Sweet & Sticky Death

Industrial accidents are usually pedestrian: gas-line explosions, chemical spills, nuclear out-gassing of radioactive steam.  These are the disasters expected to make headlines from time to time.

However, the strange and unusual is never very far from the surface of history’s tragedies.  Boston, Massachusetts, witnessed a wall of brown sweetness swallowing a large chunk of its industrial waterfront in what has to be the only incident of its kind – a food substance responsible for the suffocating and crushing deaths of almost two dozen people. 


Extra edition, Boston Globe (Jan 16, 1919)Credit: Boston Globe, 1919

The year was 1919.  The killing sludge was molasses.

15 Men on a Dead Man’s Chest
One of the earliest commercially lucrative products of the New World was sugar.  Cane plantations were developed early in the Caribbean’s West Indies.  The Spanish, having failed to successfully enslave the indigenous Arawak people (and wiping them out through outright slaughter and disease as well) of newly discovered Cuba, instead began another commercially lucrative trade, importing human cargo from Africa as slaves to work the booming plantations.  The sub-tropical climate, the long growing season created a lucrative agriculturally based economy in the sunny climes of the West. 

The cane plantations were horrendous, and many Africans died of diseases and abuse as the Arawaks had.  The heartier ones continued to work themselves to death as more were imported (and eventually bred like cattle). The primary product of the sugar cane operations was the cane juice, processed and refined into granulated sugar of varying grades. 

The process by which white sugar is made, however, created a residual cash cow.  From pressing cane and boiling off the juices a residual goldmine was left.  This was molasses, a highly viscous, very sweet syrup with a slightly burnt flavor.  It could range from boot-black (“Blackstrap” molasses) to a lighter, almost clear golden ambrosia, dependent upon what type of sugar was desired (brown sugar, for example, gets its flavor from the molasses purposely left in it). 

Molasses kept well under tight conditions, as in barrels, and because there was initially not much use for it, it quickly was adopted as a poor-man’s sweetener.  It is what pioneer families in America would use almost exclusively for decades of expansion.  [White sugar for the masses was a luxury and almost cost prohibitive.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, of the Little House on the Prairie book series, recalled her first taste of white sugar in the late 1800s.  She described it as dazzling.]

Molasses, however, quickly was discovered to have another, far more important economic use than to sweeten a cake.  The West Indians had developed a limited process of fermenting molasses into an alcoholic beverage.  It quickly became popular with the conquering Spaniards, and most of a cane crop’s output was almost solely for the benefit of dredging off the molasses from the sugar refining. 

The beverage was rum, a name derived from the word “rumbullion” (of uncertain origin).  In its raw, finished state before dilution to trade and state standards it is one of the most potent of potables.  It routinely carries an 80% alcohol content (pure grain alcohol is 95% alcohol in comparison).  Water is added to render it drinkable for the average person.  Rum is also very viscous, and even diluted rum of the type seen today has a higher specific gravity than most other alcohols.

The rum of the 17th Century could be murderously intoxicating, and it was the currency of the open ocean.  The British Navy, as part of its means of both placating, controlling, and paying its sailors, issued a daily “rum ration” aboard ship.  Many sailors hoarded their daily ration, and accumulated enough to become violently, blind stinking drunk.  There was no question of pulling the rum ration – mass mutinies would have resulted.  A solution to on-board intoxication was reached by an interesting British admiral named Edward Vernon.  Vernon (1684-1757) was a temperamental and intolerant curmudgeon.  He was in the habit of wearing a style of coat known as a grogram coat.  It was from this he was given the nickname “Old Grog”. 

During his tenure on the high seas acting on Britain’s behalf (1739-1746), he devised a way to keep the men happy but scale back on the potent rum consumption on board.  Instead of the straight, undiluted share to which each sailor was accustomed, Vernon instead gave them a mixture of rum and water (in a 50-50 ratio) to drink.  This caused some grumbling, but the beverage, known as “grog” for the stodgy admiral, became standard issue on British ships.  A sailor who became intoxicated from drinking too much grog was said to be “groggy”.  [Another interesting side note about Admiral Vernon: George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence Washington so idolized Edward Vernon that he named the Washington family plantation in Virginia after him, Mount Vernon.]

