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.

10 Surprising Facts About Ernest Hemingway

Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway was a titan of 20th-century literature, converting his lived experiences in multiple wars into rich, stirring tales like A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The avid sportsman also called upon his love for the outdoors to craft bittersweet metaphorical works like Big Two-Hearted River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea. Here are 10 facts about the writer known as Papa, who was born on July 21, 1899.

1. Ernest Hemingway earned the Italian Silver Medal of Valor and a Bronze Star.

Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War I, and on July 8, 1918, he was badly wounded by mortar fire—yet he managed to help Italian soldiers reach safety. The action earned him an Italian Silver Medal of Valor. That honor was paralleled almost 30 years later when the U.S. awarded him a Bronze Star for courage displayed while covering the European theater in World War II as a journalist. His articles appeared in Collier’s and other magazines.

2. Ernest Hemingway was also accused—and cleared—of war crimes.

Following D-Day on June 6, 1944, when Hemingway, a civilian, was not allowed to disembark on Omaha Beach, he led a band of Resistance fighters in the French town of Rambouillet on a mission to gather intelligence. The problem was, war correspondents aren't supposed to lead armed troops, according to the Geneva Convention. The Inspector General of the Third Army charged Hemingway with several serious offenses, including removing patches from his clothing that identified him as a journalist, stockpiling weapons in his hotel room, and commanding a faction of Resistance operatives. Eventually, he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Hemingway always maintained that he’d done nothing but act as an advisor. He wrote to The New York Times in 1951, stating he “had a certain amount of knowledge about guerilla warfare and irregular tactics as well as a grounding in more formal war, and I was willing and happy to work for or be of use to anybody who would give me anything to do within my capabilities.”

3. Gertrude Stein was godmother to Ernest Hemingway's son, Jack.

Renowned American modernist writer Gertude Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and hosted regular salons that were attended by luminaries and artists of the time. They included Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a young Ernest Hemingway. Stein became godmother to Hemingway’s first son, Jack, in 1923.

4. Ernest Hemingway was allegedly a KGB spy—but he wasn't very good at it.

When Collier's sent the legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn to China for a story in 1941, Hemingway, her husband, accompanied her and filed dispatches for PM. Documentation from the Stalin-era KGB (revealed in a 2009 book) shows that Hemingway was possibly recruited as a willing, clandestine source just prior to the trip and was given the codename “Argo.” The documents also show that he didn’t deliver any useful political intel, wasn’t trained for espionage, and only stayed on their list of active sources until the end of the decade.

5. Ernest Hemingway checked out F. Scott Fitzgerald's penis in the men's room.

Hemingway chronicled his life in Paris in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast, and revealed one notorious encounter with the Great Gatsby author in the book. Fitzgerald remarked that his wife Zelda has mocked his manhood by claiming he wouldn't be able to satisfy a lover. Hemingway suggested he investigate for himself. He took Fitzgerald to the bathroom at Michaud's, a popular restaurant in Paris, to examine his penis. Hemingway ultimately told his friend that his physical endowment was of a totally normal size and suggested he check out some nude statues at the Louvre for confirmation.

6. One of Ernest Hemingway's best works came about from him leaving some luggage at the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Speaking of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote it later in life (it was published posthumously) after a 1956 stay at the Ritz Hotel in Paris wherein he was reminded that he’d left a steamer trunk (made for him by Louis Vuitton) in the hotel’s basement in 1930. When he opened it, he rediscovered personal letters, menus, outdoor gear, and two stacks of notebooks that became the basis for the memoir of his youth in Paris's café culture.

7. The famous "Baby Shoes" story is most likely a myth.

Oddly enough, a story many people associate with Hemingway probably has nothing to do with him. The legend goes that one night, while drinking, Hemingway bet some friends that he could write a six-word short story. Incredulous, they all put money on the table, and on a napkin Hemingway wrote the words “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” He won the bet. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence it ever happened. Some newspapers had printed versions of the six-word plotline in the 1910s without crediting Hemingway, and there's no record of his link to the phrase until 1991 (in a book about the publishing business), three decades after Hemingway’s death.

8. Ernest Hemingway almost died in back-to-back plane crashes.

In 1954, Hemingway and his fourth wife, Time and Life correspondent Mary Welsh, were vacationing in Belgian Congo when their sightseeing charter flight clipped a utility pole and crashed. When attempting to reach medical care in Entebbe the following day, they boarded another plane, which exploded upon takeoff, leaving Hemingway with burns, a concussion, and his brain leaking cerebral fluid. When they finally got to Entebbe (by truck), they found journalists had already reported their deaths, so Hemingway got to read his own obituaries.

9. Ernest Hemingway dedicated a book to each of his four wives.

Each time he got divorced, Hemingway was married again within the year—but he always left something behind in print. The dedication for The Sun Also Rises went to his first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson; Death in the Afternoon was dedicated to second wife Pauline Pfeiffer; For Whom the Bell Tolls was for third wife Martha Gellhorn; and Across the River and Into the Trees went “To Mary with Love.”

10. Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West features a urinal from his favorite bar.

Hemingway wrote several iconic works, including To Have and Have Not, at his house in Key West, Florida. It’s also where he converted a urinal from a local bar into a fountain. Local haunt Sloppy Joe’s was a favorite watering hole of the irascible author, so when the place went under renovation, Hemingway took one of the urinals as a memento, quipping that he’d already poured enough money into it to make it his.

Richard Nixon Had a Speech Prepared In the Event That Apollo 11's Mission Failed

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin share a laugh with President Richard Nixon while aboard the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.
Richard Nixon Foundation via Getty Images

In July 1969, the world watched as the crew of Apollo 11 successfully entered lunar orbit, landed, then blasted off and returned to Earth. At each step of the way there were dangers and NASA had backup plans in case something went terribly wrong—though there wasn't much NASA could do from 384,403 kilometers away. In 1999, William Safire discussed the speech he wrote for President Richard Nixon just in case the mission failed. From Safire's article:

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to 'the deepest of the deep,' concluding with the Lord's Prayer." A draft Presidential speech was included.

Here's a scan of the speech:

And here's the text:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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