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.

21 Other Royal Babies Born In The Last 20 Years

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

by Kenny Hemphill

In the early morning hours of Monday, October 15, Kensington Palace released an official statement that "Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very pleased to announce that The Duchess of Sussex is expecting a baby in the Spring of 2019." Their child will become seventh in line to throne—just behind his or her dad, who has been pushed down the line in recent years with the arrival of Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte. But William's children and Harry's baby-to-be aren't the only pint-sized descendants of Queen Elizabeth II to be born in the past 20 years. Here are 21 more of them.

1. ARTHUR CHATTO

Arthur Robert Nathaniel Chatto, who turned 19 years old February 5, is the younger son of Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto. He is 24th in the line of succession—and has been raising some royal eyebrows with his penchant for Instagram selfies.

2. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

The grandson of Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and son of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Snowdon, Charles—who was born on July 1, 1999—is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

3. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) speaks to Serena Armstrong-Jones, Countess of Snowdon (L), David Armstrong-Jones (2L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (2R).
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Born on May 14, 2002, Lady Margarita is sister to Charles Armstrong-Jones, and great-niece to the Queen. She's 21st in line to the throne.

4. LADY LOUISE WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor is the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She was born on November 8, 2003 and is 12th in line for the throne.

5. ELOISE TAYLOR

The third child of Lady Helen and Timothy Taylor, Eloise Olivia Katherine Taylor was born on March 2, 2003 and is 46th in line for the throne.

6. ESTELLA TAYLOR

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chats to Estella Taylor on the balcony during Trooping the Colour - Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, at The Royal Horseguards on June 14, 2014 in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Eloise's younger sister, Estella Olga Elizabeth Taylor, was born on December 21, 2004. She is the youngest of the four Taylor children and is 47th in succession.

7. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

The younger child of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, James Alexander Philip Theo Mountbatten-Windsor—or Viscount Severn—was born on December 17, 2007 and is 11th in line for the throne.

8. ALBERT WINDSOR

Albert Louis Philip Edward Windsor, born September 22, 2007, is notable for being the first royal baby to be baptized a Catholic since 1688. He is the son of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and grandson of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. According to the Act of Settlement, which was passed in 1701, being baptized Catholic would automatically exclude a potential royal from the line of succession. But there was some controversy surrounding this when, up until 2015, the Royal Family website included Albert.

9. XAN WINDSOR

Lord Culloden, Xan Richard Anders Windsor, is son to the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and grandson of the Duke of Gloucester. He was born on March 2, 2007 and is 28th in succession.

10. LEOPOLD WINDSOR

Like his older brother Albert, Leopold Windsor—who was born on September 8, 2009—is not in line to the throne, by virtue of being baptized a Roman Catholic (though he, too, was listed on the Royal Family's website for a time).

11. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Autumn Phillips, Isla Phillips, Peter Philips and Savannah Phillips attend Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, the Queen's first great-grandchild, was born on December 29, 2010 to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and Autumn Kelly. She is 15th in line for the throne.

12. SENNA LEWIS

Senna Kowhai Lewis, who was born on June 2, 2010, is the daughter of Gary and Lady Davina Lewis, elder daughter of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was a beneficiary of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which abolished the practice of giving sons precedence over daughters in the line of succession, regardless of when they are born. As a result, she is 31st in succession.

13. LYLA GILMAN

Daughter of Lady Rose and George Gilman, and granddaughter of Prince Richard, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, Lyla Beatrix Christabel Gilman was born on May 30, 2010. She is 34nd in succession.

14. COSIMA WINDSOR

Lady Cosima Rose Alexandra Windsor was born on May 20, 2010. She is sister to Lord Culloden, daughter of the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and granddaughter to the Duke of Gloucester. She's 29th in line for the throne.

15. RUFUS GILMAN

Lyla Gilman's brother, Rufus, born in October 2012, is 35rd in line for the throne.

16. TĀNE LEWIS

Tāne Mahuta Lewis, Senna's brother, was named after a giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland region of New Zealand. He was born on May 25, 2012 and is 32nd in line for the throne, following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.

17. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips's second and youngest daughter, Isla Elizabeth Phillips, was born on March 29, 2012 and is 16th in succession.

18. MAUD WINDSOR

Maud Elizabeth Daphne Marina Windsor, the daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor and granddaughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, was born on August 15, 2013 and is 50th in line for the throne.

19. LOUIS WINDSOR

Louis Arthur Nicholas Felix Windsor, who was born on May 27, 2014, is the youngest child of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and brother of Leopold and Albert. As he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, he's not in line to the throne.

20. MIA GRACE TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Daughter of Zara Phillips and her husband, former England rugby player Mike Tindall, Mia Grace Tindall was born on January 17, 2014 and is 18th in the line of succession.

