Far-Out Friday: The Boston Molassacre (January 15, 1919)

FarOutFridayAs disasters go, whether considered “acts of God” or man-made, this one was one of the most bizarre.  It happened on January 15, 1919 in Boston, a flood of epic proportions; however, it wasn’t water that flooded the area, but ooey-gooey-sticky hot molasses.  The scene of the disaster was Boston’s North End at the Purity Distilling Company.

In that era, molasses was a standard sweetener, also used to produce rum (after fermentation) and ethanol, a component in alcoholic and other beverages – and of all things, ammunition.  On that day 2,300,000 gallons of Puerto Rican molasses was stored in a tank (50 feet high, 90 feet in diameter) awaiting transfer to the plant.  Days before, the temperatures had plummeted but had been rising and that day it was a balmy day in the 40’s.

At 12:30 p.m. bolts holding the tank bottom in place exploded, shot out like bullets, followed by hot, lava-like molasses.  Apparently the rising temperatures had caused the molasses to expand and become volatile.  Workers loading freight train cars nearby were hit by an eight-foot high wall, a tsunami of the sweet stuff.  The train cars were swept off the tracks and the nearby building was flooded.  Those inside had no chance to escape.  At its peak the waves of molasses hit twenty-five feet and were accelerating at times at the rate of thirty-five miles per hour.

MolassacreA nearby elevated track was damaged and other buildings in its path were leveled to the foundations.  Some areas were flooded with as much as three feet of molasses.  The Boston Post described the scene:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper.  The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared.  Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.

Some people were hurled through the air; trucks were hurled into the harbor.  Headlines “exploded” all over the country that evening and the days following:

Explode_MolassesIn a 1983 Smithsonian Magazine article, Edwards Park described how one boy walking home from school was caught up in the waves of molasses:

Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his sisters staring at him. (Another sister had been killed.) They had found little Anthony stretched under a sheet on the “dead” side of a body-littered floor.

Early headlines reported that at least ten people had died and several injured.  Five employees of the Public Works Department drowned and burned to death.  The final death toll was twenty-one with about one hundred and fifty injuries.  A number of horses and other animals were also killed.  Over one hundred cadets training nearby on the USS Nantucket rushed to the scene to assist, and it was four days before they stopped looking for victims.

It took several weeks for the molasses muck to be cleared from Boston streets.  Crews used salt water to wash it away and sand to absorb it, yet that summer the harbor was still brown.  Stephen Puleo noted in his book Dark Tide that it took a long time to rid the city of the molasses.  Molasses was tracked all over the city, onto to subways and trains, homes and even telephones.  “Everything a Bostonian touched was sticky,” said Edwards Park.  Years later it was said that on hot summer days the smell of molasses would rise again.

After the cleanup came the lawsuits.  Over one hundred lawsuits were filed against United States Industrial Alcohol, and after hours and hours of investigation, three thousand witnesses and forty-five thousand pages of testimony, the company was found negligent because the tank had not been constructed well, nor maintained properly.

To settle the case at a cost of approximately $7000 per victim, the company paid out $600,000, or well over $10 million in today’s dollars.  Some have estimated that if all the property damage throughout the city were included, in today’s dollars it would have been  over one hundred million.

During that period in history, the United States had for years been dealing with anarchists.  One of the company’s defense strategies was to blame it on anarchists, who knowing that molasses was used for munitions, blew it up.  That was a truly dangerous time for the United States and the world, as related in Dark Invasion (reviewed here) by Howard Blum.

United States Industrial Alcohol, who had acquired Purity Distilling Company in 1917, had a license to produce alcohol for industrial purposes.  Ironically, on the day following the disaster, Nebraska cast the final voted needed to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, also known as Prohibition.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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