(Credit: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)
BOSTON (WBZ-AM) — One hundred years ago this Tuesday, Boston experienced one of the strangest disasters in history.
The Great Boston Molasses Flood of Jan. 15, 1919 left 21 people dead and destroyed about a square mile of Boston's North End.
It all began with the shoddy construction of a 50-foot-tall, 90-foot-across tank built to store up to 2.5 million gallons of molasses. The almost full tank broke, sending 2.3 million gallons of molasses onto the streets.
It has been the focus of historians' works, including author Stephen Puleo's Dark Tide. It got the "Drunk History" treatment in 2016, with the show utilizing actors Michael McKean and Jason Ritter, as well as the pouring of molasses over a miniature model of the city, to tell the story.
It was even the subject of an Off-Broadway musical — Molasses in January, written and composed by Francine Pellegrino.
The Boston Globe's Mark Shanahan, the author of a piece running in Sunday's Globe Magazine on the disaster, spoke to WBZ NewsRadio1030's Laurie Kirby about the circumstances leading to that fateful day.
"The Purity Distilling Company had hastily built an enormous holding tank on Commercial Street in the North End, and filled it to the absolute brim with molasses," Shanahan said.
"Molasses was used in the manufacturing of munitions. They used some questionable steel to build the thing--in fact, some of the same type of steel that was used in the creation of the Titanic--and the molasses inside heated up a little bit, and the steel ruptured, and it was a full-on disaster."
See Below: Map and Images of The Great Boston Molasses Flood
(Credit: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection, Google Maps/ Open Leaflet)
‘A 15-foot wave of molasses’
While the idea of death by molasses might seem like a joke to some, the disaster was tragic and terrifying — with corporate greed and lazy construction leaving Boston's poor immigrant families as the victims.
"They died because the North End then was densely settled by largely poor Italian immigrants living cheek by jowl in the neighborhood, and this thing was shoehorned into their neighborhood," Shanahan said. "Folks were all around this thing, and when it collapsed, there was a 15-foot wave of molasses--which doesn't move that quickly, but when folks are right underneath the thing, it doesn't really have to move that quickly."
Some dead, many injured
In addition to the 21 dead, 150 were injured.
"They were literally asphyxiated by molasses," Shanahan said. "We're talking about men, women, children--25 horses died."
The incident happened around noon, with temperatures over 40 degrees. Things only got worse.
"Perhaps most gruesome was, overnight the temperatures plunged, and folks became basically entombed in frozen sugar," Shanahan said. "The rescue folks had to use saws and chisels to extricate people."
The mess took weeks to clean up.
The smell of molasses
"There are some people, and this is indeed a legend ... who claim they can still smell molasses in the neighborhood," Shanahan said. "I've been there to the North End several times, once or twice for this story but many times before, and the only thing I ever smell is bolognese."
Web Exclusive: WBZ NewsRadio1030's Kim Tunnicliffe (@KimWBZ) speaks with historian and author Stephen Puleo about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.