The Boston Molasses Flood

On a warm day, some say you can still smell molasses in the breeze… 100 years ago, the North End of Boston was the site of a terrible industrial accident after a tank holding tons of molasses ruptured, flooding the streets of the North End with a fast moving wall of liquid sugar. 21 people died and 150 were injured, and the the case drove the first class action suit in American history. Nathan interviews local Boston journalist Cara Giaimo about the industrial accident which entered the city’s folk lore.

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Announcer 1: Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Nathan: From Virginia Humanities, this is Backstory. Welcome to Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines, I’m Nathan Connolly.

Brian: And I’m Bryan Balogh.

Nathan: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re historians, and each week along with our colleges Ed Ayers and Joanne Freeman, we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Brian: And we’re going to start off today with a mystery. On hot days in the North End of Boston, local folk lore says you’ll catch the unmistakable smell of molasses in the breeze.

Cara: Obviously Boston is a really historical city. There are a ton of historical things that happened here that shaped the entire nation. The Molasses Flood is an interesting one, because it was a horrible disaster, tons of people died. It was bloody and scary and gruesome, but at the same time because molasses was involved, people think of it as kind of this funny, tasty experience for people when it was really neither funny nor tasty for the people that were actually there.

Nathan: That’s local journalist Cara Giaimo. She was driven to write about the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 because the industrial accident, which claimed 21 lives, has been remembered if at all as kind of a joke.

Cara: I grew up in Massachusetts, and as the historian Steve Puleo, who wrote kind of the definitive book on it has said, the Molasses Flood is a huge part of the city’s folklore, but not necessarily its heritage, and I’m interested in the difference between those two things, what makes something a good story that people like to kind of tell almost as though it happened in a different dimension.

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cara: What makes something actually a part of a city’s history in a way that makes it included in the story, the larger narrative that that city tells about itself.

Nathan: The real story of the Boston Molasses Flood occurred exactly a century ago in January 1919 when a holding tank ruptured, and a 40-foot wave of molasses traveling at speeds of 45 miles an hour flooded Boston’s North End. The disaster killed 21 people, left 120 injured and destroyed homes, businesses, and buildings. So, why were giant tanks of molasses being stored in an area of high density housing?

Cara: In the 1910s, the North End was a largely immigrant neighborhood. A lot of Italian immigrants lived there. It’s still known as an Italian neighborhood, although I think the demographic makeup has changed at this point, but there are still a lot of Italian restaurants and a lot of Italian history and culture there. So, it was largely poor immigrants at the time. People would also come there to work, because it’s near the harbor so there were a lot of laborers who would come there every day to unload ships. There was a fire station. There was an elevated train that went right through, so it was a really bustling space, and in the middle of all that, this company United States Industrial Alcohol decided to build a giant tank to store molasses.

Cara: So an interesting thing about molasses during that time was that it wasn’t just used as a sweetener, it was used to make alcohol, and then that alcohol was also used to make ammunition. So, there was this huge need for molasses and its products, not only in the United States but in Europe, so there was a huge demand for molasses, and this company decided to build this tank next to the harbor so that molasses could come up from the West Indies and be stored in this tank and then go by train to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where there was a distillery. So, it was just sort of a good weigh point and storage point for this huge tank.

Nathan: Tell me about a man named Isaac Gonzales and his attempt to keep the community safe.

Cara: So, Isaac Gonzales as a maintenance man. He worked for United States Industrial Agriculture, and he was really worried about the safety of the tank. It kept him up at night. He would have nightmares, and he would sometimes actually get up in middle of the night over the protestations of his wife and run through the streets to check on the tank to make sure that it was still sound.

Nathan: But despite the misgivings of some of the community, the tanks were left in place until January 15 of 1919.

