People who have heard the expression "as slow as molasses in January" may be surprised to learn that on Wednesday January 15, 1919, molasses moved at a brisk pace through the narrow streets of Boston's Italian North End. Read on to learn about the "Boston Molasses Flood" of 1919, almost 100 years ago.
Background on Molasses
Molasses is the dark, sweet, sticky, viscous syrup left over after all the sugary stuff has been squeezed, pressed or boiled out of sugar cane. We use it today as a primarily in gingerbread, baked beans, cookies, spice cakes or other foods, usually sweetened baked goods. I put some in every loaf of bread I bake. Today, molasses is an expensive, luxury item, costing about ten times as much as white granulated sugar. Still, it has a special flavor that is important in many recipes
The word molasses is derived from the Latin word mel for honey. For more about the growing and processing of sugar, read this article by Jean-Jacques Segalen.
Until 1919, molasses was much less expensive than white sugar. Due to shortages caused by World War One, the United States Food Administration was actively encouraging that people cook with molasses instead of sugar. (See vintage poster, from 1917, below.) Molasses was also used in the manufacture of ethanol to make weapons in WWI, and of course, in the production of rum. After 1919, molasses lost popularity in the US as granulated sugar became cheaper and more available and molasses, somehow, had a nasty connection to the disaster.
Why is molasses slow in January?
Any liquid, honey, melted shortening, lava or even water, will move more quickly when hot and move more slowly when cold. The expression 'as slow as molasses in January' to describe something extremely slow was in use by 1872; it did not originate as a result of the Molasses Flood.
Instead of Sugar
"Why Save Sugar? The new sugar crops are short. 50,000,000 pounds of sugar have been lost through submarine sinkings. Germans have destroyed sugar-beet fields and factories in France. Our armies have far less sugar than we and we have not our usual supplies on hand. Our ships are needed for carrying troops and supplies and cannot bring sugar from far distant countries." So reads the text of a booklet called Sweets without Sugar, available in late 1918 from the United States Food Administration.
Originally, the North End held pieces of Colonial history you have heard about: the Old North Church (one if by land and two if by sea), Paul Revere's house and other really old, old Boston sites. Several signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried nearby (like Samuel Adams and John Hancock) and people like Paul Revere himself. There are Prince Street, King's Chapel, Commercial Street, Milk Street, Water Street, Wharf Street and Park Street. The Freedom Trail winds through these narrow steets.
After Revere (as a wealthy blacksmith in the newly independent-from-England Commonwealth of Massachusetts) moved out of the North End along with other upscale businessmen, newer immigrants moved in, first Irish, then Eastern-European, then finally Italian.
In 1912, for instance, three immigrants to the North End from Sicily, Italy started a pasta company on Prince St., named for the son of an English king, and started a dynasty of their own. Surely you remember the classic Prince spaghetti commercial from the 1960s—you can watch again it here or an abbreviated version (with better fidelity) here.
When I grew up in Boston, the North End was where Italian was a second (if not first) language for a majority of residents. The North End was and still is the place to go for real Italian food. But that was the 1960s through the present; the North End of my childhood.
The North End of 1919 was in the middle of a transition from Irish-Catholic to Italian-Catholic. A look at the list of victims reveals mostly Irish last names with some Italian.
Leading Up to Disaster
Former Mayor 'Honey Fitz' Fitzgerald's 1907 plan for a Better, Busier, Bigger Boston was working, with traffic to the port much increased by 1912. (His grandson and namesake, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, would go on to become President of the United States.)
In 1915, Purity Distilling Company built an immense tank to hold molasses without performing adequate safety tests. It was 58 ft. tall and 90 ft. across, with a capacity of over 2 million gallons. Maybe in response to Mayor Fitzgerald's urges for a busier harbor, the giant tank was situated close to both the Boston harbor and the freight trains at North Station, in a crowded, mixed-use neighorhood. Ships could come up from plantations in the Caribbean filled with molasses and pump it directly into this huge tank, and then onto the freight cars at North Station. In 1917, Purity was sold to United States Industrial Alcohol company (USIA), a firm which specialized in industrial uses of alcohol, such as for munitions.
How about those Red Sox? Babe Ruth had just led the Red Sox to a World Series win in September, 1918. Members of both teams fully expected to be drafted before Spring Training.
War: Although the Armistice was then signed in November, Massachusetts troops had yet to return.
Worldwide influenza: 1918-19 saw an extremely deadly strain of the influenza virus, known as the Spanish Flu or the grippe. Incredibly, more soldiers were killed by the flu than in combat in WWI. (Even President Wilson caught a case of the Spanish Flu during cease-fire negotiations in Europe.)
New Governor of Massachusetts: Calvin Coolidge had just been inaugurated on January 2 of 1919. (He would go on to become Vice-President and then President.) And former President Theodore Roosevelt had just died, whom "the Italian people loved and respected."
Anarchy: In 1916, Italian anarchists bombed the North End's police station, and on January 10, 1919, Commercial St. was plastered with signs which threatened more dynamite. Police warned local businessmen of possible anarchist bombs.
The weather: It had been down to 2° F on the 12th of January, but today, Wednesday the 15th, it was up to 43° F. People were enjoying the Janury thaw by eating lunch outside.
Prohibition: If you look carefully at the headline on the newspaper in the thumbnail picture, you will note "35 states on dry law list" on the left—the amendment making Prohibition a law was about to be ratified. Although this would make it illegal to sell or transport liquor in the United States, industrial alcohol was still legal. Purity's molasses was mostly all used for industrial alcohol, so this probably didn't have anything to do with how full the tank was filled. And it was topped up with 2.3 million gallons from Puerto Rico just days before January 15th....
