Eighty-three years ago today, Bostonians were enjoying unseasonably warm weather. The temperature had shot up forty degrees in three days, allowing lunching workers near North End Park to doff their jackets. Little did they know that they were about to be swept up in American history’s most laughable urban disaster. An huge industrial tank was about to explode, sending a "roaring wall of death" down Commonwealth Avenue with a "a horrible, hissing, sucking sound." January 15, 1919, was the day of a "wet, brown hell" was unleashed, the day of the Great Boston Molasses Flood. It sounds like an urban legend, but contemporary reports make it clear that it was no joke. The tank held almost two and a half million gallons of molasses, roughly fourteen thousand tons. When it ruptured, molasses sprayed out with a pressure of several thousand pounds per square inch at an estimated speed of 35 miles per hour and leveled several city blocks. Amazingly enough, the Boston Molasses Flood was not the only molasses flood of the twentieth century, not even the only American one. In 1911, a New Orleans tank of molasses burst, sending six hundred thousand gallons streaming down Market Street and thrilling passersby. But where the London Beer Flood of 1814 killed a mere eight people, the Boston Molasses Flood injured 150 and killed 21. And where there are deaths, injuries, a deep-pocketed defendant like the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, and blocks of devestated real estate that smelled like gingerbread, there are lawsuits. Over a hundred were filed. Three thousand witnesses gave testimony over almost a year of hearings. Why did the tank give way? No one today is totally sure; then, as now, plenty of people were willing to assign blame, especially when money is on the line. In those Red Scare days, when a man could be thrown in jail for admiring Lenin, accusing anarchist saboteurs of attempting to destroy a valuable resource must have seemed like a good approach, so the defendants attempted to demonstrate that only a bomb could have destroyed their holding tank.
Molasses has a long and storied history in the Americas; as part of the triangle trade, molasses had helped build the commercial fortunes of New England. It’s been a part of Boston’s regional cooking for centuries. Despite the fine tradition of molasses in Boston baked beans and Boston brown bread, this molasses was intended for finer things. This molasses was meant for distilling to make industrial ethanol (for military clients; thus the tank’s appeal as a target to the notional anarchists) and, of course, rum.
The courts eventually found that the tank had been made too cheaply; it wasn’t structurally sound for the amount of molasses it was holding. (The rapid rise in temperature and possible fermentation of the molasses in the tank didn’t help.) There was too much molasses in the tank because the owners needed to distill it in a hurry. History was being made on a more national scale in January, 1919. As one account of the disaster puts it, the next day those cleaning the ruins found that
the place stinks, not so much from the molasses as from the rotting horse flesh all around. At one point the workers pause, puzzled by the sudden ringing of church bells in downtown Boston. We find out later that it’s to celebrate the fact that Nebraska has ratified the 18th Amendment, officially bringing in Prohibition.
Prohibition would catapult organized crime into prominence, raise the homicide rate, and lead thousands to die after drinking poisonous bootleg liquor, but at least one thing went right. For those fourteen years — and ever since — Boston has been safe from death by blackstrap.