Those strolling through the streets of Boston on that fateful afternoon recalled that it was unusually warm for the winter season. In retrospect, this detail made the bizarre tragedy of that day somehow sickeningly worse.
It was an uncharacteristically balmy day on January 15th, 1919. Policeman Frank McManus was patrolling the city’s industrial North End when he glanced up Commercial St. After taking a split second to truly register what he was seeing, he frantically called it in. An immense wave of darkness up to 20 ft. tall was pouring down upon the city at a terrifying 35 miles per hour. A cheap, untested structure that leaked from day one, the second-rate molasses tank had burst. 2.3 million gallons of syrupy ruination was barrelling down in what would become known as one of the most freakishly grotesque disasters of the 20th century.
A substance usually thought of as a baking sweetener, molasses at this volume and rate of speed created a nightmare so gruesome it’s difficult to imagine. The viscous surge of treacle roared through the streets, smashing everything in its path and leaving a suffocating glaze over everything it touched. Power lines came down and live wires crackled; helpless horses tethered in the streets were swallowed up whole as they struggled to escape.
Those who managed to avoid the flood had to also survive the missiles of munitions–the tank itself had literally exploded, and shrapnel and bolts shot from its poorly-built carriage like bullets. The poor saps unfortunate enough to be in a basement or the first floor of a building were doomed. As the unstoppable surge quickly overtook them, it filled their mouths and noses, slowly suffocating them in candy-coated agony. 21 citizens of Boston died that in that nightmarish fashion, and 150 more were found injured once all was accounted for. Due to the victims being completely coated in sticky sugary doom, this was not an easy process. Who were the inhuman scoundrels that allowed this industrial travesty of a holding tank occur? How could this happen, and who was storing 2.3 million gallons of a semi-popular sweetener in town anyway?
Molasses is a baking staple in many households, but no one is making that many cookies; It just so happens that molasses is also a staple in the creation of ethanol fermentation, which supplies naughty libations as well as being a key component in the making of munitions. The scoundrels who allowed this to happen? The as-of-yet unregulated United States Industrial Alcohol Company.
Death by molasses was a first, one of many firsts involving the woeful event. It also produced one of the first class action lawsuits the first huge law decision against a major corporation, and the first indication that those corporations might need some moral guidance from a government agency, an undertaking that forever changed the relationship between government and big business.
Contributed by Odd Salon Partner Rachel James, who spoke about the Molasses Flood at Odd Salon FAILURE
Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo – Goodreads
The Great Molasses Flood: Boston,1919, by Deborah Kops – Goodreads
Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year, by Michael Farquhar – Goodreads