Painting It Brown
Some local residents complained that the tank leaked molasses. USIA's response was to paint the tank the exact color of molasses and re-caulk it from the outside. It still leaked badly, and neighborhood kids would fill pitchers with molasses from the leaks.
Some USIA workers felt sure the tank was unsafe, but there were no standardized tests for safety or structural soundness at the time.
Some said they heard it rattling or felt it shaking from time to time.
Lunch Time, Wednesday, January 15, 1919
At about 12:40 pm, people nearby heard a loud rumbling noise and a popping like machine guns as the rivets ripped out. "The molasses tank burst open, swallowing everything in its path. The wave, traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour, stretched 15 feet high and 160 feet wide and engulfed everything in the surrounding two blocks with 2.3 million gallons of molasses." writes Samantha Geib in her 2010 award-winning history paper. Men, women, children and pets were variously drowned, crushed, suffocated, asphyxiated or died when buildings or parts of the metal tank fell on them. People also died days later of pneumonia because they had inhaled molasses. The survivors had bruises, broken bones, lacerations, and were so glazed with molasses.that they were unrecognizable. Bodies continued to be recovered for days, even one or two floating in Boston harbor.
Leslie Jones (1888-1967), a photographer (he called himself a camera-man) for The Boston Herald, was on the scene and started taking pictures within minutes. All the black and white photographs will enlarge in a new window if you click on them.
It is thanks to Jones' documentary photos that we have as clear a visual picture as we do of what happened that day. Eye-witnesses testify that the tank ruptured shortly before 12:40 in the afternoon; Jones' photos are time stamped 1 pm. This one is labelled "Firemen standing in thick molasses after the disaster."
Cars, trucks and the El "elevated railway" were crushed (below right), as were carriages, carts and at least a dozen horses. It turns out that molasses acts pretty much the way a substance (lava, water or air) does in any other natural disaster—tsunami, flood, hurricane, tornado-—it swirls things up and drops them blocks away. The wave of molasses smashed people against walls, rose up and sank back down, leaving black sticky destruction in its wake.
In the left photograph just above, you can see the nearly white warehouse in the back right with a brown molasses stain on it. Behind the warehouse in the way back right are the freight cars from the Boston-Worcester Line. Just in front of the warehouse, still in the back right of the photo, is the nearly conical shape that once was the roof of the tank. To the left of that is a sheet of metal which once formed the wall of the immense tank. Directly to the right is a closer shot of worker with an acetylene torch trying to recover bodies trapped beneath.
I hope you will click on this faded copy of The Boston Herald at left from Jan. 16, 1919, the day after the disaster. Even if you aren't as interested in the history as I am ("Mother Dead, Children Hurt;" and "Mayor Peters Tenders Sympathy") you might be able to see the view of the tank before its collapse. (And there is always interesting news like the fact that the Wear-Ever Aluminum Company which had to supply mess-kits for "our fighting men" but "will soon be in a position to supply every need for these sturdy, enduring, beautiful utensils.")
Also important is the fact that from the beginning people were claiming that an explosion had taken place inside the tank.
Clean-up only took two weeks because over 300 people helped (police, firefighters, military, Red Cross, and Salvation Army) to clean the stickiness from the cobblestone streets. The final death toll was 21 people killed, 151 injured.
From the afternoon of the catastrophe through the five year court battle, attorneys representing USIA claimed that Bolsheviks or Anarchists had set off a bomb inside the tank. Local residents insisted gas had built up due to fermentation and that there had been shoddy construction of the tank to begin with.
One of the first class-action law suits in New England ensued, as the victims and their families sued USIA in civil court..
Eventually 3,000 witnesses (survivors and other people on the scene, as well as expert testimony from engineers, architects, metallurgists and other scientists as well as Purity and USIA employees, medical personnel, and many others) produced 45,000 pages of court transcripts. It was an explosion, as described by scores of witnesses, not just a collapse. The hearing went on for 6 years.
Was it an "explosion" or not? The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 has been called many things--a catastrophe, a disaster, a flood, a deluge and it was all of those. But from the first evening papers that day, people were calling it "an explosion." So I looked up explode on dictionary.com. The tank definitely did "burst or cause to burst with great violence as a result of internal pressure," but not "esp. through the detonation of an explosive; blow up." I guess it was accurately described as an explosion, with shaking, trembling and noise; reports are that at first people thought it might be an earthquake. (Unusual in New England but not so unusual in Italy.) But according to the evidence submitted at the hearing, there was absolutely no evidence that the tank had been blown up by anybody.
According to Geib, the most damaging evidence against the defendent (USIA) was the fact that the person in charge of the holding tank's construction had no technical or construction experience or training; he was an accountant.
Aftermath: When the verdict was brought back, USIA was found to be at fault and fined $628,000, equal to nearly 8 million of today's dollars. The City of Boston instituted new rules governing industrial construction, which were soon copied all over the country. Geib hails her research on the Molasses Flood as an example of using secondary sources. And Flura Connolly explains that the Molasses Flood moved new Italian imigrants to activism in Boston.
The North End was three feet deep in molasses for several blocks, there were reports of molasses as far away as Worcester the next day (about 50 miles), and Bostonians report that the North End smelled like molasses for thirty years.
All photos and reproductions are in the Public Domain.
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.