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Dark Tide

The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

Shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, a 50-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston’s waterfront, disgorging its contents in a 15-foot-high wave of molasses that traveled at 35 miles per hour. The Great Boston Molasses Flood claimed the lives of 21 people and caused widespread destruction. For the first time, the story of the flood is told here in its full historical context, from the tank’s construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the disaster. Dark Tide uses the gripping drama of the flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the anarchist movement, immigration, and the expanding role of big business in society. It’s also a chronicle of the courage of ordinary people, from the firemen caught in an unimaginable catastrophe to the soldier-lawyer who presided over the lawsuit with heroic impartiality.

Reviews

  • “A good sense of timing and an easy voice” From Kirkus Reviews
  • “Superb characterizations … enthusiastically recommended” From NewPages.com
  • “Thoroughly researched …. weaves together stories of the people and families” From The Associated Press
  • “The definitive account of America’s most fascinating and surreal disaster.” From the San Francisco Bay Guardian
  • “Giving a human face to tragedy is part of the brilliance” From The Boston Sunday Globe
  • “Everything you want in a work of history” James O’Toole, author of Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820–1920
  • “A must-read for anyone interested in Boston history” Thomas H. O’Connor, author of The Hub: Boston Past and Present

 

“A good sense of timing and an easy voice”

From Kirkus Reviews

Boston native and journalist Puleo takes an incident that seems to belong in a Marx Brothers movie and resituates it in the city’s social history. The 15-foot-high wall of molasses that inundated the streets of Boston’s North End in winter of 1919, the debut author explains, flows into such issues of the day as “immigration, anarchists, World War I, Prohibition, the relationship between labor and Big Business, and between the people and their government.” With a good sense of timing and an easy voice, Puleo sets the scene for the disaster to come: the rush to complete a giant tank holding more than two million gallons of molasses, the failure to have it properly tested, the blind eye that parent company US Industrial Alcohol turned to the tank’s copious leaks, and the threats it levied at workers who complained. The author also paints the period’s social picture. Discrimination against the North End’s Italian-born residents and their lack of political participation, whether barred from it or of their own volition, were important factors in the tank’s placement near their neighborhood. The rise of the anarchist movement and its strong antiwar sentiments made the tank a tempting target, since alcohol produced from the molasses went into the making of wartime munitions. The sheer destructive force of the molasses flood is jarringly presented in a number of vignettes about those trapped; 21 people died. In the ensuing court battle, Big Business was put on notice that it would not be trusted to police construction safety standards itself, it was not above the law, and it would be liable for damages. Properly and compellingly recasts quaint folklore as a tragedy with important ramifications.

 

“Superb characterizations” “Enthusiastically recommended”

From NewPages.com
Tim Davis

You see the evocative title, Dark Tide, and you speculate on the possibilities: gothic horror? detective story? murder mystery? Then you see the subtitle, The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, and you suspect some other possibility: parody? urban legend? But do not allow yourself to misread the subtitle. Instead trust your first impressions because the title is the thematic key: Stephen Puleo’s intriguing book is, in fact, the powerful (and remarkably true) story of a bizarre, tragic incident in Boston’s history.

Dark Tide begins as the World War I era story of U.S. Industrial Alcohol, a company frantically involved in acquisition and waterfront storage of molasses, and then converting that molasses in nearby distilleries into industrial-grade alcohol destined for use in manufacturing munitions for the war effort. Focusing almost exclusively on production efficiency, however, USIA has little time for safety and security at its North End storage facility.

But after the war, on January 15, 1919, something horrible happens: a steel tank (of questionable structural design and integrity) catastrophically fails, and 2.3 million gallons of molasses—in a tidal wave of destruction—floods into the streets, homes, and lives of the North End. When officials complete rescue operations, and when they assess damages, they discover that the Great Boston Molasses Flood has killed more than 20 people and scores of animals, has injured 150 other people, and has left mind-boggling destruction in its wide wake.

Puleo, in the first half of Dark Tide, presents a thorough history about what led up to the January incident. In the second half, Puleo describes the disaster itself and then turns the book into a compelling detective story about who was responsible: USIA? employees? terrorists? anarchists? immigrants? The incident later becomes the subject of a multiyear lawsuit wherein responsibility is assigned and liability assessed, and Puleo painstakingly documents and analyzes the successes and failures of the case.

The exceptional strength of Puleo’s singular book comes through most notably, however, in his superb characterizations of the people involved in the incident and its aftermath. Corporate managers, government officials, court advocates, and the extraordinary citizens of the devastated North End—those people who were immediately and horribly affected by the tragedy—come to life in this enthusiastically recommended, important regional history.

