100 Years Later: Remembering Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city's North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later.

While most of us probably think of molasses as a tasty ingredient in treats like gingerbread, the sticky stuff has quite a few other uses. With a little know-how, one can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol fairly easily, and the Purity Distilling Company had built the gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations.

The steel tank was enormous: 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. (Although Prohibition kicked in with Nebraska’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment the very next day after the 1919 disaster, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, Purity Distilling’s parent company, still had a license to distill alcohol for industrial applications.)


By Unknown - Anthony Mitchell Sammarco. Boston's North End. Arcadia Publishing, 2004, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The massive tank was nearly full on January 15, thanks to a recent infusion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A shockingly destructive force

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds like something from a cartoon, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 miles per hour, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings off of their foundations. The molasses snapped the support girders from an elevated train track and smashed multiple houses. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’s website claimed the property damage alone totaled around $100 million in today’s dollars.

The human cost of the disaster was even more grim. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. The flood claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to slog through waist-deep goo to reach victims.


Boston Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2 million gallons of molasses is no small task. In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of buildings and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via people's shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man-hours.

The Blame Game

How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early 20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. Modern studies have found that the tank walls were both too thin and made of a steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses.

The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and as cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.

The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage towards the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3,000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7,000 to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.

This story originally appeared in 2011.

New Book Provides an Intimate Look at the Handwriting of Freud, Marie Antoinette, and Other Historical Figures

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Handwriting analysts would have a field day with TASCHEN's latest book. Titled The Magic of Handwriting, the 464-page tome offers a rare glimpse into the intimate lives and correspondences of some of the most well-known names in history.

In modern times, handwriting is a dying art, which makes it all the more meaningful to see nearly 900 years' worth of writing preserved in vivid detail in the book. A letter penned a year before the French Revolution shows Marie Antoinette’s neat signature written in small letters. In contrast, French writer Marcel Proust’s handwritten manuscripts were frantically scrawled on whatever scraps of paper he could find. Charlie Chaplin sometimes included a sketch of his signature hat and cane while signing autographs, and Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota leader who was known for his courage in battle, dotted his i’s with what look like hearts or v's.

A signed picture of Sitting Bull
TASCHEN

A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
A letter signed by Marie Antoinette
TASCHEN

A manuscript handwritten by Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust's writing
TASCHEN

These artifacts come from the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and curator who has acquired thousands of handwritten letters, manuscripts, autographed photos, and musical compositions over the years. The book features over 100 items from his collection, which also went on display last year at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

In addition to displaying different styles of handwriting, the book also highlights little-known facts about historical figures and insight into their personality. There’s a handwritten invoice from Sigmund Freud, who charged one client 2000 schillings (nearly $500 in 1934, or roughly $9400 today) for 20 hours of psychoanalysis. When his patient tried to negotiate a lower price, Freud reportedly replied, “I am still forced to make a living. I cannot do more than five hours of analysis daily; and I do not know how much longer I shall work at it.”

An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
An invoice signed by Sigmund Freud
TASCHEN

Ernest Hemingway’s snark is on full display in a “Who’s Who” questionnaire he filled out for the publishing firm Scribner’s in 1930. Under the career section, he merely replied “yes." Under "hobbies," he listed skiing, fishing, shooting, and drinking.

For more stories like these, order a copy of The Magic of Handwriting from TASCHEN’s website or Amazon.

A cover of the book 'The Magic of Handwriting'
TASCHEN

15 Fascinating Facts About Victoria

Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

While The Crown may nab the bigger headlines, Victoria—the Masterpiece series that similarly follows a young-and-not-quite-ready royal’s ascension to England’s throne—beat Netflix’s pricey TV series to the air by more than two months. Though it was originally intended as a one-off miniseries, the show—about the early days of Queen Victoria’s reign—just kicked off its third season. To celebrate, we've gathered up some behind-the-scenes facts about the gorgeous, Buckingham Palace-set period piece.

1. Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who to take the lead in Victoria.

In 2015, Jenna Coleman surprised Whovians everywhere when she announced that she was leaving Doctor Who after three years on the series, where she served as a companion to both the Eleventh (Matt Smith) and Twelfth (Peter Capaldi) Doctors. Almost as soon as her departure from Doctor Who was confirmed, her casting as the lead in Victoria was announced. Not long after Coleman made her debut as Queen Victoria, her former Doctor Who co-star, Matt Smith, began his two-year stint as Prince Philip on The Crown.

2. Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke was among the actresses rumored to be vying for the lead role.

Victoria was originally meant to air as a single eight-part miniseries (its popularity is what led to a second season … and then a third). Because the time commitment wasn’t so intense, a number of well-known actors’ names were being tossed around as potential stars for the project. Among them? Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke and Downton Abbey’s Lily James.

3. Coleman was given access to Queen Victoria’s personal diaries.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

In order to better help her get into the mindset of her character, Coleman was given access to Victoria’s private diaries. “I’ve read so many biographies, but I’m always looking for certain details which give me access to her character and her psychology,” Coleman told Vulture in 2017. “Her diaries are so methodological in a lot of ways. You can find out what she ate for breakfast and what time she did this and what time she rose and what time she did everything. The detail is crazy.”

4. Queen Victoria was an avid sketcher, which was enormously helpful to Coleman.

In addition to writing down even the most mundane details of her day, Victoria was an avid sketcher. Gaining access to the Queen's doodles gave Coleman an even deeper insight into Victoria's mind. “She sketched and had done watercolors since she was about five or six years old,” Coleman told Vulture. “You can see what she used to draw and what interested her from a really young age, and that probably gave me the best sense of her psyche. It’s been totally untouched. Nobody has been able to distort her views with her own eyes and her hands. It’s unfiltered in every way so they’re really, really interesting.” (You can see some of those sketches for yourself here.)

5. Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne's relationship was complicated.

Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne (played by Rufus Sewell) is one of the series’ most dynamic and touching. And while it plays out as somewhat of one-sided love affair in season one, the truth wasn’t quite as romantic. Though she was sometimes referred to as “Mrs. Melbourne” in a mocking manner because of the prime minister's influence over the young queen, their relationship was more like a parental one.

“What’s so wonderful about Lord M and Victoria’s relationship is that it was the prime minister and the queen. It was dear friends,” Coleman told Vulture. “She was 18; he was technically 56 at the time. They made each other laugh. They were like father and daughter in many, many ways. You really can’t quite put a label on it, other than it’s two people who really connect and charm each other through mutual likes and interests. They had a really profound love, but what that love technically was is unclear … I think he was the first person who didn’t try to manipulate her and didn’t try to control her. He really gave her a voice so the trust between them was genuine and two-way. They went through a lot together. He was the person who guided her and shaped her and trained her for the first couple of years on the throne."

6. Keeping the child actors entertained can be a challenge.

Over the course of their marriage, Victoria and Albert had nine children together. So as the series has gone on, the number of babies and children on set has grown. Writing for Marie Claire, series creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that keeping the youngsters entertained can require some creative solutions:

"One of the tricks we use is to dress their mothers up as nursemaids to keep them right at their side—but sometimes the kids just won’t play ball. In one episode, Victoria comes home after a trip to Scotland and rushes in all excited to see the children, but they didn’t even turn round to look at her. A bag of sweets later, we got them at least to look up when their 'Mother' walked in."

7. Coleman likes playing a pregnant Queen best.

Queen Victoria famously loathed being pregnant, which we witness in the series. She “absolutely hated it,” Coleman told Town & Country. “She called it ‘being caught’ … [E]very time she gave birth to a child, it took her out of being able to be Queen. Each time that happened, she was being more and more and more removed. And she’s an impatient person; she doesn’t like being told to lie down. She just wanted to do her job. She had this exhilaration and love for her independence, I suppose. And she hated breastfeeding; she thought it was for cows, not for humans. So a lot of the things that came with her being a mother, she found pretty vile, I think."

Coleman feels quite differently about Victoria’s pregnancies—or at least about playing a pregnant Queen. “I think I enjoy playing her most when she’s pregnant because one, I don’t have to wear a corset, but then two, I get to kind of waddle around, and I feel like she can just be foul-tempered and rude,” Coleman said. “I relish playing her when she’s like that because she doesn’t really care what anybody thinks, in a way. She does when it comes to the public and her people, but ultimately, you get free reign to play Victoria irritable and in a bad mood, and I really love playing her when she’s like that."

