Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, by Stephen Puleo

Beacon Press, November 2010 (original publication 2003)

In January 1919, an enormous molasses tank on the Boston waterfront burst, and unleashed a flood of molasses on one of the most congested sections of the city.

"Molasses flood" sounds like a joke. It sounds funny. It was January. We all know the expression, "as slow as cold molasses."

Twenty-one people died. 150 were injured, many of them very seriously, resulting in life-long crippling problems that either ended or seriously hampered their ability to work. Also, hundreds of working horses were killed by the molasses flood--some directly, some shot afterwards, because there was no way to extract them from the molasses before they would be suffocated by the weight of it.

Children died. Workers died. Houses, businesses, and the local fire station were crushed, shattered, knocked off their foundations and nearly swept into the harbor.

It was an enormous tragedy.

An important part of Puleo's book is making abundantly clear that it shouldn't have happened. Despite the company's claims, there was no bomb, no "evilly disposed persons," no outside malicious action. But neither was it "just" an accident.

Molasses wasn't just sweetener, or an important raw material for making rum. It was also an important source of industrial alcohol, used in, among other things, munitions. This became critically important with the start of World War One. This resulted in the new Boston tank being built in a great rush, to cash in on the war, under the direction of--an accountant. A man with no experience in construction of any kind, who was under pressure from his bosses to get it done by the last day of 1915 so that it could receive a delivery and spare the company the need to buy molasses for processing. Puleo lays out for us, in highly readable fashion, all the mistakes in construction, the warnings from an ordinary employee about the signs of structural unsoundness, the effects of the disaster, and the subsequent legal case. The company strongly pushed the theory that anarchists planted a bomb in the tank, and this wasn't, in the context of the time, as crazy an idea as it might sound. Anarchists, and anarchist violence, was a significant factor at the time. There just wasn't any supporting evidence for an anarchist having planted a bomb in this molasses tank, and there was a lot of evidence of sloppy construction and ignored warnings of structural unsoundness.

The molasses flood was a major disaster for Boston, but by itself, it wasn't a major, history-changing moment. However, it connected and interacted with a lot of other forces at work at the time. World War One, Prohibition, laissez-faire capitalism (Puleo doesn't use the phrase, but describes it at work), the assimilation, or lack thereof, of the Italian immigrants, anarchist political activity, the Sacco and Vanzetti case...all played a role in what happened. And the legal case over the molasses flood, which became, in practice even if not officially, the largest class action lawsuit thus far.

It's a fascinating story, and well, even if not perfectly, told.


I borrowed this book from my local library.

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