 

“Thoroughly researched … weaves together the stories of the people and families”

From The Associated Press
Randolph E. Schmid

It’s an idea so bizarre as to be unbelievable, a massive flood of molasses — in January — sweeping all before it, crushing buildings, engulfing people and horses, battering railway tracks.

Yet it happened, claiming 21 lives in the process, with the collapse of a giant tank containing 2.3 million gallons of the syrup on the Boston waterfront. Twenty-one people died, others suffered permanent injury or were left homeless in the wake of the tragedy.

In Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, journalist Stephen Puleo details what happened in this first book on the subject.

Thoroughly researched, the volume weaves together the stories of the people and families affected by the disaster, with often heartbreaking glimpses of their fates. Puleo sets the scene carefully, in the context of the time and social conditions, and follows through with the years of lawsuits that ensued.

It had been a boom time for United States Industrial Alcohol, manufacturer of alcohol used in munitions during World War I. But the war was over and Prohibition was looming, cutting the market for alcohol. Hoping for one last big market, the company had filled its giant tank with molasses, planning to distill it into drinking spirits to sell before the ban on alcohol took effect the following year.

Then, shortly after noon on Jan. 15, 1919, the 50-foot-tall tank, hastily built four years earlier, gave way, sending millions of gallons of molasses in a massive wave sweeping across the docks, demolishing a home and fire station, and even bending an elevated railway structure.

Martin Clougherty, who worked the night shift, was asleep when the molasses demolished his house. “He had had the sensation of falling overboard, had felt his head go under, and it was only then — when the liquid rushed into his nose and mouth, when he could taste it — that he realized he was immersed in molasses,” Puleo reports.

Clougherty was able to save himself and pull his sister to safety. But his mother was fatally crushed in the collapsing building. His brother Stephen died a year later in a mental hospital.

Stonecutter John Barry was trapped in the demolished city street repair building, others moaning around him. Repeatedly during the day, rescue workers had to crawl to him through the muck and inject morphine to ease his pain until they could get him out.

Giuseppe Iantosca was standing at his apartment window watching his son, Pasquale, gather firewood around the base of the tank when the little boy suddenly disappeared in the dark mass. Iantosca searched for hours before returning to his wife Maria.

“Exhausted and disconsolate, he trudged up the dark stairs and stepped into the house. Maria was waiting for him, her black eyes rimmed red from crying. Neither of them spoke — he had come home alone, and that said everything.”

The boy’s body was recovered days later.

The cleanup lasted months, the lawsuits years, the fearful memories a lifetime.

 

“The definitive account of America’s most fascinating and surreal disaster”

From the San Francisco Bay Guardian
John Marr

Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide vividly tells the full story of this classic catastrophe for the first time. There is no shortage of inspired eyewitness testimony on the awesome power of unleashed molasses and dramatic stories of rescue and survival. Melodramatic, true, but how can a molasses flood be anything else? One lucky fellow survived by treading molasses.

Dark Tide does put the flood in its surprisingly important historical context — ultimately, it did for building permits what the Coconut Grove fire did for fire codes 23 years later. But even the lengthy legal proceedings are absorbing, thanks to the tank owners’ absurd attempts to pin the blame for their own incompetence on bomb-toting Italian anarchists. Dark Tide is the definitive account of America’s most fascinating and surreal disaster.

 

“Giving a human face to tragedy is part of the brilliance”

From The Boston Sunday Globe
Caroline Leavitt

Ordinary people, extraordinary disasters: The wrath of fire and flood

Shortly after 9/11, The New York Times began running thumbnail sketches and photos of the dead. These were ordinary people, and the things written about them were pretty everyday as well. One father was remembered for acting out bedtime stories to his son; a woman was famous for her tuna salad. In the common humanity of the details, these people stopped being part of a huge number of casualties, and instead each person became a unique loss. And because of that, the tragedy was all the more indelible.

Giving a human face to tragedy is part of the brilliance of Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. I’m Boston-born and -bred, but I’d never heard of this cartoony-sounding disaster, which was anything but comic. On Jan. 15, 1919, in Boston’s North End, a neighborhood crowded with Italian immigrants, a 50-foot-tall steel tank, loaded with over 2 million gallons of molasses (the industrial kind used for World War I munitions) collapsed, shooting out deadly steel missiles. Twenty-five-foot tidal waves of molasses, traveling at 35 miles per hour, engulfed the nearby neighborhood, causing massive destruction, killing 21 people, and injuring more than 150. Why did such a flood fade into folklore, remembered only in a few children’s storybooks?