8. The child actors have “no respect” for Victoria, according to Coleman.

JENNA COLEMAN as Victoria and TOM HUGHES as Albert in 'Victoria'
GARETH GATTRELL/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

When asked about what it’s like working with a handful of kids on a regular basis, Coleman described it as both “absolutely crazy” and “hilarious.” Especially because the children are too young to understand what it means to stay in character. “Imagine toddlers, and you put them on set, and you kind of just have to get what you can,” Coleman said of shooting with her onscreen kids. “It's unpredictable, and incredibly funny because kids do say the funniest things, and they say the funniest things during takes. They ask Queen Victoria for some Doritos. It just becomes chaos, and I just absolutely get the giggles. They should release some footage of what really happens when the kids come to set. There’s no respect to Victoria. They completely rule me."

9. Buckingham Palace is actually an old airplane hangar.

Much of the series takes place at Buckingham Palace, and the show’s production team has done an amazing job of recreating the splendor of the property and what it would have looked like during Victoria’s reign. The location of their set, however, is not quite so glamorous. “The set where we film the Buckingham Palace scenes is in an old aircraft hangar, and is home to all kinds of wildlife,” according to Goodwin. “We had to stop shooting a very tender scene between Victoria and Albert because an owl kept flying through the frame, attracted by the jewels in Victoria’s hair."

10. Lighting all those candles is no easy task.

Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at about the same time that candlelight was being replaced with gas light in some of London’s most stately properties. While the switch to gas lighting has its own storyline in the series (there are rats involved), there were still a lot of candles to be lit on the set—about 300 in total. According to Goodwin, the process of lighting all those candles took an hour each time they shot.

11. The dog that plays Dash is no stranger to playing Dash.

Dash, Queen Victoria's prized dog, in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of ©ITVStudios2017 for MASTERPIECE

The adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that plays the Queen’s most trusted BFF Dash has some experience with the role. “The dog who played Dash is actually called Tory, and she made her screen debut playing the same role in the film Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt,” Goodwin wrote for Marie Claire.

12. A bird played an unanticipated role in Victoria and Albert’s proposal scene.

Much like Victoria herself, some viewers were surprised to learn that when a Queen decides it’s time to tie the knot, she must be the one who proposes. Making the scene in which Victoria proposes to Albert even more awkward and difficult was the fact that an uninvited bird kept interrupting the production.

"The proposal, on paper it looked like a great scene but to film it was a nightmare,” Tom Hughes, who plays Prince Albert, admitted at a screening of the episode. “[It took] about 50 [takes] because there was a stray bird upstairs in the roof. Every time I got to the point where I say, ‘I have to kiss you first’, [the bird] thought that it was the most hilarious line it had ever heard. It was making a variety of all different noises, so that was the tough scene to film."

13. Prince Albert could be the next James Bond.

At this point, there are a handful of actors who have been rumored to be “the next James Bond,” and Hughes is one of them. The actor reportedly caught the attention of James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli after playing an MI5 operative in 2014 BBC miniseries The Game. When asked about his thoughts on taking on the iconic 007 role, Hughes responded: “Would I like to be James Bond? There’s not many people who wouldn’t want to be James Bond.” Though he made it clear that he had not been approached about the role, he stated that “I’d love them to ask."

14. The Duchess of Buccleuch was not so outspoken in real life.

In season two, the legendary Diana Rigg (who played Emma Peel in The Avengers TV series back in the day, and Game of Thrones’s Olenna Tyrell more recently) joined the cast of Victoria as the Duchess of Buccleuch, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Though audiences love the character for her outspokenness, the real-life Duchess—who served as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes from 1841 to 1846—was not quite so frank. “The real Duchess of Buccleuch was younger and not quite as cantankerous as Diana Rigg’s portrayal,” Goodwin said. “[But] when you’ve got Diana Rigg, you go with that!"

15. Albert’s imminent death is coming, and it’s a bit of dark cloud.

Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes in 'Victoria'
Courtesy of Gareth Gatrell/ITV Plc for MASTERPIECE

Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42. While the official cause of death was typhoid fever, modern scholars believe that he may have been suffering from Crohn’s disease or abdominal cancer. Knowing that Victoria and Albert’s time is limited is a fact that the cast can’t ignore. When asked whether knowing how this story ends ever affects her performance or how she approaches the character, Coleman admitted that it does. “I think everyone knows it’s coming, and it’s really interesting because Tom [Hughes] and I look a bit older in this series, and we’re so many children in,” she told Town & Country. "You kind of have that creeping feeling, but we still have an amazing part of the story to tell."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER