Today marks a big disaster anniversary in our region: the centennial anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood of January 15, 1919, which killed 21 people, injured 150, and laid waste to several blocks of the North End of Boston. I don’t really have much to add to the narrative of events of that day, but I feel like weighing in anyway, primarily because this tragedy is the perfect example of unmoored history, lacking context and consequently inhibiting understanding for many. There’s a great book about this event (Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: the Great Molasses Flood of 1919) but whenever you bring it up in general company, people generally smile or laugh because molasses is trivial in our society; it’s akin to people being drowned—-or smothered?—in jello. But molasses was a major industrial product in 1919, recognized simultaneously as both beneficial and potentially dangerous but above all, vital. And when you look at what happened on January 15, 1919 with a historical perspective, it’s possible to see both major precedents and consequences.
Headlines and pictures from the day after in the Boston Daily Globe and the Boston Herald: “Red Cross Ambulance and Nurses making their way through the River of Molasses”, Boston Public Library.
Molasses was not only much more integrated into our cuisine a hundred years ago, but its importance in alcohol production had intensified with the increasing demand for industrial alcohol, which entered a golden age of production following the passage of the 1906 Denatured Alcohol Act, permitting the production and sale of tax-free alcohol for industrial purposes. The author of The Practical Handbook on the Distillation of Alcohol from Farm Products, including the processes of malting : mashing and macerating : fermenting and distilling alcohol from grain, beets, potatoes, molasses, etc., with chapters of alcoholometry and the denaturing of alcohol…., issued the year before the Great Molasses Flood, cannot contain it his enthusiasm for this development, which “opened the door of a new market for the farmer and the manufacturer”, as Alcohol leaped at once into fame—not merely as the humble servant of the pocket lamp, nor as the Demon Rum, but as a substitute for all the cheap hydrocarbon fuels, and as a new farm product, a new means for turning the farmer’s grain, fruit, potatoes, etc…into that greatest of all Powers, Money. Molasses had long been lauded as feed for cattle, horses, and poultry, but now its uses seemed limitless, in everything from road construction to the manufacture of varnishes, paints, and munitions. The 1907 act provoked a wave of hastily-built distilleries, such as the Boston tank owned and “maintained” by the Purity Distilling Company, which began leaking almost immediately after its construction in 1915 and finally burst open four years later. But the North End flood was not the first molasses disaster: it wasn’t difficult to find stories of exploding tanks and bursting hogsheads in the first few decades of the twentieth century—and just in the Boston papers. There are far more stories about the “adulteration” of molasses, however (generally with tin): and thus it is easy to understand how regulation, of industrial construction, production, and labor, would emerge as a major consequence of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
Molasses accidents in March of 1908 and December, 1911 reported in the Boston Journal; report of adulterated molasses (one of many!), Boston Herald, June, 1886.
The Great Molasses Flood & Fluid Dynamics: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/science/boston-molasses-flood-science.html.
The Great Molasses Flood & “Misunderstood History”: https://www.masshist.org/calendar/event?event=2762