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The Boston Molasses Flood occurred on January 15th, 1919 on Commercial Street in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts[1]. Citizens heard loud sounds similar to a machine gun, which were actually breaking rivets of steel of a molasses tank located between the Charles River and Copp’s Hill. The tank, owned by The United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA), exploded.[2] More than 7.5 million liters of molasses created a wave that drowned Boston’s North End, taking down houses, lifting trains, and destroying Engine 31 firehouse. In total, 21 people drowned in the molasses or were crushed by debris and over 150 were injured.[3]

I was born and raised for a few years on Prince Street in the North End of Boston; yet, I have only heard of the Boston Molasses Flood once. When I visited the North End in October, I searched for any monuments of the Boston Molasses Flood, but found only one small plaque imbedded in a stone wall: “On January 15, 1919, a molasses tank at 529 Commercial Street exploded under pressure, killing 21 people. A 40-foot wave of molasses buckled the elevated railroad tracks, crushed buildings and inundated the neighborhood. Structural defects in the tank combined with unseasonably warm temperatures contributed to the disaster”. As a long-time citizen of Boston, I walked the Freedom Trail frequently and knew each leg of the tour very well. Still, I knew nothing about the Boston Molasses Flood. Therefore, what really set the molasses flood in motion?

Immediately after the tank exploded, the company claimed it was a terrorist attack by anarchists who were trying to protest against the government. This was a strongly supported claim because of the recent anarchist threats in the North End. On November 18, 1916, The north end police station was bombed by anarchists. Then, only five days before the flood, police discovered anti-government posters plastered in the north end and warned businessmen about possible anarchist attacks.  Underlying this fear were stereotypes attributed to the Italian population that inhabited the north end. Italian immigrants were labeled as anarchists because of the political turmoil they had escaped and because many of the accused plotting anarchists were Italian. Lastly, the company claimed that the molasses tank was a perfect target because molasses was a main ingredient in ammunition that was used in the ongoing World War. 5 To seal the deal on this theory, Walter L. Wedger, the Massachusetts District Police “expert on explosions,” said to the Boston Daily Globe that he was “strongly inclined to the belief that there was an explosion.” The USIA was quick to point the finger, and there were many coincidences, yet they lacked actual physical evidence.

Another possible reason for the explosion of the tank was overproduction and storage of molasses. Molasses was used primarily to create ammunition and energy, which the government needed to support the ongoing World War. Also, molasses was used to make rum. At the time, there was a significant pressure from the temperance movement and the government was in motion to approve prohibition, the ban on all alcohol. Therefore, the company wanted to produce as much rum as they could before the ban, which happened to be 3 days after the tank exploded.5 At the time, the 2-million gallon tank was holding 2.3 million gallons of molasses. The company exceeded the tank’s limits and put people in danger in order to make a large profit. 4 Citizens who reported problems due to the leaking of the tank supported this claim, but the company would ignore these claims and paint the tank brown so the molasses stains would be less noticeable. [4]

Soon after, the company claimed the tank exploded from the hot temperature and natural fermentation that created overwhelming pressure causing the tank to explode. While it may have been a contributing factor, it was determined that the main cause of the explosion was the insufficient construction of the tank by the company, USIA.   Charles Spoffor, the Civil Engineering Department Head at MIT, spearheaded the investigation. He concluded that the explosion was not due to a detonated bomb but a lack of stability in the construction of the tank. Spoffor found that the steel plates were thinner than the original plans had called for and could not withstand the pressure of the molasses.  With no inspections ever made and no improvements undertaken, the tank was a recipe for disaster. Colonel Ogden, a Boston attorney, pursued Spoffor’s findings and discovered that the company had not consulted with engineers on the original plans and had entrusted the project to a man with no engineering or construction experience.  Ogden stated, “The molasses tank had been structurally deficient, built without safeguards, and carelessly located in a busy, congested neighborhood”. After years of delegation and trials, the USIA was found responsible and ended up paying the modern equivalent of several million dollars in settlements.