This was only a partial solution, however.  Drunkenness was still a problem, just not as bad as it had been.  Another modification was made as sailors still hoarded their grog and could go on the occasional drunken binge.  The USS Constitution (built in 1797) fought its on-board drunkenness with a refinement to Admiral Vernon’s grog recipe.  Instead of clean drinking water, the commanding staff of this ship drew water straight out of the Charles River and used it to dilute the rum rations.  The flocculent, bacteria, and other detritus in the river water insured the rum-and-water mix would not remain drinkable for long.  A sailor had to drink his grog immediately or it would spoil overnight.  Hoarding of rum became a thing of the past afterward.

Sweet Tooth
Early in America’s history, the British and the developing colonies were unfairly balanced in trade – the Americans needed imports, the British gladly supplied them with heavy tariffs on top of the goods’ cost. 
Molasses was a key commodity.  The British controlled trade from the West Indies into the American Colonies.  However, to circumvent the onerous tariffs, the American provincials managed to create a direct line of trade with the West Indies.  Britain quashed this in 1733 with a prohibitive tax on molasses and sugar sent directly from the West Indies into its American Colonies.  Thus, the American need for molasses would remain controlled by the British until after independence.
Faster Than Molasses
Molasses, as sugar became more inexpensively processed and more widely available to the masses, lost its prominence on the dinner table, but it was still a very good product commercially.  It had many other commercial uses beyond making rum and as a flavoring – it was also used in the manufacture of ammunition as well.  It wasPurity Distillery molasses tankCredit: public domain used in baking, animal feeds were fortified with it (it is a good, natural source of iron), and some people preferred its more robust flavor to that of white sugar. It featured in many classic recipes, most notably the dish Boston Baked Beans which derives its distinctive flavor from molasses.

In Boston, the demand for molasses was met in a huge operation called the Purity Distilling Company (bought in 1917 by Unites States Industrial Alcohol Company).  This firm stored molasses in a huge vat, some 2 million gallons’ worth of the sticky sweetener.  The vat stood along the shoreline of the River Charles in Boston’s north end.

In the days leading up to what became known as the Great Molasses Flood (or the Great Boston Molasses Tragedy) the Boston weather in early January had been unseasonably cold, nearing frigid temperature.  On January 15, 1919, the ambient temperature of Boston rose dramatically from 2ËšF to 40ËšF within a few hours.

Awaiting transfer to Purity’s processing plant a few blocks away stood a tank holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses weighing 14,000 tons (28,000,000 pounds of molasses).  The four-year-old storage tank stood 50 feet tall and was 90 feet in diameter.  At 12:40 PM, without warning, this tank collapsed in a horrific booming that was felt blocks away.  The rivets popping from the tank’s skin as it crumpled was described as rapid-fire as machine-gunning, and the rumbling led many to believe a train was passing, shaking the ground.


Devastation along the Charles River frontCredit: Boston Globe, 1919

Unlike water, the wave that spewed forth from this tank did not subside and recede.  Traveling at an estimated 35 miles per hour a wall of partially fermented molasses, starting out at 40 feet high then settling to a height from 8 to 15 feet tall, shot out radially from the tank’s epicenter.

The devastation from this sticky sweetener was immediate and total – the warehouse on the Charles River shore was flattened instantly as were the Purity offices due south of the tank.  Immediately to the east was a firehouse (#31) that was heavily damaged.  The wall of syrup twisted the steel superstructure of a section of Boston’s elevated railway, and the police station (near the firehouse) was also damaged.


collapsed structures & damaged El trestle (Jan 1919)Credit: public domain

A description of the event is horrific and hard to comprehend:

“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.”

How could such an innocuous substance such as molasses bring such destruction? 

The wave surged into a residential area, knocking down houses, trapping people inside, and also sweeping pedestrians along to suffocate and drown in the morass.  Others sustained injuries fromMap of north Boston showing affected sitesCredit: wiki commons eddying debris.  Buildings were swept off their foundations, and neighborhoods nearby were left with a sea of molasses about 2 feet deep in the streets.  Photographs of the time show fire and rescue workers standing calf deep in liquid near a collapsed house – the standing fluid is not water, it is molasses.

Concurrently, the sudden collapse of the tank had caused a brief vacuum to form where it had stood; the rush of air under high pressure resulted in a whirlwind emanating from ground zero.  This sweet-smelling gust carried debris which injured many.  A truck was blown into Boston Harbor.  The sickly-sweet cloying syrup burbled along, all 2.3 million gallons of it, until the energy of the tank collapse dissipated.   When the molasses stopped flowing, wherever it came to rest were puddles, ponds, and rivulets of sweetness.