Puleo believes it’s because the flood was never put into proper historical context, and using newspaper accounts, fire department files, and court records, he painstakingly recrafts the tale. But, for me, what really brings this story into terrifying focus are the individual people Puleo lets us get to know.

There’s Arthur P. Jell, US Industrial Alcohol’s overseer, who had the tank built in the midst of a busy immigrant neighborhood because it was an easier way to meet production quotas, a man who addressed local unease about the leaking tank by painting it molasses-brown to hide the seepage. There’s company man Isaac Gonzales, whose nightmares about the tank collapsing had him running through Boston for a frantic middle-of-the-night check. There’s John Barry, a stonecutter who survived the flood, his dark hair shocked white overnight. And there’s the molasses tank itself, prompting Gonzales to claim, ”The giant steel container was alive and he was hearing the low growl of a hungry animal.”

Who was to blame for the disaster? There were 119 separate legal claims against USIA, but outrageously, a judge blamed the public for not insisting that the best people be put on the job. USIA accused antiwar anarchists of bombing the tank, an argument fueled by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. But there was no physical evidence of bombing, and after a grueling, 10-year trial, USIA was found guilty, held accountable for not hiring qualified people to oversee the operation.

After the trial, anarchy (and the perceived threat from it) pretty much died. More Italian immigrants became citizens, claiming some power for themselves. But until they were given voice in this book, the characters who drove the story were forgotten.

 

“Everything you want in a work of history”

James O’Toole, author of Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820–1920

Why has no one ever told this story before? The Boston molasses flood lives dimly in popular memory, but no historian has explored it fully until now. The results of Stephen Puleo’s labors combine exhaustive research, shrewd analysis, careful placement in local and national context, and an ability to tell a good tale — everything you want in a work of history.

 

“A must-read for anyone interested in Boston history”

Thomas H. O’Connor, author of The Hub: Boston Past and Present

The great molasses disaster of 1919 in Boston’s North End provided a dramatic prelude to a new era in post–World War I America. Stephen Puleo brings it to life with vivid prose, using the dreadful catastrophe as a lens through which to view the panorama of a changing Boston, as well as to survey the major events that would shape the future of twentieth-century America. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Boston history.

 

Pictures

While horrified spectators look on, rescuers try desperately to save the occupants of the Clougherty house, which was torn from its foundation and smashed against the elevated railroad trestle by the molasses wave. Bridget Clougherty, sixty-five, was buried by debris and timber, and died from terrible injuries one hour after crews pulled her from the wreckage. Her son, daughter, and a boarder living in the house survived the disaster.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

The Boston Firehouse near the harbor, home of the Engine 31 fireboat, was pushed from its foundation by the molasses wave and nearly swept into the water. The second floor of the building pancaked onto the first, trapping for hours stonecutter John Barry and several firefighters, including George Layhe, who was pinned beneath debris. Layhe tried desperately to keep his head above the rising molasses, but his stamina gave out as rescue crews attempted to reach him, and he dropped his head back into the molasses and drowned.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

Firefighters worked in shifts for four hours clearing debris from around and under the wrecked firehouse to reach their trapped colleagues. Firefighters Bill Connor and Nat Bowering, as well as stonecutter John Barry, were freed.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

This landscape photo, taken from atop a nearby building, shows the massive damage caused by the molasses wave. The top of the tank can be seen in the top quarter-center of the photo, just below the white building on the harbor. Flattened buildings that had been part of the city-operated North End Paving Yard are seen in the foreground.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

Sailors at bottom left from the USS Nantucket, which was in port when the flood occurred, aided in the rescue efforts as crews cleared tons of debris to reach trapped victims.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

Photo shows scene in the immediate aftermath of the flood, from approximately where the tank stood. In the foreground is the top of the tank (vent pipe extending), which hit the ground virtually intact. Firefighters opened hydrants in a largely unsuccessful effort to clear the molasses, which began to harden quickly, and they eventually had to pump seawater directly from the harbor. In the background, on the elevated tracks, is the train that was stopped just in time by engineer Royal Albert Leeman, whose own train barely escaped derailment as the main trestle buckled. Leeman’s action probably saved scores of lives.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department)

Firefighters tried to wash the molasses away with freshwater, but would later find that briny seawater was the only way to “cut” the hardened substance. In the background is the damaged elevated railroad structure.
(Photo courtesy of Bill Noonan, Boston Fire Department Archives)