The Boston Molasses Flood was a tragedy as it ended with 21 deaths. Also, there was substantial evidence and a clear-cut expert opinion that proved the company was at fault. Even so, it is still not well known in the North End’s history and its details are ambiguous. One question that will remain unanswered is why the Boston Molasses Flood is not a significant part of the North End’s history. One reason could be traced back to the current social and political situation, which the USIA used in order to cover their tracks. During the early twentieth century, the North End was making a huge transition from housing Boston’s elite to housing newly immigrated European immigrants especially from Italy. Specifically, from 1910-1920 the Italian population in the North End grew from 18,000 to 77,000. [5] The majority were unskilled workers and labeled clannish because they avoided participation in American politics. The USIA took advantage of their wariness of government and lack of credibility by not only constructing the molasses tank in the middle of the north end where the immigrants lived but also not keeping up with maintenance: “expected and received virtually no opposition—the poor, vilified, mostly illiterate, and politically toothless Italian immigrants who lived and worked in the shadow of the tank day and night had neither the inclination nor the political power to offer organized resistance.” [6] When the tank leaked, there was no serious report or at least one that was documented. [7] When the explosion actually occurred, the company tried to avoid liability as much as they could. It affected unimportant immigrants, especially during a time of discrimination and racism so no one really paid attention. Therefore, one might claim the city chose to bury this part of history because it was a time in history that was not celebrated.  

Citations

1.     "Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919." Mental Floss. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

2.     Boston's Great Molasses Flood. Travel Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

3.     Cavnar, Bob. Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub. 2010. Print.

4.     Caglioti, Daniela L. "Why and How Italy Invented an Enemy Aliens Problem in the First World War." War In History 21, no. 2 (April 2014): 142-169. Military & Government Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed October 14, 2014).

5.     Ferraiuolo, Augusto. Religious Festive Practices In Boston's North End: Ephemeral Identities In an Italian American Community. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

6.     "Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

7.     "How Regulation Came to Be: The Great Molasses Flood." How Regulation Came to Be: The Great Molasses Flood. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

8.     Humphreys, Ashlee, and Craig J. Thompson. "Branding Disasters." JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

9.     Kunreuther, Howard, and Louis Miller. "Insurance versus Disaster Relief." JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

10.  Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians : a Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, From the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

11.  Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon, 2003. Print.

12.  Smajda, Jon, and Joseph Gerteis. "Ethnic Community and Ethnic Boundaries in a 'Sauce-Scented Neighborhood'1 Ethnic Community and Ethnic Boundaries in a 'Sauce-Scented Neighborhood'." Sociological Forum 27, no. 3 (September 2012): 617-640. Academic Search Alumni Edition, EBSCOhost (accessed October 14, 2014).

13.  "Solving the Great Molasses Flood Mystery." Slice of MIT by the Alumni Association RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

14.  "The Science of the Great Molasses Flood." Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

Secondary Sources:

I.         Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.

This book focuses on the Italian immigrant experience in the North End and why so many chose to settle in that part of downtown: a multitude of jobs for unskilled workers. This book addresses the great struggles and discrimination that the immigrants faced everyday as well as a section on anarchists. Puleo, also author of   Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, focuses on the rarely told history of the Italian immigrants in the North End and constant daily struggles that is just as important to the history of the North End as anything else. Overall, this book provides great insight on the political, economic and social struggles that the Italians faced while living in the North End and it has an entire chapter on predisposed beliefs of Italians.

II.         DeMarco, William M. Ethnics and Enclaves: Boston's Italian North End. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1981.

The author wrote this book to address that the current image of the North End portrays a fallacy: it does not portray life for Italians in a former era. He addresses the overcrowded conditions, rate of disease, lack of adequate sanitation, and the violence between different Italian groups. He also examines statistical information about marriages, employment patterns and housing in order to understand the chain migration to the North End and why so many people stayed there. This is useful in understanding how and why so many Italians lived in the North End despite constant struggle.

