Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Boston Molassacre

A Seriously Sticky Situation

If you’ve ever checked out the penguins at the New England Aquarium or waited two hours for a cannoli at Mike’s, you’ve enjoyed Boston’s lovely North End. It’s hard to imagine that such a pretty place was once the site of Boston’s most bizarre disaster.

Around 12:30 on January 16, 1919, workers and locals were enjoying lunch on an unusually warm day. The day before, the temperature had been below freezing. Today, it was the Bostonian equivalent of balmy, with the thermometer reading in the forties. At Engine House 31, a gang of firefighters passed the lunch hour playing cards. In the homes of some of Boston’s poorest immigrant families, moms fixed their kids something to eat. Guys at the Public Works paving division, Massachusetts Railway, and local freight houses grabbed a bite. And at the Purity Distilling Company, hundreds of laborers took a break in the buildings surrounding a 58-foot high, 90 ft-diameter molasses tank.

That’s where the trouble started. The Purity Distilling Company was in the molasses business. The syrupy byproduct, obtained by refining sugar cane down into white sugar, was once a popular working-class sweetener. If you think back to learning about the Triangular Trade, you’ll also remember that molasses can be used to make rum. By fermenting the syrup, you can make alcohol of both the fun and industrial varieties. What comes as news to me that you can also use molasses to make explosives. During WWI, molasses manufacturers produced tons of munitions.

This last product had been Boston’s Purity Distilling Co. biggest game until the war had ended two months before. By January 1919, the company was mostly making rubbing alcohol. That huge tank was full of 2.5 million gallons of molasses, fermenting and waiting to be moved by railcar to a secondary plant in Cambridge, where it would get processed further.

Everyone had known something was up with that tank for quite a while. The behemoth storage space leaked so regularly that the locals would sneak down to catch the dripping molasses, a sweet freebie. The plant had painted the tank brown to conceal the fact that the outside of the tank was coated in the syrup. Despite the fact that one distillery worker had given the bigwigs dozens of warnings- and even gone to sleep in a building near the tank because he hoped he could sound an alarm should something terrible happen- nothing had been done. Ignoring the situation turned out to be a
huge mistake.

In the midst of that leisurely lunch hour, the tank's steel plates popped apart, the loud explosion reminding nearby WWI vets of gunfire. The plates flew so fast and far that they cut the supports of the elevated subway tracks nearby. A train headed to North Station had just made it past, and a quick-witted brakeman was able to stop another North Station-bound train right before it plunged off the broken track. The molasses in the tank, weighing over 30 million pounds, rushed out onto the street in a fifteen-foot high wave.

It pushed its way down the street at thirty-five miles an hour, crushing buildings in its path. In the freight house, molasses pushed in the doors and rushed into the basement, where workers unable to climb up the slippery stairs were trapped and drowned. A housewife was killed in her kitchen. At the firehouse, one elderly firefighter was crushed by a pool table. Those left standing were flooded, had their windows knocked in, or were pushed off their foundations. Trucks got swept up in the stream and dragged down the street, and dozens of people were caught up in the suffocating ooze.

Despite the fact that the Army, Navy, police, firefighters, and Red Cross were on the scene almost immediately, the recovery effort was an ordeal. Workers pulled survivors out of the sludge through the night, stopping when church bells all over Boston started to ring. Nebraska had ratified by the 18th Amendment, putting Prohibition into law. The rescue workers, ankle-deep in the makings of rum, could only pause for a moment before they needed to get back to work.

The death count rose as the days went on, with some of the victims hard to identity because they were so covered by the molasses. All told, 21 were dead and 150 were injured. Some of the accounts compare the victims to the frozen dead at Pompeii.

The rescue workers used pressure hoses to try to clean the sticky stuff off the streets, but the process was obviously a difficult and time-consuming one. Legend has it that the workers carried molasses on their feet and hands after they left the site, carrying the sticky sensation to suburbs as far as Worcester. The Boston Harbor was brown with sugar until the summer.

The neighborhood filed a class-action lawsuit, a court battle that took almost six years and involved 3,000 witnesses. While the molasses company tried to blame the tank explosion on anarchists, arguing that peaceniks wanted to prevent the future explosives manufacturing, the courts didn’t buy it. While the unusually fast change in temperature probably affected the fermentation tank, the main problem was the company’s shoddy safety oversights. The company was found negligent and had to pay out $300,000 in damages- about $30 million today.

All in all, a mess of historic proportions.

Works Referenced:

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes.”
The New York Times. 16 January 1919.

Alfred, Randy. “January 15, 1919: Morass of Molasses Mucks Up Boston.”
Wired. January 15 2009.

Boston Historical Society.
Boston’s Fire Trail. Charleston: The History Press, 2007.

Clinger, Julia.
It Happened in Boston. Guilford, CT: Morris Book Publishing, 2007.

Edwards, Park. “Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster Pages, Smithsonian Article,”
Eric Postpischil's Domain, 14 June 2009, accessed 4 March 2010.

Postpischil, Eric. “Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster Pages,”
Eric Postpischil's Domain, 14 June 2009, accessed 4 March 2010.

Mason, John. “Eric Postpischil's Molasses Disaster Pages, Yankee Magazine Article,”
Eric Postpischil's Domain, 14 June 2009, accessed 4 March 2010.

Pepe, William J. and Elaine A. Pepe.
Boston. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Puleo, Stephan.
Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

“What Caused the Great Boston Molasses Flood?”
Massachusetts Historical Society.


  1. This is so interesting! I can't believe I have lived in Boston for as long as I have without hearing about the Molassacre (and might I add there could be no better name for this disaster).

  2. Awesome post. How would one ever learn of such amazing events without the blogosphere?! Great job.