Excerpts

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

(Beacon Press, 2003)

Excerpt from Dark Tide:
The fifty-six-year-old stonecutter John Barry heard moaning in the darkness, felt searing pain across his back and legs, smelled and tasted the sweet molasses as it tried to flow into his nostrils and mouth. He was pinned face down, his cheek mashed into the sticky molasses, only his left arm free. He used the arm as a sweeper to keep the molasses from smothering him. He tried moving other parts of his body, but other than his neck, which he could twist, he couldn’t budge. Whatever was pressing on his body was crushing the life out of him. It hurt to breathe, whatever breath he could draw seemed insufficient to fill his lungs, and he had to be careful not to inhale a mouthful of sticky molasses.

The darkness was total. The moaning continued, but he couldn’t tell from which direction, or from how far away. He heard a skittering sound. A rat? Oh, God, Barry hated the filthy rodents. Terror gripped him as he imagined a fat, hungry, gray water rat chewing at his face while he lay helpless, trapped in the blackness, buried alive. He called for help, his voice raspy. Could anyone hear him? Did anyone know he was there? He felt on the brink of madness, and with a mighty, panic-filled effort tried to lift his body, but to no avail. He had worked as a stonecutter since he was fourteen years old, but with all of his strength and his skill, he couldn’t lift a hammer or a blade or a chisel to help himself-he could barely lift his head to keep from smothering in molasses. John Barry knew he was going to die, here, buried under the firehouse in this dark stinking space, anonymous and unable to move, a pool of molasses ready to swallow him, rats ready to tear him apart, his screams falling on deaf ears. He would soon join two of his children who had perished from influenza last fall. But what would become of his other ten? Would they become wards of the state when their father was gone?

He began to itch all over and couldn’t do anything to stop it. He felt his body bleeding and could not stanch his wounds. His chest and back burned like they were on fire. He summoned up strength and cried for help again, and this time heard his voice resonate in the darkness. And then, a miracle: a response! He recognized the voice of firefighter Paddy Driscoll, trapped under here with him, one of the moaners he had heard. “Keep up your courage, John,” Driscoll said, his voice cracking. “They’ll get us out.”

John Barry tried to answer aloud, but could not. His initial shout for help had drained him of energy. Overcome with exhaustion and emotion, his broken body wracked with pain, he could barely manage a whisper: “I hope they hurry, Paddy,” he choked. “I hope they hurry.”

He lay sobbing in the darkness, tears streaming down his face, mixing with the molasses that stained his cheeks and threatened to drown him.

Excerpt from Dark Tide:
(© 2003 by Stephen Puleo,
Published by Beacon Press
All Rights Reserved)


From the book’s cover jacket:

Shortly after noon on January 15, 1919, a fifty-foot-tall steel tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston’s waterfront, disgorging its contents in a fifteen-foot-high wave of molasses that traveled at thirty-five miles per hour. When the tide receded, a section of the city’s North End had been transformed into a war zone. The Great Boston Molasses Flood claimed the lives of twenty-one people and scores of animals, injured more than a hundred, and caused widespread destruction.

There had been warnings. Isaac Gonzales, the “general man” who worked at the tank, had heard its rumblings and saw the molasses that leaked through its seams and streamed down its sides. He had even seen children use pails to scoop up the molasses that pooled at its base. His nightmares about the tank collapsing were vivid enough to send him running through the streets of Boston in the middle of the night during the summer of 1918 to make sure that the tank was still standing. But this wasn’t what Arthur P. Jell, U.S. Industrial Alcohol’s assistant treasurer, who had overseen the entire project—from leasing a site for the tank in a crowded Italian-American residential neighborhood to seeing that the tank was built in record time—wanted or needed to hear. USIA was distilling most of the molasses stored in the tank into industrial alcohol used to produce munitions during World War I, and Jell needed to meet ever-growing production quotas without interference.

For the first time, the story of the molasses flood is told here in its full historical context. Tracing the era from the tank’s construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the disaster, and drawing from long-lost court documents, fire department records, and newspaper accounts, Stephen Puleo uses the gripping drama of the molasses flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the anarchist movement, immigration, and the expanding role of big business in society. It’s also a chronicle of the courage of ordinary people, from the firemen caught in an unimaginable catastrophe to Judge Hugh Ogden, the soldier-lawyer who presided over the lawsuit against USIA with heroic impartiality.

