Sweet, Sweet Death: Boston's Fatal Molasses Flood of 1919

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
May 22 2014 11:13 AM

Sweet, Sweet Death: Boston's Fatal Molasses Flood of 1919

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook, Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

On a stone wall at the entrance to Puopolo Park in Boston's North End there's a monument to murderous molasses.

Just after noon on January 15, 1919, a hail of gunshots rang out in the North End. The thunderous cascade of collapsing metal caused the ground to rumble and shake. Residents barely had time to register the sounds before an astonishing sight greeted them: a two-story wave of molasses barreling down the streets at 35 miles an hour.

Advertisement

Those sounds they had heard weren't gunshots. They were rivets pinging from the 50-foot-tall, 90-foot-wide Purity Distilling Company molasses tank that had just collapsed onto Commercial Street.

The torrent of sticky brown goo bore such force, and carried so much debris, that it buckled pillars of Boston's elevated railway. Cars were crushed, horses perished in the sickly-sweet tide, and buildings broke apart.

Then there was the human toll. Twenty-one people perished in the great molasses flood. The high viscosity of the syrup hampered rescue operations—rescue workers spent four days searching for people in its murky, gummy depths.

The disaster was the result of poor tank construction and lax maintenance. An unusual increase in temperature on the day before the disaster—from 2 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit—increased the pressure in the tank, which was already high due to molasses fermentation. When the walls could no longer handle the strain, the rivets popped and the tank collapsed.

If you visit the old site of the Purity Distilling Company—now Puopolo Park—you'll see a sign commemorating the flood. Close your eyes and use your imagination and you may smell sweetness on the wind.

When food bites back:


View Site of the Molasses Flood in a larger map

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.