Bad Molasses

On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty, an informal group of would-be American revolutionaries, dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor — the event we today call the Boston Tea Party.  The death toll: None.

A few years earlier, Boston citizens harassed British troops and pelted them with snowballs.  The soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing five.

But in 1919, Boston was met with a much worse fate.  Not at the hands of Redcoats, but rather by runaway molasses.  The Boston Molasses Tragedy of 1919 struck when, in January of that year, a fifty foot molasses tank carrying over two million gallons of molasses collapsed and exploded, unleashing a sugary — and deadly — tidal wave.  A wave up to 15 feet high and traveling 35 miles per hours rushed through Boston’s North End, crushing buildings, destroying train tracks, and drowning horses and people alike.  In the end, the molasses claimed the lives of 21 people and injured another 150.

The molasses spill also proved difficult to clean up.  It took over 80,000 man hours to scrub the neighborhood free of the sticky sweetener, and parts of the harbor remained brown until summer.   The incident also lead to a large amount of litigation, giving us insight as to how class action lawsuits worked in the early 1900s.  Per one account, “there were about 125 lawsuits filed against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company” and “[t]here were so many lawyers involved, that there wasn’t room enough in the courthouse to hold them all, so they consolidated and chose two to represent the claimants.”  The litigation took six years to resolve; in the end, USIAC paid out roughly $7,000,000 in present-day money.

The Boston Public Library has a photoset from the incident, featuring newspaper front pages and the photo above, available on Flickr.

Bonus fact:  Limburger cheese, known for its distinctively heavy odor, once became the focal point of the Limburger Cheese War between Monroe, Wisconsin and Independence, Iowa, when the postmaster of the former refused to deliver some cheese shipped from the latter.  The war was an informal, friendly one — there were no casualties aside from some smoked whitefish.

From the Archives: The Crash at Crush: Another disaster — but in this case, a man-made, intentional one of sorts.

Related: “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919” by Stephen Puleo.  57 reviews; 4.5 stars. Available on Kindle.

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