Hello, Lovelies! Welcome to the blog post covering the Molasses Flood of Boston, Massachusetts. At the end, you’ll find Rebecca’s show notes and links to her sources. As promised, there’s a link to the full recording of the musical “Molasses in January”. And finally, as always, you’ll find information on the podcasts featured in this week’s drink break. So pull up a chair (maybe pour a glass of wine) and enjoy!
If you’re here just to find the link to the full recording of “Molasses in January” you can find that on YouTube by Clicking Here.
This week’s drink break is brought to you by two different podcasts. The first is one of Rebecca’s long time favorites,
The Dirty Bits.The Dirty Bits Podcast is performed by Tawny Platis, a professional voice actor, who gives a casual -and hopefully comical- southern Californian retelling of the sexy, scandalous, and salacious stories from history your teacher probably left out. Whether it’s Hans Christian Andersen’s masturbation obsession, Jack Parsons bizarre mixture of NASA, the Occult, and Scientology, or Catherine the Great’s chairs embellished with phallic symbols, we’re totes about to dive in on The Dirty Bits and learn how the sexual drives of those who came before us shaped our world. Click Here or on the the logo on the right to listen!
Rebecca’s Show Notes
The day was January 15, 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts. For that time of year, the weather was mild and people were going about their business.
Around noon, a rumble started at Boston’s North End. Soon, a tidal wave of liquid that reached speeds of 35 mph came rushing down the streets of Boston. This tidal wave flooded the streets, crushed buildings and trapped horses.
Around 12:30 PM that day, Boston Police Patrolman, Frank McManus, was at a call box reporting back to headquarters when he started to hear the rumble that he described as a loud, scraping noise.
He paused, looked down the street, then quickly turned back to the call box, frantically telling the dispatcher:
“Send all available rescue vehicles and personnel immediately — there’s a wave of molasses coming down Commercial Street!”
The wave had a height that ranged from 15 to 40 feet high and was 160 ft wide. After breaking free, the molasses reached a maximum speed of 35 mph and rushed through the densely populated North End.
Within seconds, two city blocks were flooded. One source stated that the wave ripped the Engine 31 Firehouse from its station and almost took the building into the harbor.
The tidal wave busted windows, crushed buildings, flooded homes, and overturned railcars. By sunset that day, Boston looked like it had been bombed.
The source of the wave was a massive 50 ft tall steel tank that had ruptured, spilling 2,300,000 gallons of molasses into the streets of boston. In some places, the molasses was 1 ft deep.
Those unlucky enough to be near the tank when it failed were immediately swallowed and drowned. And the molasses, after it stopped moving, quickly started to thicken up, causing one reporter to state that many horses had “died like so many flies on sticky fly paper.”
Due to the day’s mild conditions, this allowed the molasses to flow easily through Boston’s streets. But as the temperatures dropped, the molasses became more viscous, more thoroughly trapping victims who were pinned down in buildings and ultimately trapping them in molasses.
One person died of asphyxiation hours after the incident.
Bodies were discovered weeks and months after the initial incident.
Ultimately, the tidal wave of molasses injured over 150 people and ultimately killed 21.
One medical examiner noted that the bodies looked “as though covered in heavy oil skins… eyes and ears, mouths and noses filled.”
So, what the hell happened?
The tank was owned by Purity Distillery (owned by U.S. Industrial Alcohol company) and used molasses to make industrial alcohol. This was highly profitable and was used to manufacture munitions or other weaponry for World War I (1914 – 1918)
The tank itself was 50 ft high, had a diameter of 90 ft and could hold up to 2.5 gallons of molasses.
One theory that was anarchists set off a bomb, causing the flood, a theory that was upheld by the USIA (United States Information Agency)
Victims alleged that the tank was not safe. In fact, since the construction of the tank, it would leak and often emit rumbling noses. This didn’t stop the tank from being used.
Ultimately, it was ruled that the accident was a result of bad design and construction (one source claimed the tank used the same brittle steel used in the Titanic, which is explained further below)
More than 100 lawsuits were filed and the USIA was ordered to pay about $630,00 in settlements.
Today, after more thorough research, scientists have a better idea of what happened.
The victims were right: The tank was hastily built and would often leak molasses.
During construction, many tests critical to safety were deemed necessary by the bosses.
The steel that was used to construct the tank was mixed incorrectly (it was thought it had too little manganese), thus giving it a high transition temperature.
For this situation, we’re referencing the temperature at which the steel becomes brittle. The metal used in the tank was believed to have a transition temperature of 59 F, meaning the tank becomes brittle if the temperature falls below 59. That day, the temperature was around 40 and many speculate that this fact played a part in the disaster.
The walls of the tanks ranged from 0.67” at the bottom to 0.31” at the top which were too thin to support the weight of the Molasses (found a 2014 analysis by Ronald Mayville, a senior structural engineer in the Massachusetts consulting firm of Simpson, Gumpertz & Hege)
According to the same analysis, the rivets used to hold the tank together were not strong enough to withstand the stresses of a tank filled with molasses
The wall thickness and rivets were signs of negligence, something engineers in 1919 should have known better than
That being said, when the tank was built in the winter of 1915, one test that is supposed to be performed is filling the tank with water to check for leakes before putting the tank into service.
This test would be INCREDIBLE important for this tank, since molasses is 1.5 times denser than water (i.e. it is significantly heavier).
Before the catastrophe, the tank had only been fully filled 3 times before, with the 4th being soon before that fateful day.
After construction, people off the street would often take sticks to scrape of the syrup for a sweet snack. Children would bring cups to fill with molasses. Instead of inspecting the tank, it was painted brown.
One thing that’s important to understand that, in addition to the fact that molasses is 1.5 times denser than water, making it heavier and having a higher amount of potential energy, is that molasses behaves like a non-newtonian fluid.
A non-newtonian fluid is a substance that behaves like a solid when stationary but behaves more and more like a liquid as it starts moving. This means once the tank broke and the molasses started escaping, it could quickly fill the streets then thicken up again quickly as it stopped moving.
The clean up effort took weeks, and some stated that Boston would smell like molasses for years afterwards.
That night, as the temperatures dropped, it was reported that rescuers had to literally cut or chisel the molasses away from people to save them.
The rescue effort was painstaking and protracted. Flaminio Gallerani’s body was discovered 11 days after the spill, while the body of Cesare Nicolo, a wagon driver, wouldn’t be found for another four months, pulled from the water under Commercial Wharf.
Ultimately, this event could have been prevented and was ruled as negligence on part of the USIA. Many measures were put in place afterwards to keep an event like this from happening again.
Interesting results of the event:
Francine Pellegrino, spent two decades writing a musical entitled “Molasses in January” about the event. She tried to recreate the catastrophic event with a tiny budget and an even tinier stage, but couldn’t quite do it, stating “We turned the lights off and had people screaming, and then turned the lights on and had people laying down on stage” in an attempt to recreate this event.
Link to full play here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mr225oawzzk
If you’re interested in reading more about this insane event, check out Stephen Puleo’s book “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood Of 1919” (you can find it on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Tide-Great-Boston-Molasses/dp/0807050210/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=dark+tide&qid=1556472315&s=gateway&sr=8-1)