The Boston Molassecre

Boston Public Library Boston Post Report
The Boston Post’s headline the following day. Photo Credit: Boston Public LIbrary

Note from the author: We’re interrupting our witchcraft filled schedule to bring you a piece of odd history from my home state. Consider it a morbidly sweet, 100th Post special treat.

Corporate greed can often lead to some sticky situations, but only once has it caused a literal 25 foot high wave of molasses. The resulting catastrophe killed 21 people and leveled buildings in Boston’s North End on January 15th, 1919.

Molasses[1] is a byproduct of sugar refinement, and in addition to its more expected role as a cooking sweetener the viscous goo can be the primary ingredient in alcohols like rum. It was in this capacity that the United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) company had built a massive storage container for the stuff at their facility near Boston’s North End train yards in 1915. USIA was in a rush. By 1916, 23 states had already enacted laws that banned saloons or alcohol entirely, and the campaign for a Constitutional amendment was already well underway to ban sale nationally. While USIA had a license to ferment and sell alcohol for industrial applications, they also owned a distillery in East Cambridge. With prohibition on the horizon, the distillery was their philosopher’s stone, turning molasses into hard alcoholic cash. From 1916 to 1919 the 50 foot high, 2.5 million gallon tank was filled and emptied close to the thirty times, hitting capacity four times.

North_End_molasses_tank
The tank looming ominously over the dockyards. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Right from the start the tank was not up to the stresses imposed on it. Even by the lax construction laws of the time its steel hull was at least 50 percent too thin. Basic safety tests had also been ignored, like filling the tank with water after construction to check for leaks. Nor could the company really plead ignorance, not that this would stop them from trying when all was said and done. When the tank began to spring leaks the company’s response was to repaint it from blue to red-brown to hide the seeping molasses.

USIA likely felt this was all they would have to do. The North End was one of the most densely populated areas of the city, but its estimated 77,000 inhabitants were primarily lower class first and second generation Italian immigrants. Environmental justice, even by the standards of the era, was in short supply. If something happened, USIA must have reasoned the victims would likely be ignored.

With the molasses flowing in and the alcohol selling out, by 1919 USIA was buying treacle as fast as they could. On July 13th they bought 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico and loaded the tank to near capacity again. By bad coincidence the weather was unseasonably warm for several days, and the new molasses had not cooled to air temperature when it arrived. As it expanded, the molasses put greater pressure on the crack already spreading at the tank’s midseam. On the 15th, it hit the breaking point. The rivets went first, shooting out of the tank with a sound witnesses compared to machine gun fire. Then the entire tank ripped apart and 26 million pounds of molasses roared down Commercial Street at 35 miles an hour.

Boston_1919_molasses_disaster_-_el_train_structure
The wave narrowly missed swiping down an entire train, which likely would have dramatically raised the body count. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The wave of molasses was strong enough to rip apart buildings and power lines, and even dented the girders of the Boston Elevated Railway. Anyone luckless enough to be in the street at the time was just as caught in the molasses, which was when the real horror of the tragedy struck. In a tidal wave or tsunami, the big danger to human life is the speed of the current or the chance of smashing into the debris the water is carrying. If the current is not overwhelming, it is possible to swim to the surface or pull free from the waves. But the molasses wave on a still chilly January day quickly cooled from near liquid to viscous nightmare.[2] Less water, more roach motel, it stuck to its victims, pulling them under and filling their mouths with a sticky sweetness they could not expel. Men and women would slip and drown thrashing in just a few feet of clinging molasses, like mosquitos trapped in amber.

The scene for the first responders was horrifying:

“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.”[3]

BostonMolassesDisaster Globe Newspaper
Scene at the Cleanup. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Cleaning up the mess was the worst thing this side of a major oil spill, and took over 87,000 man hours. Rescuers eventually resorted to blasting the mixture with seawater to flush it into the drains, staining Boston Harbor a deep brown for the remainder of the summer. Even spotting the dead humans and animals could be a challenge. Everything blended into the brown nightmare at the feet of the responders. In addition to the 21 fatalities, more than 150 injured were dragged to a makeshift infirmary hastily established on site. Adjusted for inflation the damage amounted to more than a hundred million dollars. The smell would linger for years.

