As genealogists often do, I found myself wandering through a cemetery on my vacation. This particular cemetery was in Boston’s North End, an area that has seen much of U.S. history, and the headstones were riddled with evidence to prove it.
Understandably, one who is strolling through a grave site armed with wax, rubbing paper, cameras, a few pieces of Sees’ candy and an excited look on his face might come off as odd. People often ask what it is I am doing, and I am happy to explain. This time, however, I was approached by someone who didn’t want to interrogate me, but instead share a bit of local history (which for me, is always welcome).
We were standing on a burial site so naturally the conversation topic was death. The friendly stranger regaled me with stories from her long line of Bostonian ancestry, how they were buried in this cemetery, owned homes around the corner, and were instrumental in many of Boston’s achievements throughout the generations. Among her rather impressive recollection of famous deaths in her family tree, she mentioned an event that I was not familiar with: the Boston Molasses Disaster. The curiosity on my face was obvious enough that she interrupted her story to exclaim:
“Oh yes! America’s sweetest tragedy! A 40 foot tall wave of molten molasses poured through the streets, tearing down steel structures and leaving many dead in its path! Even now, you can still smell the molasses on a hot summer day…”
While the event received only a mere mention in her family history, I was determined to look it up, partially because I felt she was exaggerating facts, but also because I was fascinated. How could a seemingly harmless ingredient both make the candy in my pocket AND wreak gruesome havoc on the largest city of New England? Did my ancestors witness the “molten molasses wave,” or maybe even suffer injuries from it? If they had, I would definitely find out. I knew the chances were slim, but it’s these little historical treasures that often reinvigorate our seemingly endless family history research. Either way, I’d be learning about my heritage and one of the stranger moments in our country’s history.
As a historian and a fan of the unusual, I will portray the following occurrences as a unique event and not so much a tragedy. I have the utmost respect for the lives lost and families hurt during the flood. However, due to the imagery and high caloric content, the Boston Molasses Disaster goes on my list with the Great London Beer Flood and the India Ketchup Drownings - intriguing food based incidents.
On January 15, 1919, exactly 94 years ago today, it was a cold Wednesday in the North End neighborhood of Boston. Near Kearny Square at 529 Commercial Street, was the Purity Distilling Company’s largest molasses tank – a monolith that stood 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter containing 2.3 million gallons of the viscous sugar byproduct waiting to be transferred to a purity plant. While molasses was the standard sweetener in the U.S. at the time, the company was actually fermenting the molasses to produce rum and ethyl alcohol, the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages and key to the manufacturing of munitions.
Due to poor construction and lack of proper maintenance, the buildup of carbon dioxide from fermentation caused the tank to explode through a crack near the base of the tank. Urban legend states that the faulty tank had been overfilled in the previous year to produce as much rum as possible before prohibition came into effect – I prefer to believe the urban legend.
As to not dilute the experience with my own words, here are some firsthand accounts:
“At about 12:30, with a sound described as a sort of muffled roar, the giant molasses tank came apart. It seemed to rise and then split, the rivets popping in a way that reminded many ex-soldiers of machine-gun fire. And then a wet, brown hell broke loose, flooding downtown Boston. Spill a jar of kitchen molasses. Then imagine an estimated 14,000 tons of the thick, sticky fluid running wild. It left the ruptured tank in a choking brown wave, 15 feet high, wiping out everything that stood in its way. One steel section of the tank was hurled across Commercial Street, neatly knocking out one of the uprights supporting the El. An approaching train screeched to a stop just as the track ahead sagged into the onrushing molasses.” – Reporter, Boston Globe
“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” - Author Stephen Puleo
Anthony di Stasio, a young child on his way home from school claimed to be “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 sisters staring at him. (Another sister had been killed.) They had found little Anthony stretched under a sheet on the "dead" side of a body-littered floor.”
“The death toll kept rising, day after day. Two bodies showed up four days after the tank burst. They were so battered and glazed over by the molasses that identification was difficult. The final count was 21 dead, 150 injured, a number of horses killed. The molasses wave, after spreading out, covered several blocks of downtown Boston to a depth of two or three feet. Although rescue equipment was quick to arrive on the scene, vehicles and rescue workers on foot could barely get through the clinging muck that filled the streets.” Reporter, Boston Globe
It turns out that the woman was right… mostly. Maybe the wave wasn’t 40 feet tall but molasses was a killer that day, buildings were torn down and many were hurt. And it is true – Boston still has a lingering sweet smell on a hot day. The flood has definitely earned its title as “America’s sweetest tragedy.”
Despite the trouble identifying victims due to molasses’ glaze effect, those who died were well documented and I am not related to any of them. None the less, my ancestors were living in the area at the time and were likely affected. This means it is also likely they would find offence in the number of sugar-themed literary devices throughout this post. Hopefully my family tradition of humor ran strong in them as well.