21. ISABELLA WINDSOR

Isabella Alexandra May, the second and youngest daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor, was the last addition to the royal family. In July 2016, she was christened at Kensington Palace wearing the same gown worn by both Prince George and Princess Charlotte (it's a replica of the one that Queen Victoria's children wore). Looking on was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is one of Isabella's godparents.

10 Ways to Identify a Witch

Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As we know today, some of the measures taken during the Salem Witch Trials to "prove" whether a person was guilty or innocent were ludicrous. But in case you'd like to employ some of them for yourself, here are 10 ways to identify a witch, according to those running the Salem Witch Trials.

1. MAKE A WITCH CAKE.

What's a witch cake, you ask? It's definitely something you don't want to eat. You take the urine of the people who are thought to be under the spell of the witch in question, mix it with rye meal, and make a little patty. Then you feed the patty to a dog. Because some of the powers the witch used to cast a spell on the afflicted people were in their urine, when the dog eats the cake, it will hurt the witch, and she'll cry out in agony.

2. WEIGH THEM AGAINST A STACK OF BIBLES.

If the suspected witch is heavier or lighter than the stack of Bibles, then clearly she's guilty of evil-doing. If the scales balance out, she's in the clear. You can imagine that a perfect balance didn't happen often.

3. CHECK FOR MOLES, BIRTHMARKS, SCARS, OR EXTRA NIPPLES.

These are all Marks of the Devil. But if you need even more proof, try pricking the Devil's Mark with a blade. If it doesn't bleed or hurt when it's pricked, you've definitely got a witch on your hands. During the Salem Witch Trials, some unscrupulous witch-hunters actually used knives with retractable blades, so of course when they appeared to puncture the Mark, nothing happened.

4. OBSERVE THEM TALKING TO THEMSELVES.

During the Witch Trials, one accused woman, Sarah Good, was damned partially based on the fact that she was sometimes seen muttering to herself, and sometimes this even happened when she was leaving people's houses. Her accusers knew she was casting spells on people, even though Good claimed she was just reciting the commandments or a particular psalm. Her claims weren't enough to save her, because she was hanged on July 19, 1692.

5. ASK THEM TO RECITE THE LORD'S PRAYER.

If they don't, they're guilty. If they do, they're guilty too. George Burroughs, the only minister to be executed during the Trials, ran across this problem. He was standing at the gallows to be executed when he recited the Lord's Prayer to prove his innocence—it was believed that a witch (or warlock, in this case) would be unable to utter the holy words. People were momentarily convinced that the jury had wronged him, until a minister named Cotton Mather told the crowd that the Devil allowed George Burroughs to say that prayer to make it seem as if he was innocent. Ahhh, of course. With Satan himself apparently working right through him, Burroughs' fate was sealed, and he was hanged moments later.

6. ASK A HARD-OF-HEARING ELDERLY WOMAN IF SHE'S GUILTY.

If she doesn't respond, she's definitely a witch. This happened to 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse. She was known to be a very pious woman, and most people in the community were hesitant to accuse her or believe the pointing fingers that were. In fact, she was found not guilty during her first trial. But when there were more outbursts from young girls who said they were being tormented by a witch, Nurse was reconsidered. When another prisoner claimed that "she was one of us" during the trial and Nurse failed to respond, she was immediately assumed guilty and hanged.

7. NOTE THE NUMBER OF PETS SHE HAS.

A woman who has pets—or even says hello to the neighbor's cat—is surely using that animal as a familiar. In fact, if a fly or a rat entered a woman's cell while she was awaiting trial, it was assumed that the witch had used her powers to summon a familiar to do her bidding.

8. TAKE THEIR SARCASTIC COMMENTS SERIOUSLY.

John Willard was the constable in Salem responsible for bring the accused to court. After bringing in so many people, including those who were known for their church-going ways and elderly woman who barely understood what they were being accused of, Willard began to doubt how real these accusations really were. In May 1692, he finally put his foot down and declared that he would no longer take part in any arrests, sarcastically saying, "Hang them all, they're all witches." Willard was immediately accused of witchcraft himself, stood trial, was found guilty, and was executed just three months after his sarcastic comment.

9. ASK THEM IF THEY'VE HAD DREAMS ABOUT NATIVE AMERICANS.

Sarah Osborne denied all witchcraft accusations that were thrown her way. Her downfall was when she admitted she had recurring dreams that an Indian would seize her by the hair and drag her out of her house. Apparently that was enough to convince the village she was likely casting spells on them. However, Osborne ended up dying while being held captive and never stood trial for her "crimes."

10. CHECK TO SEE HOW MANY TIMES THEY'VE BEEN MARRIED.

At least a couple of the women tried for witchcraft were married two or more times and were accused of killing their former husbands ("bewitching" them to death) or evilly seducing them.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER