When truth is stranger than fiction


Molasses, what comes to mind when you hear someone mention molasses? “Slow as molasses in January” is an idiom, sometimes shortened to “slow as molasses” as its viscosity makes it pour slowly from a container. However, on January 15, 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts this idiom did not apply. A molasses tank measuring 50 ft tall, 90 ft in diameter and containing as much as 2,300,000 US gallons ruptured unleashing a flood of molasses between 8 and 15 ft high, moving at 35 mph, and exerting a pressure of 2 ton/ft². You may think this is an urban legend, but it really happened. That such a thing could happen seems absurd to the point of being comical, except 21 people lost their lives in the flood along with horses, dogs and other animals. Approximately 150 people were injured. Stephen Puleo documents this disaster in Dark tide: the great Boston molasses flood of 1919. Puleo describes the scene in the aftermath of the flood:

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.

Portions of a residential neighbourhood adjacent to the ruptured molasses tank were flattened or damaged in the flood. Following the cleanup an inquiry into the disaster found poor construction, negligence in maintaining safety standards and higher than normal temperatures for January led to the disaster. The owners of the molasses tank, United States Industrial Alcohol Company (USIA), were found liable for the disaster and paid out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements. Today a small plaque stands as a monument to the incident, quite probably the most unusual thing to happen in the history of Boston.

Posted by Geoffrey

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