When the tide ceased, about 150 people had been severely injured.  Twenty-one died in the molasses flood as well as several horses and dogs caught in the streets.   The Boston Globe reported on a typical experience of one who survived:

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 four sisters staring at him.

Pass the Syrup
Hampered by the goop, the first relief workers were 116 cadets sent in from a training ship docked near the site of the tank collapse.  Their first order of business was crowd control – most people were in a sort of shock, having little or no clue what had just hit them.  Other rescuers arrived and began wading into the muck to free people weighed down and trapped like flies in a honey pot.
devastation aftermath (Jan 1919)Credit: bostonglobe.com 

Police, Red Cross workers, and Army and Navy recruits arrived to assist.  Because of the number of injured along the waterfront (most hard hit) a makeshift hospital was set up in a nearby building that was relatively stable.  Difficulties in reaching the victims were obvious – wading through waist deep molasses was almost impossible.  Many victims would not be found until several days later when the syrup had settled further.  Some discovered afterward were so heavily glazed with the syrup that they were unrecognizable.


Fire & rescue workers calf deep in molasses (Jan 1919)Credit: public domain

The clean-up was surprisingly fast simply because of the number of volunteers and rescue workers on hand.  Over 300 people spent two weeks scraping, mopping, plowing, dabbing, whatever they could to clear Boston’s cobblestone streets of molasses.  Buildings had to be hosed down.  Cars, swept away Firhouse # 31 (near tank implosion, damage, Jan 1919)Credit: public domainin the initial wave, first had to be found, then righted and cleaned.  Businesses such as swamped theaters and retail outlets had to be swabbed out as well.  Seepage into the harbor gave it and the nearby Charles River a brownish tint lasting until the summer of 1919.

The Purity Distilling Company elected not to replace the tank; instead the property on whihc it had sat went to the city’s mass transit system as a rail yard.  Today, the site is a public baseball field.

The element of surprise in such an accident, of course, left more questions than answers.  The first thing was to find the cause of the tank collapse.  Theories abounded: Purity Distilling had overfilled the tank in anticipation of the pending Volstead Act (Prohibition) and that caused the tank to collapse.  This is false – Purity did not make spirits for consumption; the alcohol it made was industrial grade for manufacturing and would have been exempt from Prohibition restrictions on alcohol production.

Another theory held that the molasses, partially fermented, had produced sufficient carbon dioxide to cause the tank to blow out under pressure caused by the rise in temperatures.  This, too, is unlikely – the tank imploded, not exploded, indicative more of a structural failure than from spontaneous internal combustion.

Best evidence supports that the tank collapse was due to a combination of factors.  A manhole cover near its base had a stress fracture in it, and the sudden change in temperature could have exacerbated this.  The tank, though built for its capacity, had only been filled to that level eight times in its life.  Thus, the irregular cycling of larger volumes of molasses would have stressed the skin and rivets. 

The key contributor, though, was the tank had been of slip-shod construction.  An inquiry later revealed the construction supervisor had not tested the tank for leaks by filling it with water before it was brought into general use for molasses storage (a substance much denser than water).  The tank leaked so badly after it was first filled with molasses that Purity had it painted brown to hide the flaws.  Local residents often freely collected leaking syrup from the tank’s skin for home use.

Bostonians affected by the molasses flood sued the parent of Purity Distilling in one of the first class-action suits ever brought in Massachusetts.  The company’s position was that anarchists had blown the tank up (there was absolutely no basis for this claim).  After three separate hearings (spanning six years and more than 3,000 witness testimonies), United States Industrial Alcohol Company was found responsible, and by agreement, $600,000 was paid in out-of-court settlements (roughly $7 million dollars today).

The human victims ranged in age from 10 to 76 years old.  The irony, of course, is that some things, even the sweetest, can kill.  Many restaurants feature a decadent dessert called “Death by Chocolate”.  The horror and cold reality of the literal molasses deaths of 1919 could certainly rival any metaphoric death by overindulgence.


Aftermath (Jan 1919)Credit: celebrateboston.com

Author’s note: There is a persistent myth that this section of Boston still smells of molasses.  That is a lie.  Having visited the site personally on more than one occasion under differing weather conditions, it is without a doubt wishful thinking on the part of the “smeller”; the air carries the scent of the city and the sea’s breeze.  It carries no odor of molasses.


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