III.         Stack, John F. International Conflict in an American City: Boston's Irish, Italians, and Jews, 1935-1944. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

This book focuses on ethnic groups, their involvement in politics, and their structural dynamos like political and social environment. This is useful to understand why the Italian immigrants were not involved in politics and how that affected them. One limitation is the book also addresses the Irish and Jews and part of the book focuses on the 1930’s and 40’s.

IV.         Ferraiuolo, Augusto. Religious Festive Practices in Boston's North End Ephemeral Identities in an Italian American Community. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

This book primarily focuses on the religious celebrations and traditions of the Italians in the North End. Fortunately, for each celebration the author mentions how the celebration declares communities and their identities and how their separation created political turmoil. He also addresses the transition of the North End transitioned from a wealthy desirable area to a slum.

V.         Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2003.

This book is the first full account of the Boston Molasses Flood as it addresses not only the exact day of the tank explosion, but the decade that led up to the event. It is useful because it addresses other social events during the time like Prohibition, Italian heritage, and why the Boston Molasses Flood “never attained historical significance”.

VI.         Humphreys, Ashlee, and Craig J. Thompson. "Branding Disasters." JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

This article was published in the Journal of Consumer Research to analyze consumer trust before and after a disaster, and how the company tries to gain back the trust. This gives great insight into how the company tries to evade the situation and who they might blame to regain the trust of the public.

Primary Sources

I.               Molasses Disaster- Boston Herald Cover. Digital image. NorthEndWaterfrontcom. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

This was written on January 16, 1919, which was a day after the Boston Molasses Disaster so it is a primary source as it includes information from people who were there and experienced the actual explosion. Also, at the bottom of the article there is a big advertisement “Explosion and Liability Insurance”. This is important to the case about taking action of safety in liability instead of pre-disaster precautions. A newspaper may sometimes focus on the most interesting parts of an event and raise questions or concerns to stir the pot. This newspaper article with its bold is captivating and as a reader may continue to read, they might get too entangled with rumors of causes of the explosion.

II.             “Pueblo Chieftain.” Wise Court-He Explains Cause of Fatal Explosion”, February 8, 1919,  sec 2.

This article provides the reason for the tank explosion, which was announced by the Chief Justice. This provides the date in which the investigators and court finally discovered the failure of structure and were able to determine the cause and blame the company. It also has a direct quote from the Chief Justice.

III.           "Kansas City Star." Slow as Molasses, Indeed. Engineers Are Still Discussing the Tank Explosion”, March 21, 1919, 185th ed., sec. 39.

This article emphasizes the real fascination behind the mystery of how the tank exploded and why it is taking so long to find out the cause. It is helpful because I know how carefully they investigated the disaster and the expertise knowledge they used to support the claim.

IV.           12 Killed, 50 Injured When Molasses Tank Explodes in Boston Reservoir's Top Flies in Air. (1919, January 16). Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 1. Retrieved October 10, 2014.Origin: This article was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 16, 1919.

This article provides exact details of which buildings were affected, who was injured, details about specific first-hand accounts, where the most amount of people were injured, and contains specific stories which is not found in any other newspaper which has the event outside of Boston.

V.             Boston Molasses Flood Sign. Digital image. Boston Discovery Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2014.

This is the sign I visited in the North End that is embedded into a wall and easy to miss. It does not accurately describe the event or go into any detail of the event. This is important to note because it represents its historical significance.

[1] A Northeast state in the United States

[2] Boston's Great Molasses Flood. Travel Channel. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

[3] "The Science of the Great Molasses Flood." Scientific American Global RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

5 Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon, 2003. Print.

5 Puleo, Stephen. Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Boston, Mass: Beacon, 2003. Print.

4 "How Regulation Came to Be: The Great Molasses Flood." How Regulation Came to Be: The Great Molasses Flood. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

[4] "Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919." Mental Floss. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

[5] "Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

[7] "Solving the Great Molasses Flood Mystery." Slice of MIT by the Alumni Association RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

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