Buy Dark Tide

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 is available in paperback and hardcover at bookstores everywhere. To purchase the book online, click one of the links below.

Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble.com
Buttonwood Books & Toys

About the Flood

Boston Molasses Flood Fact Sheet

  • The flood occurred on January 15, 1919, when a huge steel tank (50 feet high and 90 feet in diameter) containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed in Boston’s North End.
  • The ensuing flood killed 21 people, injured 150, destroyed scores of horses, and left a trail of property damage and destruction in Boston’s most heavily traveled commercial areas (the tank was located on Commercial Street, near the waterfront).
  • Among the dead and injured were children, city workers who labored in the adjacent North End City Yard, firefighters who were stationed at the nearby “fireboat house,” and residents who lived across the street from the tank on Commercial Street near Copp’s Hill Terrace.
  • Among the dead and injured were children, city workers who labored in the adjacent North End City Yard, firefighters who were stationed at the nearby “fireboat house,” and residents who lived across the street from the tank on Commercial Street near Copp’s Hill Terrace.
  • The backdrop against which the tragedy occurred offers an interesting component to the story – the end of World War I and the onset of Prohibition. The molasses stored in the tank was transported to nearby distilleries to be converted into alcohol that was first used to produce munitions during the height of the war and then, as fighting wound down, to produce rum.
  • Because the molasses was used to produce alcohol for munitions, the tank was considered a federally protected area. The company used this fact to argue (unsuccessfully) that anarchists had placed a bomb in the tank to cause the explosion.
  • In one of the most unusual ironies, during the clean-up efforts the evening following the disaster, church bells pealed across Boston as Nebraska became the 36th state to approve the Prohibition amendment. Prohibition would go into effect exactly one year later as required by the Constitution.
  • In the aftermath of the flood, one of the most exhausting legal proceedings in Massachusetts history took place. A court-appointed “auditor” heard 119 lawsuits and nearly 1,000 witnesses whose testimony covered more than 30,000 pages and included 1,500 exhibits.
  • During the trial, it was discovered that the only testing that was done of the tank involved filling it with six inches of water. No engineer was consulted for determining the safety of the tank, and the company used thinner steel than indicated in the plans it filed with the City of Boston.
  • It was one of the first class-action lawsuits in Massachusetts history and featured a “David v. Goliath” story line – a large corporation (U.S. Industrial Alcohol) v. primarily the families of children, immigrants, and city workers. The flood led to regulations nationwide that toughened building safeguards in general, and specifically required that engineers certify all structural plans.
  • In the end, the court auditor ruled against the company – dismissing its argument that anarchists had bombed the tank – and concluded that the tank collapsed due to structural weakness. The company paid $1 million in damages to the families of the deceased and the injured – a figure that would be close to $100 million today.

Discussion Questions

  • What surprised you most about the story of the molasses flood?
  • If you had been told about the flood in the past, how did this account differ from the stories you had heard?
  • What did you think about the way this historic event was presented? How did the focus on individual characters and their unique experiences help tell the story?
  • Which character did you find most compelling, and why?
  • Dark Tide is written in a narrative style, through the eyes of characters. How does this style compare with other works of history you’ve read? Does the narrative style enhance or hinder your understanding of the history and the time period?
  • Were all sides of the issue presented fairly? Did the author give proper consideration to all possible reasons for the tank’s collapse?
  • If a similar disaster were to happen today, how do you think the lawsuits, trial, courtroom proceedings, and public reaction would differ from what happened in Dark Tide?
  • Did you agree with Hugh Ogden’s ruling that USIA was liable for the disaster?
  • Do you think society today is more — or less — sympathetic to big corporations like USIA?
  • The book paints a vivid picture of Boston’s North End and its immigrant population, and discusses how social attitudes toward Italians helped USIA erect the molasses tank with little resistance. Can you imagine a similar scenario today?
  • Dark Tide looks at major historical issues of the day through the prism of the molasses flood: the anarchist movement, immigration, World War I, etc. How much did you know about these topics? Did the book help you learn — or learn more — about these issues? Talk about these issues in the context of the time period and the flood story.
  • If you hadn’t been involved with this book club, would you have chosen to read Dark Tide on your own? Do you typically read non-fiction or history?
  • After reading Dark Tide, do you want to read other books about related topics (Boston history, the anarchist movement, other “engineering” disasters, anything written by Steve Puleo?)

Steve Puleo donates a portion of his book proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. JDRF is the leading charitable funder and advocate of juvenile (type 1) diabetes research worldwide. To learn more, visit www.JDRF.org.