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A Sticky Wicket
July 15, 2005 6:55 AM   Subscribe

The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in which 21 people died. (A picture of the devastation.) Another account from The Smithsonian. A present day picture of the site (scroll to the bottom). Brief accounts of two other molasses floods. And while we're at it, don't forget the London Beer Flood. Cheers.
posted by OmieWise (49 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
A total of eight people were killed, seven due to drowning and one due to alcohol poisoning.
posted by Rubbstone at 7:03 AM on July 15, 2005


Sweet sassy molassy!
posted by keswick at 7:13 AM on July 15, 2005


The smell of molasses remained for decades a distinctive, unmistakable atmosphere of Boston.

I remember reading about the Molasses flood years ago in Murder Can Be Fun and whenever I told people about it they said that it couldn't be true. If I had to pick a favorite obscure bit of American History, this might be it.

To me The 1919 Boston Molasses Flood is one of the great unused bubblegum pop band names. I even named a mix disc after it.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:15 AM on July 15, 2005


I read a neat article about this in an old zine called 'Murder Can be Fun'. Great to get more info on it.
posted by imaswinger at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2005


Nice, thanks OmieWise!
posted by carter at 7:16 AM on July 15, 2005


wow, should've paid attention on preview...
posted by imaswinger at 7:17 AM on July 15, 2005


Great story, one of the few Urban Legend sounding stories that turns out to be true.
posted by doozer_ex_machina at 7:20 AM on July 15, 2005


Also mentioned here way back in 2001.
posted by wfrgms at 7:29 AM on July 15, 2005


Oops, sorry, I searched for molasses using the Google search. It never came up.
posted by OmieWise at 7:43 AM on July 15, 2005


Love the fluid dynamics tag. Awesome post; I've never heard of this. According to this page, the wave of molasses was 20 feet high and travelled at 35 mph. I'm most intrigued by the third flood, which seemed to set off a chain reaction of other floods, Rube Goldberg style. This whole thing blows my mind.

So is molasses still stored in huge, hulking vats? Because if it is, we may be on the precipice of another bittersweet disaster.
posted by iconomy at 7:55 AM on July 15, 2005


When I was a kid, my grandmother used to tell stroies about the molasses flood. She was born in 1901, and lived in the italian section of Boston. She always went on and on about the number of flies that benefited from the molasses residue.
posted by R. Mutt at 7:59 AM on July 15, 2005


No worries, OmieWise, this is the kind of story that deserves to be brought back to front page attention! I also read about it on MCBF, I'm amazed so many people read that zine. In fact, one of my first posts on Mefi was an online reprint of my favorite Murder Can Be Fun articles.
posted by jonson at 7:59 AM on July 15, 2005


iconomy writes "So is molasses still stored in huge, hulking vats?"

We just don't use that much of it anymore. It was used to make industrial alcohol, which we produce in other ways now...But silo fires, we get plenty of those.
posted by OmieWise at 8:01 AM on July 15, 2005


As it happens, I just finished reading Dark Tide, which is apparently the only non-fiction book ever written about the flood and has just appeared in paperback.

Highly recommended (well, by me anyway) if you're interested in Boston history.
posted by briank at 8:08 AM on July 15, 2005


The Meux porter vat breaking pretty much put an end to the vat size wars between the various London porter brewers. Some of those things were immense; they would inaugurate them by having dinner parties inside. The largest beer storage vats in use today (at Coors, last time I checked) are significantly smaller -- and those old things were made of wood, not steel.
posted by nickmark at 8:14 AM on July 15, 2005


Extraordinary. Thanks omiewise.
..bittersweet disaster. heh.
posted by peacay at 8:15 AM on July 15, 2005


Wow, the London beer flood sounds like it would make an awesome film.
posted by fire&wings at 8:23 AM on July 15, 2005


"There is a slow but steady interest in the disaster," says Elva Bogard, a librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Oh, dear.
posted by Uccellina at 8:32 AM on July 15, 2005


"There's a beer flood?!? Grab a bucket! A trash can! A dump truck!"

Now a rum or whiskey flood, you'd just strike a match....
posted by davy at 8:32 AM on July 15, 2005


There's a fictional (black) treacle flood in the Uncle books by J P Martin. Since the books were probably written in the 1920s, he was probably inspired by the Boston flood.
posted by scruss at 8:42 AM on July 15, 2005


Looks like Sticky Situation!
posted by Livewire Confusion at 8:47 AM on July 15, 2005


...sorry
posted by Livewire Confusion at 8:48 AM on July 15, 2005


Beer flood?!?!

