Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Boston Molasses Disaster!

I found out about this little gem of history from my mother who heard it on a TV show. I was amazed that I'd never heard of it before.
On January 15, 1919 in the north end of Boston, Massachusetts, a large molasses storage tank burst, and a tidal wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph, killing 21 and injuring 150!  Back then molasses was a very popular sweetener. It could be fermented to produce rum and ethyl alcohol and was a key component in the manufacture of munitions.  The huge storage tank (50 feet tall, 90 feet wide and holding 2,300.000 gallons of molasses) sat near Keany Square awaiting transfer to the Purity Distilling Company. Little did the residents know that the tank had been poorly constructed and insufficiently tested. Not only that but the rising temperatures of the day (from 2 degrees F to 41 F) caused CO2 to form inside the tank, increasing the internal pressure.

Witnesses stated that they heard a loud rumbling sound, like a machine gun as the rivets shot out of the tank, and that the ground shook as if a train were passing by. The bursting tank produced a wave of molasses between 7 and 15 feet high and traveling at 35 miles an hour.  Buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed. Even trains were tipped off their tracks as the wave suffocated everything in its path, leaving behind a sticky oozing pool of molasses 2 to 3 feet high.

The Boston Globe reported that people "were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet." Others had debris hurled at them from the rush of sweet-smelling air. A truck was picked up and hurled into the harbor. Approximately 150 were injured; 21 people and several horses were killed —crushed and drowned by the molasses.
Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was... Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise

Cadets from the nearby Massachusetts Nautical School were the first to arrive, followed by the Red Cross, the Boston police and the Army. Some nurses from the Red Cross dived into the molasses, while others tended to the wounded, keeping them warm as well as keeping the exhausted workers fed. Many of these people worked through the night. The injured were so numerous that doctors and surgeons set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims. It took four days before they stopped searching for victims; many dead were so glazed over in molasses, they were hard to recognize.

It took over 87,000 man hours to remove the molasses from the streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes. The harbor was still brown with molasses until summer.  Some residents claim that on hot summer days, the area still smells of molasses.


Name Age Occupation
Patrick Breen 44 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
William Brogan 61 Teamster
Bridget Clougherty 65 Homemaker
Stephen Clougherty 34 Unemployed
John Callahan 43 Paver (North End Paving Yard)
Maria Distasio 10 Child
William Duffy 58 Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
Peter Francis 64 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Flaminio Gallerani 37 Driver
Pasquale Iantosca 10 Child
James H. Kinneally Unknown Laborer (North End Paving Yard)
Eric Laird 17 Teamster
George Layhe 38 Firefighter (Engine 31)
James Lennon 64 Teamster/Motorman
Ralph Martin 21 Driver
James McMullen 46 Foreman, Bay State Express
Cesar Nicolo 32 Expressman
Thomas Noonan 43 Longshoreman
Peter Shaughnessy 18 Teamster
John M. Seiberlich 69 Blacksmith (North End Paving Yard)
Michael Sinnott 76 Messenger

Information taken from


  1. Wow! I'm impressed that I've NEVER heard of this before! I grew up in Maine, and Boston was the BIG city to my family. My grandparents would even have been small children when this took place. I've also toured downtown Boston and Boston Harbor...and no one has ever mentioned it. I didn't smell the molasses by the way, but what a fascinating story!

  2. Wow - fascinating is right! How awful it must have been to see a 7-15 foot high wave of molasses (of all things!) coming at you, only to swallow you up. Those poor people!
    Definately one of those weird, out-of-the-blue occurances.
    Thanks for the interesting tidbit!

  3. Thurs July 26th,
    "Morning, MaryLu."
    Well .... this is just totally incredible, and 'almost' unreal-sounding ! Who would have thought that molasses of all things, would have caused such mass destruction/terror/damage !!! What a mess ... is putting it mildly !!! And oh, the horror of it all ... a tidal wave of it, entrapping people and animals alike ! Travelling at 35 mph, and between 7 and 15 feet high; and then leaving a pool of it behind - two to three feet high ... truly the thought of this is staggering !!! What does surprise me though ... is that 'only' 21 died, and 150 were injured ... "this could have been" so much more deadly ! Oh, I cannot even begin to imagine being on the 'rescuing team' nor the 'clean-up committee' ! What devastating chaos and trauma it caused !!!
    Once again, thank-you for sharing this with us. I had never heard of this disaster either. More than interesting and amazing, indeed !!!
    Take care, and, God Bless,
    In Him, Brenda Hurley

  4. I have never heard this story ever before. It sounds like it was a major disaster, and it surely was a miracle more people were not killed. The clean up must have been horrible.
    Thank you for sharing this interesting piece of history.

  5. I have never heard of that before. I would have never thought that molasses could cause that much trouble and damage or kill that many people like that.

  6. Amazing! I've never heard of this before now! I cannot imagine the chaos that took place and have to clean it up. Here I get upset when someone dripped syrup on my countertop or have to rinse off dried syrup on a plate. I will be looking a molasses a little differently now when I see it at the grocery store!

  7. I know! Wasn't this a crazy story??
    Diane, I'm surprised with your parents being in the city at that time that they didn't know about this. Weird huh?

    Caroline, how scary that would be huh? Molasses isn't like water.. it's so thick and sticky.. I would be terrified seeing a wall of it heading my way.

    Brenda, yes, what a mess, indeed. Imagine the clean up!! I was also surprised more people weren't killed.

    It definitely was a miracle more people weren't hurt, Ink! Thanks for coming by. :-)

    Miriam, me too! It's tough cleaning up a little syrup! Can you imagine streets full? And baking in the sun? No thanks!

  8. Wow. While reading, I couldn't stop thinking of the Johnstown flood. I don't know if you're familiar with it, since it took place in PA. But a dam burst and just took over the entire city, killing, injuring, and stranding hundreds of people. But molasses?! Who would have imagined? I also can't even imagine how they cleaned it all up...
    I know I say this every time, but thanks so much for sharing these!