Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

A “molasses flood” sounds like something out of an old folksy proverb, as in “Tarnation! That girl is slower than a flood of molasses!” It sounds like a euphemism for something obscene, or the punchline to a bad joke.

But a molasses flood is no joke. In fact, a molasses flood is downright deadly.

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In 1915, a company called U.S. Industrial Alcohol thought it would be a great idea to build a giant tank, 50 feet high by 90 feet wide on Boston’s busy waterfront, adjacent to a popular playground. When the tank “exploded” in 1919, spilling some 2 million gallons of molasses into the surrounding area, the wave of molasses destroyed several buildings, dismantled the nearby elevated track, and killed 21 people and several domestic animals. Think of the scene in The Impossible where Naomi Watts crouches before a glass wall as the ominous tidal wave approaches, but instead of ocean water, it’s molasses.

Molasses. Stinky, sticky, syrupy sweet molasses. Anyone who’s ever baked gingerbread knows the smell and the dark gelatinous ooze. Now imagine it in your hair, your mouth, your eyes, soaking your clothes. Imagine drowning in molasses, as so many did. A nearby firehouse was crushed in the onslaught, trapping several firefighters underneath it. One man struggled in vain to keep his head above the molasses, but eventually his strength gave way and he died, suffocating in molasses.

Puleo’s book vividly describes the moment of the flood and the suffering and horror of those caught in it, but even so, I had a hard time imagining the visceral impact of million of gallons of molasses assaulting the senses.

So I promptly went to my cupboard and retrieved a bottle from last year’s Christmas baking party.Displaying IMG_20160729_164615.jpg

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Pictured: Stinky, sticky death.

Yep. The stuff stinks, and that’s only 12 ounces of it. There’s no way that anything could be worse than drowning in millions of gallons of that putrid glop.

Except there is.

Molasses is used to distill not only rum (think about that next time you’re enjoying your pina colada), but industrial alcohol. Now after the first boil, what’s produced is call “first molasses.” That’s the good one. Do it again and that’s “second molasses.” Do it a third time and, yep, you get “third molasses.” Third molasses is the nastiest sort, used to brew industrial alcohol for use in munitions. Needless to say, molasses during wartime was a robust trade.

The bottle pictured above, the one I smelled and blacked out from for a brief second, is “second molasses.” The crap that spilled out of that giant holding tank?

Third molasses. Every drop of it. Destined to become bullets and bombs in the WWI battle.

World War I was also where chemical warfare made its auspicious debut, but I think the military missed out on an opportunity. Molasses really would have knocked the enemy off its feet.

In Dark Tide, Puleo paints a compelling portrait of the turbulent times surrounding the Molasses Disaster, from the threat of the Italian anarchists and concomitant xenophobia, to the heavy curtain of war and looming prohibition.

When the inevitable court case takes place to assign blame in the disaster, big business is pitted against the common man, as most of those who died were blue collar laborers and immigrants. The plaintiffs attempted to place the blame on USIA and its obvious disregard for public safety while the defense argued that the anarchists had blown up the tank. The case was historic in the sheer amount of plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. “The molasses flood did for building standards,” says Puleo, “what the Coaconut Grove fire did for fire codes.”

The fascinating slice of history illuminated by Puleo’s book reminds us that nothing ever happens in a vacuum, that history is an interactive and associative project. For this particular disasters, characters include: anarchy, war, corporate greed, immigrants, courage, tragedy, and, of course, molasses.

And hey! It’s also in a Mysteries at the Museum episode!

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