On January 15, 1919, a tanker holding 2.5 millions gallons of molasses exploded and caused a wave of molasses 10 feet tall moving at nearly 30 miles an hour, which left a trail of destruction and death in the mostly Italian neighborhood of Boston’s North End. The photos from the day make the city look like a war zone.
I grew up near Boston, received a degree in History from a college in Massachusetts, have always loved weird history, but I never heard about this strange and horrible day until I was 25. I also had absolutely no idea how deeply hated and cast aside Italian immigrants were in Boston around the turn of last century, but more on that later.
One summer day I was with a group of friends on a Duck Boat Tour when the driver and guide briefly mentioned the Molasses Flood in passing as we drove down Causeway Street, the same street the Celtics and Bruins play on. It was one of a thousand facts we learned that day, but the idea of molasses moving that fast and leaving such devastation created an instant spark in my brain. How could that happen? What did the devastation look like? Who was at fault? Why had I never heard of this before? These questions pulsed through my mind and I knew I had to learn more.
Can you imagine hearing a sudden noise and turning around to see a wave of brown goo rushing at you like a freight train?
The Molasses Flood became a strange obsession. I read all the books I could find about it, the greatest being Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. I wrote a song about the disaster and later recorded it for an album. I bought children's books about the flood for my friends' kids. (Yes, there are multiple children’s books about a day of death and destruction.) And finally, I formed a band with three close friends called, you guessed it, The Great Molasses Flood. We even made our first album, a live album, on the actual night of the 100th anniversary of the tragedy at the legendary folk venue, Club Passim.
Now, some curious and odd details about the flood:
In the end, 21 people lost their lives on that strangely warm January day, along with over 70 horses.
The wave crushed the local fire station and the elevated train track was smashed to the ground.
Legend held in Boston for decades afterwards that you could smell molasses throughout the city on a warm day.
Here’s a horrifying quote from the Boston Post the next day:
“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.”
So after a fifteen year personal plunge into this weird and frightful piece of history, why do I now feel this story is more important than ever and needs to be taught to future generations?
What makes this story more than just a unique, strange, and horrible tragedy?
At first, even for my own obsession, it was just the simple absurdity of the event that piqued my interest, but now I know there is an important lesson we all need to understand. Yes the poorly designed tank was always going to explode, but there is no way 21 people would have been killed by fast moving molasses if not for Boston’s deep history of racial division. It never should have been built so close to people.
Italians immigrated to America in large numbers at the end of the 1800s. Thousands found their way to Boston and gathered together in the North End, which quickly grew into one of the most densely populated parts of not just Boston, but the entire world. The Protestant elite of Massachusetts society were scared of the new members of their community because of their Catholic faith, different language, and many unfounded stereotypes. Laws were enacted to make it hard for Italians to become citizens. The impoverished Italians of the North End became a people with little say and power in the system.
What ties the Molasses Flood to the history of racism in Boston is the simple truth that an unsafe tank holding millions of gallons of molasses could not have been built in any other inhabited part of the city. The citizens would have protested and voted no. It was only in the Italian part of town where it could have been built because the majority of society viewed them as “other” or “less.”
It was The United States Industrial Alcohol Company who were rushing to beat the coming Prohibition that built the ridiculously unsafe structure so close to so many people. They looked the other way when the tank started to leak molasses out of its side, because at the heart of it all, they didn’t care about the people who lived so close by. The Italians were different, they were others, they didn’t matter, and the money was more important. That tank had no business being near that many people. It should have exploded in some industrial area with very few casualties.
Two of the 21 victims were just ten year old children playing in the streets of their home. Their parents found their crushed bodies hours later in the sticky mess.
When just one person is hurt, falsely accused, or killed because of their race all our humanity suffers. Americans need to reconcile that our history is full of stories just like The Great Molasses Flood where our ideals of “Liberty and Justice For All” did not happen. I do not know if any of my Italian American friends have ever felt direct racism, but I do know their great grandparents did. We need to stand with the people and races that still do. We live in the age of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the poisonous water of Flint Michigan, mass incarceration of African Americans, and so many other examples of tragic racism. The moment we learn the truth we are called to action.
I had never heard of the Great Molasses Flood until someone on a Duck Boat told me. I also would have never heard about George Floyd if there was not a video. Our society must be proactive in learning our true history if we ever really want to live up to America’s standards of freedom. We must shout from the tops of our lungs when injustice happens in our society, no matter how strange, crazy, or unsettling that story might be.
Boston Post image from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Panorama of the Molasses Disaster site’ photo from Flickr/Boston Public Library.