*grabs straw*
posted by warbaby at 8:57 AM on July 15, 2005


Also mentioned briefly a few years ago in Something Postitive: The Sweet Taste of Turmoil, Part 1 and Part 2, which led me to search out the relevant Wikipedia article.
posted by djwudi at 9:33 AM on July 15, 2005


fifty-eight feet high and ninety feet across
That's huge... about the size of a broad, six-story apartment building.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:37 AM on July 15, 2005


Known by locals as the "Boston Molass-acre"!
posted by Misciel at 9:55 AM on July 15, 2005


This reminds me of the super-awesome children's book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:02 AM on July 15, 2005


Interview with John Marr who wrote "Murder Can Be Fun". This particular story is found in issue 13.
posted by infowar at 10:04 AM on July 15, 2005


As a kid in Boston, I seem to remember a high school history teacher explaining that the large molasses storage in Boston was a component and historical legacy of the international slave trade. Where molasses was shipped from the west indies to the north to make alcohol. Does this make sense?
posted by R. Mutt at 10:10 AM on July 15, 2005


great post!
posted by ifjuly at 10:26 AM on July 15, 2005


R. Mutt writes "was a component and historical legacy of the international slave trade."

Yes, molasses was a component of triangle trade.

MCBF was an awesome 'zine, although I never saw the issue that had this in it.
posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on July 15, 2005


molasses storage in Boston was a component and historical legacy of the international slave trade

That is true. It was part of the "Triangle Trade." - Molasses to Rum to Slaves.
posted by ericb at 10:40 AM on July 15, 2005


On preview - what OmieWise said.
posted by ericb at 10:40 AM on July 15, 2005


"Boston's first rum distillery is recorded as operating in 1667. By the 1700s, New England distilleries were producing millions of gallons of cheap rum to supply traders with rum that could be exchanged for slaves. Once the slave ships arrived in Africa, merchants could buy adults for 110-130 gallons of rum or children for about 80 gallons. Rum cost as little to produce as five and a half pence per gallon; in 1746, a slave could be purchased for about £5 and auctioned in the West Indies for £30-80. Rhode Island alone dominated between 60-90 percent of the exchange rum trade with its Guinea Rum. Slave traders owned and operated 30 rum distilleries in Newport whose casks they loaded onto over 150 slave ships. It is estimated that the slave traders of the single city of Newport, Rhode Island, exchanged rum for over 106,000 Africans. Once brought to the islands, the enslaved would produce sugar, yielding molasses to distill into rum to exchange for more slaves, in a vicious cycle of profit."
posted by ericb at 10:44 AM on July 15, 2005


A classmate in an entomology class reported on this event as the origin of the phrase "as slow as molasses in January."
posted by beelzbubba at 11:29 AM on July 15, 2005


Crap! entomology etymology! Though I imagine that even in January, the maggots were working in Dead Ernest.
posted by beelzbubba at 11:32 AM on July 15, 2005


Mayor Curley might say that this famous 1919 disaster would not have happened if Mayor Curley (who left office a year earlier) had still been in charge.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:04 PM on July 15, 2005


Molasses to Rum to Slaves.

A history lesson that appeared on stage in the Broadway musical 1776, in the song that started with the same phrase.
posted by LeLiLo at 12:13 PM on July 15, 2005


Yeah Rubbstone I'm wondering how that one guy died of alcohol poisoning. Did he try to drink his way out of a basement or something?
posted by vodkadin at 12:17 PM on July 15, 2005


Also, sailors, particularly the British ones, would make a concoction known as grog out of a cheap rum and a certain green citrus fruit. This was encouraged by the captains of the ship, as the regular consumption of citrus fruit greatly reduces the occurence of scurvy. Hence the term "limey".
posted by leapfrog at 12:52 PM on July 15, 2005


Ah, Pusser's Rum - the Original British Navy Rum!
"For more than 300 years, from the earliest days of wooden ships and iron men, sailors of Great Britain's Royal Navy were issued a daily ration–or 'tot' –of rum by the ship's 'Purser' (corrupted by the sailors to Pusser's). Prior to 1740, the men's daily tot of Pusser's Rum was a pint a day, which they drank neat, that is without water! Before battle, they were issued a double 'tot', and always after victory for a job well done!"
posted by ericb at 1:03 PM on July 15, 2005


And when not drinking rum, they were imbibing water, hanging out at the scuttlebutt, gossiping away!
posted by ericb at 1:06 PM on July 15, 2005


We just don't use that much of it anymore. It was used to make industrial alcohol, which we produce in other ways now

Indeed. As the Puleo book points out, the molasses was indeed used for industrial alcohol production, which in turn was being used for munitions production throughout the First World War. The Boston facility provided much-needed raw material for the U.S. Army arsenal on the other side of the river in Cambridge/Watertown.

With the war at an end by early 1919 and the need for munitions reaching a sudden slowdown, it's possible that the tank would have been rendered unnecessary had it not burst.
posted by briank at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2005


are there MCBFs posted online? that one link went to a page about pizza. I have a bunch, but not all of them, and a few have gone missing, either stolen or lent out never to return.
posted by imaswinger at 2:04 PM on July 15, 2005


This is my favorite kind of post! Thanks for sharing, OmniWise.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 3:50 PM on July 15, 2005


Tell OmieWise I liked it too....sorry.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 3:51 PM on July 15, 2005


Amazing photograh...I've read about this but had never had a visual married to the text before.

Thanks, Omie.
posted by Dunvegan at 4:21 PM on July 15, 2005


this is why i love metafilter

thanks omie
posted by tsarfan at 1:07 AM on July 16, 2005


I remember being told about this by my grandmother, but always figured she'd made it up. Go figure.
posted by tiamat at 8:53 AM on July 17, 2005


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