A dull, muffled roar gave but an instant’s warning before the top of the tank was blown into the air. The circular wall broke into two great segments of sheet iron which were pulled in opposite directions. Two million gallons of molasses rushed over the streets and converted into a sticky mass the wreckage of several small buildings which had been smashed by the force of the explosion.” -The New York Times, January 16, 1919
January 15th, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day for Boston, Massachusetts. The temperatures had risen from the low single digits to over forty degrees fahrenheit and many of the streets lacked the normal blanket of snow. As the day ran on into the early afternoon people would have surely been tempted to eat their lunches sans overcoat.
The waterfront scene near Commercial Street was dominated by the storage tanks of the Purity Distilling Company. Molasses was one of their main commodities. It could be distilled into rum or ethyl alcohol in addition to serving as a household sweetener. Ethyl alcohol in particular was in high demand due to it’s use in munitions. This was during World War I, after all. The molasses was mainly stored in a gigantic tank that could hold over two million gallons (almost 13000 tons) of the stuff. This picture of a man standing on top of it shows just how gigantic this tank must have been.
However, just because the tank was large did not mean it was particularly suited to holding so much weight. The Purity Distilling Company had put a man named Arthur Jell in charge of it’s construction and maintainance. Jell was sloppy at best and criminally incompetent at worst. During construction he neglected to consult blueprints and wholly skipped a few vital tests. The tank often sprung leaks, which Jell covered up by painting the exterior brown. It is said that children would collect the drippings in jars or cans to bring home for supper.
A critical weakness was the manhole cover at the bottom of the tank. The pressure from the molasses would have been greatest here, exacerbated by carbon dioxide build up from unintended fermentation. Furthermore, the day’s unusual heat would have served to only increase this fermentation. The metal’s fatigue eventually overcame its integrity and a crack bloomed outwards. RIvets popped out of sockets and sang through the air like the rattle of a machine gun.
The resulting explosion created a wave fifteen feet high that rippled outwards at thirty-five miles an hour. The greatest casualties came from the surrounding buildings which were filled with municipal employees on lunch break. The buildings collapsed instantly, crushing the occupants. A gigantic piece of sheet metal ripped through the elevated ‘El’ traintracks and destroyed the structure, barely missing a cab full of passengers. Some people were caught by the wave and carried long distances before they finally drowned in the molasses. Even after the initial shock rescue attempts were hampered by the sticky knee-deep morass. One man wasn’t found for eleven days. All traffic stopped. As the author Stephen Puleo puts it:
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.
Initially, the Purity Distilling Company refused to accept blame, instead pointing the finger at external sabotage by mystery anarchists. Others began to spread rumors that the company was ignoring safety in an attempt to distill as much alcohol as they could before the impending Prohibition became official. But no matter the exact reason, the tanks dangers and defects had been a matter of public knowledge for a long time prior to the disaster and when a civil case was brought to court by the victim’s families, Purity’s parent company U.S.I.A. was found liable for the damages and forced to pay over $600,000 to the plaintiffs.
Today the event is commemorated with a plaque found near to the disaster site and the urban legend that on hot summer days the Boston North End still smells like the sticky sugary syrup that once covered so much of it.
Note: Forgive me for straying a bit from the natural into regular history. Oh well.