The making of Dark Tide

At virtually every Dark Tide presentation I give, audience members seem genuinely interested in the source material I used to research the book. If you’re reading this column, I’ll assume you’re interested, too.

Dark Tide draws upon three major primary sources (there are other primary sources and numerous secondary sources as well) to form the heart of its narrative – two of which, I’m proud to say, have never before (to my knowledge) been used in any written account of the Great Boston Molasses Flood.

I’ll start with the source that actually has been used before: Judge Hugh Ogden’s summary report of the entire lawsuit. This 50-plus page report offers rich background on the disaster and tells us as much about Ogden as it does about how he weighed the testimony and evidence. As I said in my bibliographic essay to Dark Tide: “Ogden is a careful writer, setting the scene remarkably well…and tackling each of the major issues with literary verve and methodical analysis.”

Dark Tide is the first published account to draw on the other two sources: the 25,000-page transcript of the huge three-year lawsuit that followed the flood; and the reports that Hugh Ogden wrote to accompany his damage awards to flood victims and their families. Both are riveting and compelling sources, and together, they paint a broad and three-dimensional portrait of the flood, the real-life characters inDark Tide, and the surrounding historical issues that “touch” the flood story (anarchists, immigration, World War I and munitions, etc.).

The damage award reports contain Ogden’s summary and assessment of every individual’s suffering or financial loss, and his rationale for awarding the amounts he did; the latter, especially, provides a revealing look into the judge’s character and thought process. The reports are also self-contained short stories about every person injured or killed in the flood: they let us know how much the person earned, how many children he (in most cases) had, his occupation, the extent of his injuries, etc. I “broke the seal” on these damage awards — they had lain apparently untouched in the archives for 80 years — my white gloves sooty with fine, black dust.

The 25,000 pages of transcripts, contained in 40 bound volumes, provide stunning firsthand accounts from eyewitnesses, victims, family members of the deceased, and expert witnesses. It would be difficult to imagine a richer trove of primary source material than testimony from people who are under oath, during a period before attorneys “coached” their witnesses. The level of candor and forthrightness in the testimony is remarkable; there are virtually no “I can’t recalls” during the entire trial.

While the courtroom scenes appear only in Part 3 of Dark Tide, I used these sources to form most of the book’s narrative. For example, the Prologue, which describes Isaac Gonzales’s late-night runs through Boston’s North End, was drawn directly from Isaac’s somewhat bizarre testimony.

You can learn more about how I made use of the sources inDark Tide’s Bibliographic Essay.

If you have any questions, ideas, or thoughts, please e-mail me at