Death by … molasses

Aftermath of the disaster; photo by Globe Newspaper Co. (Boston Public Library)

For real. On January 15, 1919, in the North End neighborhood of Boston an enormous molasses storage tank burst, releasing its heavy, thick. sticky, sweet contents into the streets. The muck poured through the streets at an estimated 35 mph, crushing houses, bringing down elevated train tracks, killing 21, including two 10-year-old children, and injuring another 150 people.

This is the worst thing I have ever heard of. Drowning or being crushed by a wave of molasses must be in the top ten worst ways to go. The thought of the smell filling a neighborhood or having to scrape and mop the stuff up is horrendous.

Boston's 1919 molasses-tank explosion turned this elevated train structure into a twisted mass of metal. The "Great Molasses Flood" that followed the blast sent an avalanche of death into the streets. Photo: Corbis

The tank was 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. From the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, “Witnesses stated that as it collapsed, there was a loud rumbling sound, like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank, and that the ground shook as if a train were passing by.” A wave of 8-15 feet high coursed through the neighborhood. Adjacent buildings were rocked off of their foundations and crushed. For blocks, the streets were flooded with three feet of the muck.

As described by author Stephen Puleo:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.

Puleo, Stephen, “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919”, page 98. Beacon Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8070-5021-0

Hundreds assisted in the rescue and cleanup. The harbor was reportedly still brown well into the summer. A class action suit was filed against the owners of the tank and the United States Industrial Alcohol Company ultimately paid out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements (at least $6.6 million in 2005 dollars).

It’s thought that the 40 degree change in temperature that day increased pressure in the tank, which forced the poorly-constructed container to burst along a stress fracture. It reportedly leaked so badly that it was painted brown to conceal the oozing molasses and locals collected the drippings for their home larders.

If you’re interested in more on this, check out the Wired article by Randy Alfred.


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