in remote Siberia, an entire community of Old Believers assembled in a wooden church as soldiers approached their settlement. When the time was right, they set the building on fire and burned themselves to death. It wasn’t until 1905 that this persecution ended, when Tsar Nicholas II signed an act of religious freedom, once more allowing the Old Believers to practice their faith with their traditional rituals. However, on July 17, 1918, Nicholas and his family were executed during the Bolshevik Revolution.
3 End-of-the-World Predictions That Fizzled out with a Whimper
1. The Great Flood
On February 25, 1524, all known planets were due to align under the Zodiac’s water sign of Pisces, causing a respected mathematician and astrologer by the name of Johannes Stöffler to predict a universal flood that would sentence humanity to a watery death. Panic ensued across Stöffler’s native Germany, and many people tried to sell their lands on the cheap so that they might purchase boats and save themselves. Supposedly, the Count von Iggleheim even went so far as to build a three-story ark, and panicked crowds stormed the ark and demand entrance. When the Count refused, they stoned him to death. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view — when the date arrived, there was only a light drizzle. Stöffler insisted that he had simply miscalculated and predicted that the real flood would occur in 1528. It didn’t, and Stöffler died of the plague a short three years later.
2. The Sun’s Explosion
Highly respected American meteorologist Albert Porta believed the world would end December 17, 1919, due to a planetary alignment. He argued that the movement of the six planets involved would cause a magnetic current that would pierce the sun, leading it to explode. He told his audience this explosion would swallow the Earth in flaming gases that would kill all life, bringing about the end of the world. In anticipation of Armageddon, those believing Porta’s prediction resorted to mob violence and suicides. However, when December 17 rolled around, the only thing that would go down in flames would be Porta’s career. He spent the rest of his life in disgrace, writing a small column for a local paper.
3. Joanna Southcott
In 1792, 42-year-old Joanna Southcott announced she was the Woman of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. Over the next few decades she wrote over 60 books of religious thoughts and rhyming prophecies and sold some 144,000 “Seals of the Lord” to those seeking to purchase eternal life. But it wasn’t until 1813 that she announced to her 100,000 followers she would give birth to the second messiah — the biblical Shiloh — who would bring about the end of the world. Despite being 64 years old (and supposedly a virgin), she announced this child’s due date was October 19, 1814. Sadly, on December 27 of that year, Joanna died childless. Her followers, believing their prophetess would be raised from the dead, refused to surrender her corpse until it began to decay.
But even in death, Joanna wasn’t finished. Not only had she prophesied that the Day of Judgment would arrive in 2004; she had also left behind a mysterious box with specific instructions that it was to be opened only during a time of national crisis — and only in the presence of all bishops of the Church of England, who were expected to spend seven days and seven nights studying her prophecies beforehand. In 1927, a psychic researcher by the name of Harry Prince claimed to be in possession of the box, which he opened in the presence of the Bishop of Grantham. They found it to contain a dice box, horse pistol, purse, lottery ticket, night cap and a few random books. However, Joanna’s followers, called Southcottians, were not convinced and began an advertising campaign that ran throughout the 1960s and ’70s, pleading with the bishops to open the true box, lest they be unprepared for the upcoming apocalypse. The campaign read: “War, disease, crime and banditry, distress of nations and perplexity will increase until the Bishops open Joanna Southcott’s box.” Her prophesied Day of Judgment in 2004 has come and gone, and her movement has dwindled — all without her prophecies coming to fruition.
3 End-of-the-World Predictions That Aligned with Natural Disasters
1. Great Fire of London
Around the same time that Russia was battling the supposed Antichrist, London was burning. The Great Fire blazed September 2-5, 1666, a year after a plague had killed some 100,000 people. Many had predicted that 666 — the “mark of the beast” — would signal the end of times, so when the fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane and devoured some 13,200 houses and 87 parish churches, it seemed to the inhabitants of London that the End of Days was upon them. In addition, rumors of foreigners — allegedly French and Dutch immigrants — starting the fire added a certain level of chaos, as did the indecisiveness of the mayor of London, who acted too late. At the time, London was the largest city in Britain with over 500,000 inhabitants, but most buildings had been constructed with wood and thatch, making them highly flammable. The city’s medieval street plan and a yearlong drought certainly didn’t help, enabling temperatures to reach levels high enough to melt both iron and steel. And while some of the poor undoubtedly perished in the flames, only six deaths were recorded, making this catastrophic event an apocalypse for the city of London itself but, apparently, not so much for its inhabitants.
