One of the most bizarre disasters in US history, the Great Molasses Flood, or Boston Molasses Disaster, is one that few Bostonians and even fewer visitors know much about. When it was over, it left 21 people dead, 150 injured, and millions damaged.
Relationship with Prohibition
The disaster occurred on January 15, 1919, about a year before Prohibition began and the day before it was ratified. United States Industrial Alcohol, or USIA, owned Purity Distilling Co, where the massive tank of molasses was located. Molasses is commonly fermented to make rum, and can also produce ethanol, a major ingredient in other alcoholic beverages. Some believe that the lack of testing and poor construction of the tank was a result of USIA’s attempts to outrace prohibition. Its haste had dire consequences.
At around noon on January 15th the 50-foot tank burst and collapsed, sending upwards of 2.3 million gallons of molasses rushing through the streets of the North End at speeds close to 25 miles per hour. 25 feet high at its peak, the wave of sticky brown liquid damaged or destroyed everything in its path. Many drowned in the wave of molasses and others were crushed by its sheer force.
First to arrive on the scene to help the injured were Navy cadets stationed nearby. The Boston Police, the Red Cross, and members of the Army soon joined in lend their expertise. Rescuers searched for four whole days for victims, some so buried in molasses that they could not be seen. In addition to the 171 people injured or killed by the disaster, several dogs and horses were also victims of the flood.
Lawsuits Against USIA/ Claims of Anarchism
North End residents brought one of Massachusetts’s first class-action lawsuits against United States Industrial Alcohol, because they believed that improper testing and construction of the molasses tank led to its collapse. USIA tried to claim that the disaster was actually a malicious act by Italian anarchists due to the fact that ethanol, derived from molasses, is a major component of munitions. Though USIA had received threats in years past from such anarchists, no solid evidence for the claim was supplied.
The Verdict and Settlement
After three whole years of hearings, a court-appointed auditor decided in favor of the victims due to the Molasses tank’s structural defects. USIA eventually settled out of court with the victims and their families.
The location of the flood in the North End was less than a mile from the Boxer! Some residents claim that on especially hot days they can still smell a faint tinge of molasses. Several laws and regulations were changed after the disaster to prevent something similar from happening in the future.