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How Molasses Killed 21 in Deadly Flood

Linda has many interests, including finance, reading, learning, cooking, and traveling. She enjoys researching history and writing.

Millions of gallons of sticky molasses flood the streets of Boston on January 15, 1919.

Millions of gallons of sticky molasses flood the streets of Boston on January 15, 1919.

An Ordinary Day Turns Deadly

January 15, 1915, started off as a warmer than usual day and people were out on Commercial Street, Boston moving about and enjoying the slightly warm January day. Children were playing outside on the streets and workers were stepping away from their jobs for a brief lunch break.

None of them realized the danger that they would soon be facing as tons of molasses would come pouring through the streets of Boston at approximately sometime around noon. None of them realized that in just a few minutes some of them would be dead or be struggling to survive in a city covered in waist-high molasses. It would change quickly from being just an ordinary day to become the most deadly horrifying day in Boston's history.

First World War Ends, Prohibition Set to Begin

During the First World War, molasses had become an important ingredient in creating ethanol which was used to create ammunition and explosives. But with the war ending the American Congress now sought to make any form of liquor or alcohol illegal, with an act of congress called Prohibition.

Purity Distilling, therefore, was holding tons of molasses in a large storage tank in Boston while it sought to make as much liquor as possible before Prohibition took effect. Shifts at Purity Distilling were working twenty-four hours where they were producing as much high-grade rum as they could possibly produce.

Giant Tank Holding Millions of Gallons of Molasses

The molasses storage tank had been built a short time earlier just as the First World War was ending. It was a huge tank measuring fifteen feet high and one hundred sixty feet wide. When filled to the limit it held 2.3 million gallons of molasses.

The tank had been built close to the harbor where ships could dock to unload the molasses while railroads were close by to ship the molasses to where it would be made into alcohol. On Jan 15, 1915, it was filled to close its limit and was straining to hold the massive amount of molasses.

Tank Explodes, Molasses Flows

Close to noon people began to hear louder than usual noises coming from the tank. Survivors would later report that they heard loud rumbling noises followed by loud pops which sounded like machine guns being fired. These noises were caused by the metal steel rivets which held the sides of the tank together popping out the sides of the tank in rapid succession. Molasses began flowing from the tank at the rate of 25 to 35 miles an hour leaving anyone in its path no time for escape.

Chaos and Destruction and Death Follows

The flood of molasses swept through the streets with such force that it literally slammed buildings off their foundations, knocked over horses, cars, wagons, people and anything else that got in its way. Horses and people were caught in the sticky goo and the molasses once out in the cooler air quickly started to get hard making it impossible for anyone trapped in it to move.

The molasses (which was a high wave) at that time knocked people and children to the ground where some suffocated to death. Twenty-one people died in the molasses while another one hundred and fifty were Injured. Property damages were enormous and if this had happened in modern times the price tag would be near $100,000,000.

Rescuers, including the police, local volunteers and the Red Cross all responded quickly to the disaster but found it hard to walk through molasses that was in some places up to their waists. The molasses would cling to their boots and clothing as they searched for survivors.

This is the news headline the day after the flood. 11 are announced dead in the headline, but 10 more bodies would be found later.

This is the news headline the day after the flood. 11 are announced dead in the headline, but 10 more bodies would be found later.

What Caused the Tank to Break

  • No permit was required to build the tank.
  • It was poorly designed.
  • Poor construction and materials.
  • Leaks were not repaired, and molasses dripped.
  • The tank was painted brown to hide the leaks and drips.
  • Molasses would ferment causing pressure to the inside of the tank. This would be like putting too much air or gas in a balloon, which would cause the balloon to pop.
  • It was built very cheaply and quickly built with no safety inspections.
  • Was never properly tested by using water to find and repair leaks.

Flood of Molasses Documentary

Lawsuits Become the First Class-Action Lawsuits

Victims of the molasses flood and the families who were victims of the flood soon filed lawsuits against Purity Distilling. These lawsuits soon combined to make one massive lawsuit, becoming the first-class action lawsuit for the state of Massachusetts. Finally, in 1926 the victims were awarded $300,000. This resulted in new laws enforcing higher regulations and inspections for new construction.

The tank that held those deadly gallons of molasses would never be rebuilt and today a recreational complex has been built in its place. But a hundred years after the molasses flood people who live near the site of the flood still claim that on really hot days, the smell of molasses lingers.

References for Flood of Molasses

Lyons, Chuck. (2009). "A Sticky Tragedy: The Boston Molasses Disaster." History Today

Bellows, Alan. (2005). "The Monumental Molasses Morass of 1919." Damn Interesting

Owen, Ryan W. (n.d.) "The Great Boston Molasses Flood, Prohibition and Anarchists." Forgotten New England

Powell, J. Mark. (2019). "The Sticky Truth: 100 Years Ago, a Molasses Tsunami Caused a Deadly Boston Disaster." Washington Examiner

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 L.M. Hosler