Equally enduring would be the resulting six year legal battle. As might be expected in the aftermath of a disaster that leveled several city blocks more than 120 lawsuits were filed, eventually combined into one class action lawsuit against USIA. The company’s first response was to blame anarchists for the disaster, claiming someone had bombed the tank. The idea was transparently desperate, but at least rooted in the boogeymen of the day. Anarchists had actually bombed a USIA facility in New York City during the war[4], and more than 40 bombs had gone off in Boston in the previous year. The racial element was also a strong root of USIA’s argument, as the Italian community was home to some of the most vocal elements of anarchism in Boston. But in spite of flinging more than fifty thousand dollars at ‘expert’ witnesses to put some flesh on their anarchist ghost, Colonel Hugh Ogden, the auditor of the lawsuit, did not buy it. Even laying out the logic of the case put the lie to,

“a mythical anarchist climbing at high noon up the side of a fifty-foot tank, in the heart of a busy city, with hundreds of people about…. dropping in the manhole a mythical bomb after lighting the fuse, and then disappearing down the side of the tank in perfect peace and safely”.[5]

Current Boston Molasses Flood
The site of the wave overlaid on a map of modern day Boston. Yes, we’re aware the North End is no longer an accurate term. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Nor did Ogden buy USIA’s hastily cobbled second excuse, that internal fermentation in the tank had caused the explosion organically. Instead, court examination of USIA’s treasurer Arthur Jell laid out the picture of corporate greed and gross incompetence. The tank had never been stress tested, nor had anyone with technical expertise ever inspected it. Even the type of steel used in the construction was too brittle for the volume it held. All of these were things that could have been easily avoided. Ogden ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, forcing USIA to pay out close to a million dollars in restitution to the victims. By breakdown this was about seven thousand dollars per family. While this was hardly earth shattering, for an era where corporations won 85 percent of lawsuits[6] and even appearing anti-capitalist could earn a deportation or a jail term this was a shock. Even if the White House administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover would mark the 20’s with a blank check and a blind eye to corporate greed, the Boston Molasses Disaster ruling showed that corporations could be held accountable for planting a goo bomb in the most densely populated part of a city. It also helped prompt cities like Boston to pass new zoning ordinances and professional inspection requirements to mitigate a repeat performance.

The molasses wave remains a bit of a niche story, likely because the thought of a double digit molasses related body count is almost too strange to comprehend.[7] But it’s a remarkable moment in human history with plenty of lessons for today. The least of which is that 2.3 million gallons of sugar is bad for human health. More pointedly it’s that regulations exist for a reason, and that a bottom line is likely worth more to a corporation in the short term than the human suffering inflicted along the way. It is also more likely that the consequences of capital gains will be made at the expense of the lower class and minority communities already facing discrimination. Small wonder that after the disaster Boston’s Italian community began to organize into the political voting bloc to force change and recognition for the North End from the city’s leadership. That the same setup has happened again, and again, to disastrous effect in places like Minamata in the 1950’s, or Bhopal in 1984, is a reminder that global free markets have had disastrous consequences for human and environmental health.

[1] Also known by the more nightmarish term: black treacle.

[2] Fluid dynamics and structural experts have been fascinated by this disaster ever since. How molasses could kill and injure so many people and animals takes a pretty deep understanding of non-Newtonian materials.

[3] Puleo, S. 2003. Dark Tide: The Boston Molasses Disaster

[4] Alcohol also plays a role in arms production.

[5] Puleo 2003

[6] A standard that has, if anything, favored corporations over victims even more these days. Currently the Republican controlled Congress is attempting to misuse an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act to reverse a consumer protection rule that would prevent companies from blocking class action suits.

[7] Not that some engineers and writers don’t adore the story. Two studies in the last two years attempted to simulate just precisely how the molasses tank collapsed and why it was so deadly.

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