The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919
A Brief History of Molasses
Molasses used to be the primary sweetener used in days of yore until refined white sugar pushed it to the back of the shelf. It has a distinctive flavor that brings extra sparkle to spice-laden recipes such as gingerbread, fruitcake, cookies, toffee, baked beans, and sauces.
The English term molasses comes from the Portuguese melaço which in turn is derived from the Latin mel, meaning honey. Melasus was first seen in print in 1582 in a Portuguese book heralding the conquest of the West Indies.
Molasses was exported to the U.S. from the West Indies to make rum. High taxes were levied on molasses by the British via the Molasses Act of 1733, but the duties were so widely ignored by U.S. colonists that the taxes were reduced in 1764 in hopes more would comply.
Up until the 1880's, molasses was the most popular sweetener in the United States, because it was much cheaper than refined sugar. It was considered particularly tasty with salt pork.
After the end of World War I, refined sugar prices dropped drastically resulting in the migration of consumers from molasses to white sugar crystals. By 1919, U.S. per capita consumption of white sugar was twice what it was in 1880, with most Americans completely switching from molasses to granulated white and brown sugar.
In January of 1919, a huge vat of molasses at the Purity Distilling Company in Boston exploded. What came to be known as the "Great Molasses Flood" killed 21 people and spilled two million gallons of molasses into the streets.
Interestingly enough, molasses now costs about twice as much as refined sugar. Along with industrial alcohol and rum products, molasses can also be used to make yeast, cure tobacco, and in cattle feed.
The Blame Game
How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early-20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.
Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: absurdly shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.
In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.
The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage towards the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.
The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3,000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7,000 to the family of each victim.
The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.