originally published June 10, 2013
I know – 1919 was a very different age. Morals were gauged by what now seems an antiquated perspective, cultural dynamics were driven by significantly different forces, and the very fundamental tenets of American life existed within parameters and motivations that would have been radically different than those which we know today. People lived under different fears: a mass-murdering influenza, a broken post-global-war world, anarchist bombings and a violent civil war down in Mexico.
But I bet if you asked anybody back then whether they suspected they might perish in a deluge of molasses, the answer would be the same as today.
“Are you high?”
But in Boston, this messed-up scene that would belong more at the end of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie than in a history book actually happened. In hindsight we call it the Boston Molasses Disaster.
Molasses is, as we all know, a sticky and gooey liquid, known for its sweet bite and for being a go-to comparison for someone who is slow-moving. Back in the early 20th century, before our collective addiction to high fructose corn syrup, and certainly before the rise of stevia, Nutrasweet, sucralose and such, molasses topped the charts of American sweeteners. Not only did was it the preferred ingredient for cookies, baked goods and penny candy back when there was such a thing, but it could be distilled to make rum or get packed into munitions.
Molasses was a huge money-maker, and the Purity Distilling Company was keeping their cash-counting machines humming in the North End neighborhood of Boston. In January of 1919, months before the shadow of Prohibition was even haunting the horizon, Purity was set to ship a large haul of the sticky goo over to their Cambridge plant to be made into ethanol. It was a noble mission for a liquid, but one that would turn sour at 12:30 in the afternoon of January 15.
That’s an after-photo of a nearby Boston Elevated Railway track, which was decimated when one of Purity’s molasses tanks exploded. We’re not talking about one side of the tank giving way or collapsing like an eggshell. Rivets flew from the tank and with a rumble that shook the earth, the 2.3 million gallon tank blew. The wave of molasses that emerged was anywhere between eight and fifteen feet high, and this molasses was not content to behave like trickling honey-esque sludge; this was molasses on a mission, jetting from its cocoon at 35mph. That’s faster than most cars could drive back then, and certainly faster than anyone could run.
The train track at Atlantic Avenue didn’t stand a chance. Nearby buildings, including the offices of the Purity Distilling Company, were swept off their foundations and demolished. A truck was shoved on a brown sticky wave right into Boston Harbor. Horses were pulled under, unable to struggle free. Men, women and children tried to race to safety, but one slip could land one with a mouth full of heavy molasses, which would be rather difficult to spit out whilst running.
If the rush of air or debris from the blast didn’t do enough damage, the molasses ran waist-deep along Commercial Street. The Army, Navy, police and Red Cross all shot to the scene, treating survivors who had inhaled some of the sticky syrup and searching for bodies. In total, 21 people were killed and over 150 injured in one of the strangest disasters in American history.
It took more than two weeks for the initial cleanup, and over 87,000 man-hours to restore this chunk of the North End back to livable condition. Boston Harbor remained brown with molasses through the summer. The tank was never rebuilt and Purity silently shuffled off the corporate stage, but the people of Boston still wanted to know who was responsible.
The company tried to blame anarchists. Always the scapegoats, those anarchists. It took a three-year court-appointed audit to determine that the Purity Distilling Company was responsible. The temperatures had risen sharply from freezing to well above in the days leading up to the blast, which may have caused the molasses to begin fermentation, thus increasing the pressure in the tank. It also didn’t help that Arthur Jell, the guy who oversaw the tank’s construction, cut some corners. For example, he didn’t test the tank for leaks. When it was found that the tank did indeed have some porous spots, rather than empty it and fix it, Purity simply painted the whole thing brown and hoped no one would notice.
It’s a nightmare no brain would have even thought to concoct. After months of scrubbing clean cobblestone streets and burying bodies that were scarcely recognizable under layers of hardened syrup, the city was still far from recovered. Every trace of the Purity Distilling Company was dismantled, and the site is now home to Langone Park, featuring a little league baseball field, a playground and bocce courts. A plaque commemorates the disaster, and that’s all.
Strangely enough, this isn’t the first time an unexpected liquid turned into a monstrous killing machine. I hate to say it, but the other liquid culprit to commit mass murder is none other than my dear friend and lifelong companion… beer.
No one knows how it started, but anyone hovering near the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in London on October 16, 1814 would have been in for the surprise of their lives. A large vat containing over 135,000 imperial gallons of beer toppled over into another one, beginning a domino effect that launched over 323,000 gallons of sweet frothy nectar into the streets.
The brewery was located in a rather poor part of London known as the St. Giles Rookery. Shoddy construction – certainly not built with protection against tidal waves of beer in mind – led to two houses collapsing and the near obliteration of the Tavistock Arms Pub. Families lived in the basements of these homes, and they were taken aback when suddenly forced to swim for their lives amid an onslaught of bubbly brew. Eight were killed, either by collapsing walls or by drowning.
This time the company behind the mess survived – the brewery wasn’t shut down until 1922.
I suppose if there’s any lesson to be learned from this, apart from “build things properly”, it’s that you should always be on the lookout for the unexpected. Don’t underestimate the slow, sticky types – they can kill as swiftly as a vicious storm or an outbreak of killer bees.
Something to ponder over your next sweet cookie.