Cara: On the day itself, I think it was a pretty normal workday. People were working at the harbor, children were playing. A lot of children liked to play around the molasses tank and collect the leftover molasses that had trickled down the sides, and a large shipment had just come in, I think from the West Indies, and been sort of dumped on top of the molasses that was already in there. And so, this chemical reaction occurred where the new molasses was warm from its transit period, and the old molasses was cold because it was winter in Boston and it’s cold. And so, a fermentation process happened more quickly than it would have otherwise, and also the tank was more full than it had ever been. So, some sort of pressure and gas built up, and around noon when a lot of people were taking their lunch break, the tank just explodes.

Nathan: Wow.

Cara: And it sends metal shards flying everywhere, and the molasses itself moves very quickly. I think you mentioned it goes about 35 miles per hour, just really fast, and it just sort of envelops everything around it. People get stuck. It knocked over an elevated railway track. The train driver was really cool under pressure and managed to stop the train before it went plummeting off the track after it broke. Whole teams of horses were trapped, people were screaming. I think the Boston Herald described the scent of blood and molasses permeating the entire area. So, it was really gruesome, and also probably deeply weird to be there and see this sort of nightmarish thing happen.

Nathan: And just putting a human face on this, there was a child, Pasquale Iantosca, who was killed in the flood of that day. What do we know about him?

Cara: There were actually two children that were killed. One was Pascal, one was named Maria. Pascal and Maria both were children who liked to go up to the tank and gather the molasses dripping in pails and take the home to their families, who again didn’t have a lot of money and maybe didn’t have enough money to buy sweetener on their own. And so, they were playing near the tank on that day. Pascal’s dad was actually watching him through the window to make sure that nothing happened to him, but of course he couldn’t have predicted what did happen to him.

Nathan: Wow.

Cara: And yeah, they both died terrible deaths. A lot of bodies were found with broken bones, a lot of people suffocated.

Nathan: So give me a sense of what happened in the aftermath of the disaster. Was anybody ever held responsible?

Cara: Yeah, so that’s a pretty important part of the story. The local people of the North End actually brought a class action suit against the company, United States Industrial Alcohol, that had built the tank and been responsible for its operations. It was a real milestone case. It influenced a lot of the building regulation laws that we have now, and the people won. The company had to pay out restitution to a lot of the victims families and injured people. They had to pay out, I think the modern equivalent of almost $100,000 to each victim’s family, and it was a really long investigation and court case. Tons of witnesses testified, which is really cool now because we have all these deposition documents where we can learn so much about what happened.

Cara: And yeah, a lot of the sort of building regulation laws in place right now come from that. So, the company didn’t actually even need to get a building permit originally to construct the tank.

Nathan: Wow, wow.

Cara: And now of course, now you have to do that, and Steve Puleo says that the tank lawsuit did for building regulations what the Cocoanut Grove Fire, which is another Boston disaster, did for fire standards not even just in the US but across the entire country. It really changed how people thought about where things could go, and what safeguards had to be put in place to make sure that people don’t suffer from accidents like this.

Nathan: As somebody who grew up around Boston and spent a lot of time in Boston, what did you hear about the flood or this event growing up?

Cara: The more you know about it, the more seriously you take it, and the more you can get out of sort of the implications, and the context in which it happened, but when you just hear about it as one sentence, you’re kind of more likely to laugh or think of it as an oddity. And so when I was growing up, it was one of those things that didn’t really seem real, so it … Obviously in school you’re taught about things like the Revolutionary War, you’re taught about Paul Revere, you’re taught about all of the sort of battles that happened in Massachusetts to gain independence, and then you’re taught about other things that happened later in the city’s history. And you’re taught about the Coconut Grove fire and other disasters that sort of helped shape the political and legal landscape, but when you’re taught about the Molasses Flood, it’s kind of … It’s a different category. It’s almost like a fairy tale.

Cara: I never knew that people died in it. I don’t know if I was never told, or I just didn’t think about it, but it was sort of more of like a … Like this sugary disaster, what a strange thing to have happened in our interesting and multifaceted city, and obviously we do have an interesting and multifaceted city, but I just think there’s so much to be had from knowing about this in more detail. And it’s exciting to see people take it more seriously especially now that the hundred-year anniversary has happened, I think it’s gained a larger place in the city’s consciousness.