2. Iceland’s Volcano
Laki erupted on June 8, 1783, in southern Iceland. Over the course of eight months, this volcano covered 965 square miles with 3.7 quadrillion gallons of lava. Its volcanic ash poisoned both the land and sea. The sun turned bloodred. Nothing could grow, boats could not navigate, and the fish fled the area. Severe fluorine intoxication caused the animals to develop growths and swollen mouths and become bloated. Half of Iceland’s cattle population and a quarter of all their sheep and horses died. One-fifth of Iceland’s population — 9,000 people — died, most from starvation. And the cloud of toxic dust and sulfur dioxide spread to Europe, wilting the grass as far away as Padua. The air became toxic; many farm workers in England died. For two years afterward, bizarre weather crises continued to occur throughout Europe, North America, Africa and the Middle East, causing droughts, floods and harsh winters, all as a result of Laki. Here’s how one Icelandic survivor described the “Mist Hardships,” as these times have come to be known: “The horses lost all their flesh, the skin began to rot off along the spines. The sheep were affected even more wretchedly. There was hardly a part on them free of swellings, especially their jaws, so large that they protruded through the skin… Both bones and gristle were as soft as if they had been chewed,” wrote Rev. Jon Steingrimsson. Anyone who lived through this and thought it was the End of Days gets a pass.
3. Black Plague
Plague doctors were the unlucky interns and quacks of their time, rarely curing their patients and instead being relied upon to merely count them. Via Getty Images.
Another pestilence was also making people believe it was the end of times, and that was the good ol’ Bubonic Plague, aka the Black Death. Stretching across Europe and Russia from 1346 to 1353, this plague killed 60% of Europe’s entire population — around 50 million people — all through the stealth of fleas and ships. And as the plague spread from harbor to harbor, flea to rat to human, most of the religious leaders were claimed by the disease due to their proximity with the sick. Without their guidance, many peasants believed they were living in the end of times. Some turned to religion and filled the Church’s coffers; others to debauchery and ruin. Soon flagellants began to flog themselves in the streets to atone for the sins they believed had brought this plague upon them. Luckily Iceland and Finland, due to their isolation, were unaffected, though Iceland paid for this about 50 years later.
Bonus: Failed Predictions of the Rapture
In 1820, a 15-year-old Scottish girl named Margaret McDonald claimed to have a vision regarding the end of the world. Specifically, she cited that only a chosen few would be saved from this Armageddon, which took the shape of a “purifying fire.” In 1827, the evangelist John Darby was preaching a similar idea in London, claiming Christians would be saved from the end of the world, which would occur after a period of hardship. Between these two, the idea of the Rapture was born, though it would not be popularized until Hal Lindsey’s best-selling nonfiction book Late Great Planet Earth swept through the 1970s. In it, he claimed the world would end before December 31, 1988. 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 by Edgar Whisenant hit bookstores that same year, selling some 4.5 million copies. When the world failed to end, both men tried to adjust, with Lindsey changing his prediction each decade from the 1980s through the 2000s. But it didn’t matter — the idea stuck and a genre of prophecy books was born.
Enter the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, which has spanned over 17 novels from 1995 to 2007 as well as four major films from 2000 to 2014. The world described in the books is one after the Rapture has already taken place, and those left behind are forced to survive amid chaos. Oh, and a Romanian politician becomes secretary-general of the United Nations. Unknown to almost everyone: he’s also the Antichrist. And one family of born-again Christians must save the lost and prepare them for the next seven years of judgment. Over 63 million Left Behind books have sold.
And then there is Harold Camping, the Christian preacher from Oakland, California, who’s been predicting the Rapture since 1992. In fact, Camping has predicted the end of the world taking place mid-September 1994, then March 31, 1995, then May 21, 2011, and finally October 21, 2011. He also predicted earthquakes taking place in New Zealand to accompany the end of times, but sadly — for Harold — none of this has occurred. Even more tragic, in 2011 the 89-year-old preacher and his followers spent more than $100 million on advertising this false prediction. When asked how he felt when the Rapture didn’t arrive in May 2011, Camping replied, “It’s been a really tough weekend.”