THE DATE was January 15, 1919, a Wednesday. It was about half-past noon. In Boston's industrial North End, folks were going about their business as usual. Only one small detail seemed out of the ordinary, and that was the temperature unseasonably warm, in the mid-40s, up from a frigid two degrees above zero just three days before. The sudden thaw had lifted everyone's spirits. To anyone who was out on the street that day, it scarcely seemed a harbinger of disaster.
But trouble was brewing fifty feet above street level in the form of a cast-iron tank containing two-and-a-half million gallons of crude molasses. The molasses, owned by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, was slated to be made into rum, but this particular batch would never make it to the distillery.
Sweet, sticky, deadly goo
At about 12:40 p.m. the giant tank ruptured, emptying its entire contents into Commercial Street in the space of a few seconds. The result was nothing less a flash flood consisting of millions of gallons of sweet, sticky, deadly goo.
The Boston Evening Globe published a description based on eyewitness accounts later that day:
Fragments of the great tank were thrown into the air, buildings in the neighborhood began to crumple up as though the underpinnings had been pulled away from under them, and scores of people in the various buildings were buried in the ruins, some dead and others badly injured.
The explosion came without the slightest warning. The workmen were at their noontime meal, some eating in the building or just outside, and many of the men in the Department of Public Works Buildings and stables, which are close by, and where many were injured badly, were away at lunch.
Once the low, rumbling sound was heard no one had a chance to escape. The buildings seemed to cringe up as though they were made of pasteboard.
The bulk of the devastation was caused by a "wall of molasses" at least eight feet high 15, according to some bystanders which rushed through the streets at a speed of 35 miles per hour. It demolished entire buildings, literally ripping them off their foundations. It upended vehicles and buried horses. People tried to outrun the torrent, but were overtaken and either hurled against solid objects or drowned where they fell. More than 150 people were injured. 21 were killed.
Negligence or sabotage?
The clean-up took weeks. Once that was done, the filing of lawsuits began. More than a hundred plaintiffs lined up to seek damages from the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. Hearings went on for six years, during which 3,000 people testified, including several "expert witnesses" for the defense who were well paid to argue that the explosion had been the result of sabotage, not negligence on the part of the company.
In the end, however, the court ruled for the plaintiffs, finding that the tank had been overfilled and inadequately reinforced. No evidence of sabotage was ever found. All told, the company was forced to pay out nearly a million dollars in damages a bittersweet victory for survivors of one of the strangest disasters in American history.