Many of you are going to think I’m making this up, but this truly did happen! At 12:30 p.m. on January 15 of 1919, a storage tank owned by the Purity Distilling Company in Boston’s North End, holding 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, burst, unleashing a lethal tidal wave of thick gooey syrup. It traveled down the streets at 35 miles per hour, and at it’s peak was 25 feet high. It traveled with such force it knocked buildings off their foundations. The Boston Globe reported people were flung several feet in the air. By the time it was over 21 people were dead and 150 were injured. Several horses and pets also perished. Most who died were either crushed or drowned. In a 1983 article for Smithsonian, Edward Park related one child’s story: “…Anthony di Stasio, walking homeward with his sisters from the Michelangelo School, was picked up by the wave and carried, tumbling on it’s crest, almost as though he was surfing. Then he grounded and the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn’t answer, his throat was so clogged with the smothering goo. He passed out, then opened his eyes to find three of his four sisters staring at him.” Anthony’s fourth sister, 10 year old Maria was among the fatalities. It was so difficult for rescuers to wade through the molasses, it took four days before the search concluded. Many of the deceased were completely covered which made identification even more complicated. As is the case with so many disasters several factors contributed to this tragedy. The tank itself was poorly constructed and the safety tests were never done. The internal pressure also may have been raised by carbon dioxide being produced by the fermentation process. And finally, the temperature that day rose from 2 to 41 degrees. Cylinder stress failure was finally listed as the official cause of the tragedy. A first-class action lawsuit was brought against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company which had purchased Purity Distilling in 1917. After three years of hearings, the USIA ultimately paid out $600,000 in settlements which amounted to about $7,000 per victim. Cleanup went even slower. Crews had to use salt water from a fire boat to wash the molasses away, and sand to absorb it. Boston Harbor was brown with the syrup until summer. The molasses was everywhere, from the streets and railway system, to the inside of people’s homes. It took over 300 people to get rid of it all. For decades residents swore that on hot summer days they could still smell molasses.
If you’re interested in further reading there’s a few books documenting this tragedy.